Corporations in denial

As the City of London recovers from Dress-Down May Day, why are big firms so keen for their staff to look anything but corporate?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

Stepping off the tube at Farringdon, London, on 1 May 2001, felt like walking into a youth club. Denim, denim everywhere – but unlike a youth club, never a crease in sight.

To fox the anti-capitalism protesters, the City had Dressed Down for May Day.

Like walking into a merchant bank in crisp, freshly-washed jeans would help disguise you from the Womble-costumed protesters. Like wearing Nike trainers would make you less of a target than a sharp suit and briefcase. Like 6000 coppers on the streets and the security guards positioned outside company doors were not enough protection from the motley hordes of whistle-peeping unwashed.

But maybe there was more to this ‘jeans only’ policy than a token attempt at self-protection. However little City firms seem to have in common with grungy anti-capitalists, they share a growing distaste for the traditional corporate image.

Some have described the City’s Dress-Down May Day as a ‘mufti day’. Hardly. It seems that City workers were positively told to wear jeans and trainers – just as, on their weekly Dress-Down Fridays, they are told not to wear jeans and trainers. ‘There was no point in us coming in Friday clothes’, said a lawyer friend of mine, ‘because there are so many rules about what we can and can’t wear, we all just look like lawyers’.

As it goes, Dress-Down Friday has always seemed pretty traumatic to me. The first thing employees have to do is buy a whole new wardrobe – because the clothes you wear at weekends, to go out or slob out, aren’t appropriate. They have to bring a suit into work on Fridays, in case they have to meet clients who do not have a Dress Down Friday policy. If it is the chill-out factor these firms want to encourage, they have hardly succeeded.

But in as much as Dress Down Friday is about the chill-out factor at all, it is only about promoting a chill-out image. No longer do big corporations want their employers strutting around as Masters of the Universe, all work and no play, all suits and no individuality. No: corporate image 2001 is all about the personal, where the big firms compete to see who can develop the most effective anti-corporate corporate brand.

There’s something tyrannical about all this, of course. When you have to wear casual clothes at work, when you spend your social time at free drinks evenings and Saturday fun days organised by your firm, when some firms have even set up dating agencies for their staff…. The more you are encouraged to bring your home into work, the more you are pushed to take your work home with you – if not literally, then in spirit. Your private life and leisure time become indistinguishable from your professional life and work time – and this clearly doesn’t mean you spend less time working.

Having said that, the work-is-home policies are not particularly unpopular. The characters in Ally McBeal seem quite happy with the fact that they spend all their time hanging out in the bar beneath their office; I rarely meet a young professional who is deeply unhappy about being plied with free drinks. For some insecure twentysomethings, to have your social whirl organised for you can seem like something of a bonus. As they said in When Harry Met Sally, ‘please tell me I’ll never have to be out there again’.

But if the big firms get a lot out of the personalisation of the corporate image, they are storing up some problems for themselves. Once you start encouraging your staff to drop the suits on Fridays and skulk around in jeans and trainers every time a few dossers and students threaten to throw things, how are you going to be able to cultivate the cut-and-thrusting mentality you need from your highly paid executives? And to encourage your employers to put effort into looking like they are not at work seems a strange way to encourage pride in one’s job.

Then again, maybe all this workplace informalisation doesn’t change things that much. In case you haven’t already seen it, I was amused to see the following email winging its way around the City net last week. You can take the professionals out of the suits – but it’s less easy, it appears, to take the suits out of the professionals.

International City day of action

On this day, we ask you all to don your finest pinstripe, apply your monocles, glue mobile phone to ear and then head off down to Brighton to disrupt as many dredlocked men and women with dogs on string as possible.

Plan of action:

to picket henna tattoo stalls

throw cheap pewter jewellery into the sea

storm the dole office and glue the doors shut

throw soap and other cleansing materials at the men with dogs on string

occupy any spare grassland and start laying foundations for new ’superbank’

hand out photocopies of salary slips

hang the dogs on string with their string as a little ironic joke

set fire to unattended shopping trollies

raid off licences destroying cans of special brew, tennants super, thunderbirds and cheap cider

destroy copies of any Levellers albums

Police advice at present to the men with dogs on string is:

to get a job

to get a haircut

have a wash

avoid police vans

Read on:

Team players, by James Woudhuysen

spiked-issue: Anti-capitalism

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Topics Politics


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