The required corporate look
Attire is not just for the lifestyle pages. Each corporate culture too supports a particular look. Of course uniforms, no longer as ubiquitous even for banks and usherettes at movie premieres, are part of the handbook requirements. But there is still casual Friday and the companies that don’t give out cassocks. When joining an organization, an understanding of the requisite corporate look is obligatory. Those barongs with the oh-so-subtle company logo of a previous employer are no longer usable except as donations, ending up as mufti for ordained priests in far-flung regions.
Small outfits like dental clinics or start-up ventures follow their own dress code. It’s all right to be inappropriately dressed for the first week in a new job where long-sleeved barongs are considered wedding attire or final rites. Certain small businesses promote smart casual. This usually refers to newly washed and pressed shirt over denims not previously worn for three days running.
Supposedly creative organizations like advertising, media, theater, film, and maybe a certain niche in retailing allow a casual, even funky look. (Do they even tuck their shirts in?) This allows wearing shorts maybe on Wednesdays, acquiring hair color not usually associated with natural pigmentation (say, lime green), and open-toed sandals. Less noticeable are undergarments that follow this same pattern of outré attire. Not unusual for display are t-back underpants gleaned through sheer white stretch bottoms and peeking out of the low belt line... even for ladies.
The corporate type with a history of suits and barongs may opt to keep this formal wardrobe, but perhaps in a dress-down mode, rolling up the sleeves and dispensing with neckties, especially when going to Davao.
Gray hair gives some license to look like a stuffed shirt and live the part of a senior citizen. Even then, a corporate banker pose gives way to casual fare like short-sleeved magenta shirts and blue kicks. The whole live-and-let-live era of corporate wear lets people experiment at least one day a week. (I feel like Rasputin this Thursday.)
Why do senators and congressmen still affect formality with suits? Aside from declaring their importance to the uninitiated, a sartorial version of the wailing sirens to get ahead in heavy traffic, suits offer an extra convenience. They provide additional pockets for thick envelopes that cannot be handed over to the aides the way the gift of a jelly roll can be disposed of.
Attire also signals the takeover of a company by a new management. It is no surprise that the fashion-setter is the newly designated CEO. Thus, Apple polishers are still prone to wearing black turtlenecks tucked into blue denims. Singaporean bureaucrats like wearing short-sleeved and open-necked white shirts tucked into dark pants.
If a CEO is partial to colorful (and expensive) suspenders under an expensive suit, it does not take long for the fad to spread. Aping the CEO extends to using his tailor, and never mind the cost. What if this same leader decides to switch to barongs made by a particular shop which specializes in geometric designs or, for Fridays, large embroideries across the back featuring the procession of the La Naval with flickering candle lights in sequins? Here, slavish imitation may be curbed a bit to avoid being too obvious -- can I have mine with a Moriones motif? Try sitting back on a director’s chair with that.
To emphasize that he is now in charge, a new CEO may veer away from the old pack and starts wearing suits and open-collared shirts without a tie. This simple loyalty test separates the old from the new. An outsider only has to observe the ruling class gradually doing away with their barongs featuring cockfights and rice terraces and going for the new look.
In time, the dress-code occupation is complete.
How long can the dissenters hold out? Without going wholly to the “other side,” they wear some neutral outfit. Pretty soon, a resister is called to the office of the CEO who is wearing a long-sleeved shirt with no tie, his coat hanging on a butler stand on the side.
He asks the dress renegade the question -- where did you get that barong? It’s the same tone he uses for cold coffee and poor financial results. Then, it’s just a matter of time when the final rites will make that attire appropriate.
A. R. Samson is chair and CEO of Touch DDB.