If you were about to head off to your first in-person business conference in two years, what would you want to know?
Would you check to see if everyone had to be fully vaccinated? Or COVID tested on the day? Would you ask if the war in Ukraine had affected the agenda?
It turns out people getting ready to take part in a three-day climate conference in London I went to last week had one more question in mind: what should I wear?
“So many speakers have been asking,” an organizer told me on the eve of the event.
“All women?” I asked, realizing I was unsure myself after two years of working in what would technically be called tracksuit bottoms.
Actually, said the organizer, a lot were men. Having discovered the pleasures of the polo shirt at home, some were wondering if they really had to gussy up in a suit and tie again. Or had COVID loosened corporate dress codes so much there was no going back?
Good grief, I thought. Don’t tell me men are confronting the tedium that working women have faced for years when it comes to figuring out what to wear.
It seemed entirely possible. The problem for women has always been about having too much choice. If you go on stage at a business conference, is it best to wear a skirt or are pants OK? Do heels need to be high or will flattish ones be fine?
Wise men have dodged all this by wearing the uniform of the suit. The exceedingly wise, such as Barack Obama, go further. “I wear only grey or blue suits,” the former U.S. president disclosed toward the end of his first term in office. He had too many other decisions to make and research had shown the act of making decisions impaired one’s ability to make more of them. Hence his effort not to be “distracted by trivia.”
Day one of the conference confirmed men now faced seriously trivial distraction.
Male members of one panel included the chief executive of a big energy company in jeans; a think-tank chap in standard suit and tie, and a tieless British Lord in trainers.
Day two revealed something more interesting. Having taken a sense of the room on day one, men turned up in noticeably more casual garb.
People no longer find a suit a free pass to competence
The founder of a corporate intelligence outfit had discarded the navy Ralph Lauren suit, the Salvatore Ferragamo pink silk tie and the Church’s leather shoes he had worn on day one. Instead he arrived in a knitted top, jeans and trainers.
This reflected what he felt was a welcome shift in emphasis in the business world. “It’s so much more focused on bringing your brain,” he told me. “People no longer find a suit a free pass to competence.”
This reminded me of a very competent male colleague who reported this week that he had worn a shirt that needed ironing just once since March 2020 — for a job interview.
I am pleased to report that day two of the business conference also brought a noticeable de-escalation of female corporate attire, especially in the footwear department.
“These are so much better,” said one woman from a bank in London, pointing to the flat lace-up boots replacing the heels she had on day one. Another female banker revealed that below her long skirt lurked a pair of black and white trainers.
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As for me, I downgraded from uncomfortable pointy court shoes to boots, but trainers seemed a step too far. I had been warned by the conference organizers that I would be surrounded by women from France, and it was obvious they would all be hopelessly chic.
Yet the first one I met had arrived fresh off the Eurostar wearing a biker jacket over a dress and shoes flat enough to be slippers.
After 18 pandemic months of comfort, she explained, she had worn high heels to a glitzy work do recently, where she had suddenly had an epiphany. “I just decided ‘never again’,” she said.
Good for you I thought, and for all those who follow you — whether we end up in jeans, suits, skirts, ties or trainers.
© 2022 The Financial Times Ltd
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