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The Semiotics of formal wear; or, Why does the world wear Croatian fashion?

Vijay Sampath

Author: Vijay Sampath

Date: Fri, 2017-04-07 17:04

  • The Governor of North Dakota state in the US was recently asked to leave the state Senate because he was wearing jeans (notwithstanding the fact that he was wearing a formal jacket and dress shirt)
  • Earlier this month an Indian High Court Chief Justice pulled up visitors for wearing Jeans and T Shirt in the Courtroom
  • One frequently comes across images of students dressed in Suits and ties attending job interviews, admission interviews and conferences.
  • Schools across India force children to wear horrible neck ties that are tied with a rope and constrict the neck blood supply
  • Attend any corporate meeting and it looks more like a gathering of Emperor Penguins, waddling sombrely in identical black suits and white shirts

My business nowadays requires me to unfortunately wear formal clothes for meetings and suchlike. Having lived off T-Shirts, cotton half- shirts and jeans for a long time, I am oppressed by these new developments. 

My travails made me wonder- why are we forced to wear suits, ties and suchlike at work and on important occasions? Why should we even wear Indian formals like starchy sarees and itchy bandhgallas at formal events?

It is almost mandatory for men in India to attend interviews wearing a shirt with a tie and/or jacket, or to be "safer", a full suit with tie. While a saree or salwar suit is considered proper formal wear in India for women, its male equivalent, the dhoti or pyjama will almost certainly lose you the job !

What is the connection between all this fancy clothing and work performance? Who decided that shorts, lungis and T-shirts do not indicate seriousness but sarees do? Where is the evidence that a flouncy skirt or cool lungi does not signify capability?  Why should a court dictate fashion sense to litigants and visitors? Would Churchills' “Half Naked Fakir” Mahatma Gandhi be censured for appearing in court in his loin cloth?

I have never personally discriminated against an individual by way of her sartorial preferences. But I must admit even I would feel very uncomfortable interviewing a prospective National Sales Head who was dressed in lungi and T-Shirt.

The semiotics of fashion is a fascinating subject. At its core the view is that the rules of fashion mimic the contemporary rules of authority and occupation. They also symbolize the ideology and mind-set of those who make up the rules defining fashion and attire

A lot has been researched and written on this subject. Like all other mores of human civilization, fashion semiotics also has progressed and adapted with the times. Conservative and seemingly “important” societal functions like Law, Justice, Health, Administration, Education and some other roles, where people’s lives are at stake, seem to attach a greater importance to “Conformity” and “Tradition” in their dress rules. By the ruthless implementation of these rules, the powers that be also reassure their constituents that they are capable, reliable and strong.

A famous example of "manufacturing reassurance" is the history of the formal uniforms of airline pilots. Historically, the first airplane pilots were barnstormers or daredevils who flew the relatively new and risky idea of an airplane, as entertainment in country fairs and such like. When airline companies started to promote air travel, they found that customers did not repose faith in the skills of the daredevil pilots, who dressed like Indiana Jones. In short, the customers needed reassurance.

 So the Airline companies turned to the most acceptable psychological sartorial trope that gave confidence to people- The attire of Ship Captains. For centuries, the Ship captain was a solid symbol of reliability and capability. Travel by ship was the norm in the early 20th century, and the captain's uniform, resplendent with bells and whistles, was a comforting reference point. The uniform of the Airline pilot we see today, with peak cap, epaulettes, jackets, ties etc. is nothing more than the copy-paste of the sea captain's dress. As was the nautical nomenclature of “Captain”, “First Officer” etc.

Luckily for people like me who dislike formal wear and dress rules, the world is changing fast (but not fast enough!) The domination of digital technology, massive transformation in work culture and informalisation of professions, greater liberalisation of thought, are fast bringing down the bastions of “formal wear”. Titans of the tech world rebuff formal dress codes for cool jeans and t-shirts, and in their wake lesser mortals like me can also dream of shaking off sartorial tyranny.

Hopefully the day will come, when we will be free to dress as we please, without the roving eye of the clothing commissars dictating our lives.

In the meanwhile I will leave you with a tid-bit about the history of the neck-tie. It originated from a neck scarf worn by Croatian mercenaries in the employment of Louis XIII of France in the 17th century. The king liked it so much he made it a compulsory accessory in the French court. The word “Cravat” which symbolized the early tie was a corruption of the word “Croat”. The rest is history and we have suffered this “noose” around our necks ever since.

Originally published at https://goo.gl/ZSw3V2

 

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In today’s world it all comes down to the looks. We make quick judgment about people from the clothes they wear. For most of us wearing comfortable clothes is a matter of habit. We sleep late, wake up late and seldom have time to read the daily news or to go for a morning walk. In this time bound life we make choices which save us time. When it comes down to the clothes we wear we choose the ones which are most comfortable. In today’s fast moving world it is all about making the first impression. Wearing formal clothes to an interview gives the interviewer the first impression that the person has spent enough time preparing himself for the task. Today many of the corporate are moving towards casual clothing at work. However when it involves dealing with clients or landing an important deal almost every organisation believes in making a long lasting impression by making sure the representative turns up in the best of clothes. So is it necessary for every person to turn up in formal clothes every day? I don’t think so. There might be some jobs in which style of clothing is more significant than you might think and some jobs in which style of clothing is all about being comfortable.

The author has written an interesting article on “Why does the world wear Croatian fashion”. Though he has advocated in general informal wear, but has also highlighted the need for uniforms for professions where necessary such as airline pilots. I believe that both formal and informal wears have their own place and time to be worn. Formal wears are a must where authority, discipline and fraternity is to be enforced. The live examples are Military, Police, Shipping and Airline companies. Similarly, a government official or a senior company official who has public interaction must dress smart. Dressing smart does not mean that he must always wear a coat and tie but simple daily wear attire would also be fine. However, I agree if the company is more into research or developing ideas e.g. Google etc., informal dress could be allowed so that employees are not constrained. But more than type of dress, I would say that one should wear a dress wherein one feels not only comfortable but confident and smart. A person also feels confident and assured, if the person on other side with whom he is talking to is smartly dressed. Choosing the right dress for the occasion is essential and I would say that a character of person to some extent can be ascertained by the way he dresses.

I worked with an Indian IT company for two years where it was compulsory to be in formals and wear a tie for two days, Monday and Tuesday. I have been through the pain and that is one reason I could relate to the article. Probably, the organization realized the pain of their employees as well and they have done away with the whole system of wearing formal clothes on regular working days until and unless a client visit has been scheduled. I agree with the author that we need uniforms in some professions like that of a lawyer, a doctor to provide reassurance to the client. But why do we need school kids to wear ties? I believe discipline can be taught in many other ways and wearing a tie is surely not one of them. Wearing a t-shirt and a pair of jeans for an interview is not going to take away the capability of the candidate, then why so much of a focus on wearing suits to the interview. The suits, the ties and the formal shirts create more of a barrier rather than easing the communication. It has become more of a burden that everyone is carrying. I wish it is done away with quickly, before I enter the corporate life again.

The author puts across a satirical take on the way we perceive people when they are dressed and how we differentiate between being professional or casual by just observing what they wear. This is because the human nature is extremely opinionated when it comes to using our senses. 80 percent perception about a person is formed immediately on seeing what they wear. Hence it is extremely important to go to the root of this cause which I would like to present in addition to what the article talks. Gender fluidity is coming up in today’s millennials and several organisations are catching up to this idea as it gives enough room for extreme fashion to be toiled around and new designs to flourish. Talk to an Irishman or a Scottish man about how beautiful his skirt is and you may the next thing blown after a bagpipe. Kilts are national wear and men prefer to wear them on several occasions proudly boasting about their heritage. Globalization has made the world realise the importance of this dress and now they are widely acknowledged. Adopting from this several fashion companies have started putting across man skirts on the ramp and contrary to what one may think, they are being bought from the ramps in Milan and Paris to be shipped across the world. Taking this to the next level is how comfortable would we be in accepting this informal attire as formal attire. Board meetings in Hawaii happen in bermudas and bright coloured Hawaiian shirts. It would be a case in isolation but then why look to the west for inspiration when our very own Indian traditional dresses can draw inspiration. Going beyond the traditional wear that we see men wearing in formal occasions, look up pictures of Shivaji Maharaj and Emperor Akbar and you will see the long kurtas with frills. I would not speak more on this issue as you may have an opinion different to what I look at this article but I would to love to hear your perception on this.

Hello sir, Quite an interesting read. It certainly piqued my curiosity about origin of different styles and I am certainly going to read some more about it. In the blog, you have taken instances of situation-wise acceptable attire and then went on to question about why do they exist. This urge to know further has been developed by your personal experience to adhere to a formal attire. I could sense in your writing how unwelcome are these new developments of suits, ties and suchlike are for you. I could relate to my own discomfort though I have worked for few years in the industry. We were allowed casuals on Saturday and it was more enjoyable working that way. As time progressed, new kinds of jobs and employees have emerged in the market. New-age employees seek comfort to cope with the rigorous work hours, high pressure tasks or to simply have a good time at work. Organisations around the world are making changes to satisfy these demanding employees. This trend is certainly going to increase but there will always be certain jobs in which attire will play a significant role. You have conveyed the idea beautifully using these lines: “At its core the view is that the rules of fashion mimic the contemporary rules of authority and occupation. They also symbolize the ideology and mind-set of those who make up the rules defining fashion and attire.” It is insightful to know the reason for adherence to “tradition” and “conformity” in the dress rules which you have further explained using examples of pilots. The blog made me wonder about my outlook towards someone who does not dress formally and how I will be judged when I do not adhere to a dress code. We follow different dress code for parties, weddings, casual dinner and so on. Though it is time consuming, we try to dress for the occasion. I wonder how is office any different. Attire is part of every organisation’s work culture. It helps to showcase a reliable workforce to the outside world. Though the world is changing, attire change will take place at a faster pace when our (clients) outlook change and we look beyond physical appearances. -Shweta U. Shetty

I thank the author for writing such a thoughtful & interesting blog. The popular saying “first impression is the last impression” or for the matter of fact a very lasting impression has some substance in it. We normally judge people with the type of clothes they wear, for example, a person wearing a suit or formal wear is generally perceived as a corporate individual or a person wearing a kurta & jacket is someone whom we associate with politics. These ideas that originate in our minds about those individuals may not be their true identity. So we can say clothes or for that matter Croatian fashion is very deceptive. It is commonly said that when you are going for an interview or to a business meeting, it is always a positive influence, if you are in formal wear. This unwritten rule has been laid down for so long now that if you attend an interview in shorts & shirts, the chances of you being rejected in the first round or even not allowed to attend the interview are very high. As rightly said by the author, with the advancement of technology & digital transformation the seeds of liberalization & informalisation have been sown. The young generation CEO’s are challenging the dress code culture. There are infusing the environment with informal wear & breaking free from the shackles of past trends. However there is a method to this madness. Not all formal wear can be done away with. Imagine a day in Reliance Jamnagar refinery wherein thousands of people work simultaneously at any point of time. So if the dress code culture is not followed; it will lead to chaos. Identification & association will be a tough task. Similarly we have an identity emerging in our minds when we associate with the Police, doctors, firemen, lawyers, pilots. We want to see them in their specific dress code so we can identify their roles. Doing away with the formal wear is not an option in this case. Be it formal or informal wear, the idea / motive behind the dressing attains value. It is whether you are trying to portray an image of a CEO or a police officer or a doctor or a common citizen, dressing accordingly will help you convey the identity being projected.

Fashion is defined as the way of dressing ensuing the current trends of the season, while style is a distinctive way or, mannerism that lives beyond seasons or, trends. Formal or, Informal both have a definite purpose for their existence. Formal, often considered synonymous to a professional outlook, put-together and disciplined while informal, relates to casual and relaxed. Over the years like hard wiring these terms when spoken instantaneously draws a picture in our mind in sync with the adjectives above. I hear you when you say “Why should a court dictate fashion sense to litigants and visitors?” we should not force one to choose a certain way of dressing and let their personality shine through their own sense of style unfortunately, not everyone is bestowed with the common sense to make the appropriate choices for themselves. As we, all know that one should not judge a book by its cover; we also have to acknowledge the fact that the outer appearance inevitably creates our first impression (most of the cases). Hence, it is crucial to present yourself in way you would like to be perceived. You cannot expect to be taken seriously in a conference room dressed in camouflaging 6 pocket cargo and yellow t-shirt with inappropriate quotes ready for a hike. Thus, establishing a predefined dressing norm – Formal dress code is like setting a blanket rule to cover all the cases when certain people are unaware of what suits them they can blindly follow the standards and meet the requirements while allowing everyone they meet a chance to look beyond the mere appearance.

I must congratulate you on picking this extremely commonplace, yet seldom discussed topic. I concede that I have never given a conscious thought to this aspect of our culture, and the rationale behind why we dress the way we do. Upon analysing the extent of this cultural trait, a point worth noting is that while women have a variety (sarees, western formals, so-called ethnic formals etc.) to choose from, the problem is worse with men. A look at my husband’s wardrobe and all I can see is shirts, pants, couple of blazers, and kurta pyjama for those occasional family functions. And as if this was not enough, even departure from sober colours is discouraged. I think men, especially, are in desperate need of some change in fashion. As brought forth by you using some insightful examples, some professions have genuine reasons for sticking to specific attire. The need to display authority, assurance, uniformity (in case of workers, soldiers etc.) is understandable. For example, functional jobs which require a lot of physical effort need suitable outfits customized specifically for their requirements. However, most other norms can be questioned in today’s time. A most pertinent example which comes to my mind is that of judges and lawyers wearing cumbersome black coats in the Indian heat. This custom seems to be inherited from colonial times, and has endured even 70 years post independence. I think it is vital that in modern times, such seemingly irrational traditions and widely practiced norms are re-evaluated and boldly replaced with more convenient and reasonable alternatives. I am in complete agreement with your argument that with changing work culture and increasing flexibility in working scenarios, the change has already begun. It is up to the younger generation to not get biased towards traditionally accepted norms and express themselves assertively.

In today’s generation presentation is very important whether it’s at work or off work. The way one dresses mark his/her first impression and as the saying goes, ‘first impression is the last impression’. I do believe that casual wear is more comfortable, easy to maintain but according to my opinion every cloth has an occasion. Hence, I prefer formal wear over casual over for office. In most of the career situations and interviews, it reflects very poor on one’s personality if they are casually dressed. It shows disrespect and laziness or sometimes both. Sometimes when you are in a client facing role and you don’t know how your client might react on seeing you in a casual wear for a formal meeting, it is always better to be on a safer side. When you have a guideline for your attire in office it also brings uniformity among the team members. There is flip side to it as well. In today’s time, everyone has become very busy. We hardly find time to have some relaxed time with ourselves or with our family. In such a busy schedule if one is asked to be formally dressed every day then it is a pain as it requires a lot of preparation and efforts. I agree to the author point that if sari is allowed as a formal wear for women then why not dhoti as both are our traditional wear. We always talk about equality but we rarely follow. So in my opinion the formal guidelines should be same for both male and female.

Awesome comments on various facets of a subject that is as contentious as politics . I am personally experimenting to see how far I can go with Sartorial experiments at SPJIMR :)

For decades, there have been debates whether or not companies should have a formal dress code. Several organizations think it’s essential that their employees abide by certain standards regarding the way they dress at work. The way you dress becomes more important when employees have face to face interactions with customer and clients because people reckon that the employees dress code echoes the company culture, environment and business standards. Many people don’t mind following the dress code guidelines, others feel they are capable of dressing fittingly at work without having a code of conduct instructing them. I believe that the significance of a dress code for professionalism varies somewhat by industry, but the correlation between the two is generally strong. A regulated dress code prevents the office premises from turning into a fashion show ramp and allows employees to focus their efforts on work. Employees also have to agonise whether they are dressed too casually or too formally. It also prevents employee from crossing their limits and maintain a decent workplace environment. Adhering to a dress code may encourage professional behaviour which will help nurture equality and team-spirit. A dress- code helps shape the impressions one’s business makes on a customer. The downside of a dress-code is that employees may feel it restricts their creativity. The formality of a dress-code can feel restraining as employees feel they have the right to express themselves and dress the way that suits them best. Whether a company needs a formal dress code depends on the level of face to face interactions with the customer. It is also important to consider if certain type of clothes contribute to better employee performance and make the workplace more comfortable and collaborative. If a dress code is required or not depends on the image a company wants in the marketplace and cannot be generalised.

Dear Sir, The article is interesting and thought provoking. It definitely forced me to think what I was wearing while reading the blog. The connection between what we wear and how the world want to see us wear is certainly complicated and I don’t think even modern psychology has any clear answers on this. Although it was considered as a utility in the caveman stage of human evolution, it has now become a part of identity. I work for a public sector company, where there are no strict observance on what to wear to office. But it is strange to notice that everyone wears only formal dress to office, following an unwritten rule, automatically. I personally know two persons who wears neck ties daily to the office, even in the Mumbai summers. So neck ties are a recall factor here, even though we know now that it was born in Croatia!! To me, dress to be worn while in office is definitely forms a part of discipline. I still remember the way my professor in the college threw me out of the class, as I was spotted wearing an ear ring on that day. I had seen many companies working in T-Shirts and denims, but the point to be noted that it was worn by everyone. So it is not the case of what type of wear we are following in the office, but doing it together had a teaming effect. The office wear thus is an expression, a display to impress, the whole world irrespective of formal or semi formals or casuals. We don’t go to our school in T shirts and shorts as in other countries and call our teacher – Mr Johnson!!! The British has left back many things here, which somehow we have accepted it, and made it as a part of our culture. The Sir culture is still very well here and we still don’t call our seniors by name. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to occasionally step back and look at our clothes and personality and how others see us through those; hopefully, we can learn something about ourselves in the process of as well

There has always been a very common topic of discussion- “Should the formal dress code be made mandatory for the professionals, or should they be allowed to wear casuals to work”. For a person who has ever worked in an organization with a particular dress code would definitely understand that it is very challenging to religiously follow the dress code all throughout especially when the moods and experiences cannot be always predicted. Several surveys have been conducted to support the cause of identifying whether dress code should be introduced in the organizations, however, none of the studies have been able to prove if having a dress code at work has an impact on the individuals. This has always been perceived that the person wearing casuals to work, fails to take his job seriously. But, I really wonder how a person’s attire implicates as to how seriously he takes his work. But, this has been a social taboo that a person should always be preferably in his formals when he is at his work place as his attire very much defines his attitude towards his work. I totally agree with the author’s comment that –“While a saree or a salwar suit is considered a proper formal wear for women, but its male equivalent, the dhoti or pyjama will almost certainly lose your job.” On one hand when it is definitely considered that wearing casuals to work makes it more comfortable, but on the other hand it is very true that one should be dressed as per the need of the hour. For people who are into the client facing roles, definitely being dressed up in their formals is the need of their role. Similarly for people who are advocates, soldiers have to be in their uniforms and have to make sure that their uniforms are proper. However, according to me, the organizations sans the administrative bodies, should be flexible enough to let its employees decide if they should opt for a formal wear or a casual wear to work.

Very well written article Sir and very informative as well. I had never given a thought on these lines when it comes to the uniform of the Pilots or regarding the origin of the neck tie. I believe it is the comfort of an individual which should dictate what one should wear and not wear. If you ask me the formal suit ie the blazer and tie is more suitable for the regions where there is predominantly cold weather like the UK or Canada. It is totally not suitable for a country like India which has tropical weather. During my first international assignment I was asked to carry a suit for business meetings with my client. During my time in India I have never wore a suit to office. But when I reached my destination I realised that wearing a suit was not a formality but it was a necessity because a buttoned up shirt with neck tie and blazer kept me warm in the freezing weather over there. I used to wear a suit to office every single day because that was what I was comfortable in. When my client came to visit me in my office in Mumbai they could hardly recognize me as it was summers and I was wearing a half sleeved cotton shirt . The point I am trying to impress upon here is that rather than the formality it should be the comfort that should take precedence over a person’s decision on what to wear. Now rewinding a bit soon after college while attending an induction training of a Software major in India it was compulsory for me to wear a full sleeved shirt with a neck tie in the scorching heat of Chennai. I used to curse because of the fact that I used to sweat buckets just while I was waiting for the bus. But fast forward 8 years later while I was getting ready to make my first face to face presentation with my client I folded my tie in flat 5 minutes because long ago that was my routine for close to 3 months. I feel in schools and colleges using such a formal attire should be made from a grooming point of view rather than making it compulsory. Making it compulsory for 1 or 2 days of a week would suffice to drive home the point.

Today I saw one female colleague in canteen wearing a nice top and a very strange funny looking palazzo or 3/4th pant, still couldn’t figure out what were those and I couldn’t dare to ask her either. I instantly reacted “what exactly is she wearing?” asking this to my other female colleague with whom I was having lunch with. My initial thoughts were, how anyone could wear this to an office environment, as I felt that it was not just casual, it was too casual. But then I thought who am I to decide on this? During rainy seasons in Mumbai, it is a big challenge on office wear and specially footwear. During last few years, I used to buy some formal rainy shoes which could hardly last for one season. Hence this year, I took some suggestions from other office colleagues who keep their formal shoes in office and use sandals, crocs while travelling to office and back home. I liked this idea and recently purchased crocs. Now I like the Crocs so much that I am thinking should I continue wearing it in office. But who will be the right person to answer this. Is this a right question to ask your boss? :) How and who will decide what is a decent wear in office, is it HR, is it your department head, is it your other office colleagues? I have worked in 4 companies in last 15 years of my career and still don’t know who decides these trends in office or is it just people look at each other and follow course :) I used to work in Singapore for around 6 years and I still remember the first day in office in Singapore where I walked in the office dressed in formals and with tie in my pocket. I was planning that if I see people wearing it, then I could go to washroom and quickly wear it. To my surprise, my boss walked in with jeans, t-shirt and most of the colleagues walking in casuals as well. I felt like I was cheated by the HR who informed me that “Monday to Thursday Formals & Friday Smart Casuals”. I only had 1-2 pairs of formal before accepting that job and had purchased all the formals just because of this message from HR, too expensive an affair for me. Though I completely don’t agree with the concept of a strict dress-code in corporate like, I still feel that there should be some guidelines as it shouldn’t look completely off within the same organization. Imagine in one organization, few people wearing formals, few wearing casuals, few in 3/4th pants, what a funny sight it would be. And let’s think of a fresh graduate who walks into the office on his/ her first day and getting confused on what should he/ she wear the next day? ^_^ If that person is smart enough to ask me that question, I would mention “Smart Casuals” and then then let him/ her figure out what exactly that is….

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