The importance of dress code around the world

About a year after arriving in Silicon Valley as an accompanying partner I went to my first job interview. I remember feeling thoroughly out of place without quite being able to put my finger on the reason why. I had dressed up for the interview as best as I could and it didn’t dawn on me until later that I was completely off appearance-wise. I was young and inexperienced in the professional world and I hadn’t really considered that there might be a specific dress code for this particular place/industry/time.

Fast-forward some 20 years and I know a little bit better. Most of all I know to find out as much as I can before putting myself in a situation like that. As the wise say – sometimes knowing what you don’t know is the most powerful knowledge of all. I am still in Silicon Valley and these days it seems like casual is the overarching norm for dressing, you see jeans and t-shirts and shorts and sandals everywhere here. In other parts of the world, the rules for how to dress, both in professional and personal life, are more complex.  

I asked a few colleagues who have professional, as well as personal, knowledge of the subject of dress code about their experiences and insights, starting with the question: how do you find out what the dress code of a particular company or place is?

One thing you can do if you have an interview is to call human resources and ask. If you can’t connect with human resources, talk to your contact within the company or your recruiting firm. Once at the interview, observe what employees at the office are wearing and take your cues from that.

If you are getting dressed for a customer meeting it’s better to show up overdressed for a first meeting and then adjust accordingly for additional meetings.

If you are moving to a country where the general dress culture is significantly different from what you are used to, such as more conservative, or where traditional garb is worn, it’s worth spending time researching what is expected of you as a foreigner and how your clothing choices will impact how you are received in society as a whole.

In addition, there are some universal common sense rules, such as don’t wear dirty or torn clothes in a professional setting, or clothes with text that is offensive. It’s important to look professional when interviewing and you are better off erring on the side of being overdressed as opposed to underdressed. In most cultures a professional look also means not wearing too many accessories and keeping them simple.

So, once you know what the dress code is, how important is it that you get it right? The general consensus is that it is important to dress according to code because people do make judgments based on your appearance. Having said that, the consequences of not getting it right vary depending on your industry and location.

In Russia for example, where judgement based on appearance is commonplace, presenting yourself in the wrong way may lead to disregard of your professional capabilities. In a place like Silicon Valley, where dress is relaxed, you are less likely to suffer any real professional consequences.

Trixi, a professional cultural adaptation coach who has lived in India as an expat says, “As a foreigner in India, you are not expected to follow local dress code at work but you will be more approachable if you do. Dress code in India varies quite a bit. In the south, the style is conservative and women will wear saris and salwar kurtas to work, whereas in the north, clothing is more western in style.”

Trixi’s suggestion is that outside of work you tailor your dress to your environment. For example, if you live in the south in a gated community with other expats and internationally experienced people, you can dress like you would at home. However, out on the street, women will have to cover arms and legs and observe the more conservative way of dress.

In a country like Sweden, society as a whole is forgiving when it comes to how you dress, and the business world generally has a casual approach to appearance. You will find however that there are industries where international business attire is still the rule. For men this means a suit, with a tie being dependent on industry, and for women a skirt/trousers with a blouse/sweater.

There is an added twist says Camilla, a professional cultural adaptation coach who has lived in many parts of the world, including Sweden. She says, “You will find that people are very fashion aware and this spills over to the professional world where trendy correct brands can measure up to a formal look if you do it right.”

In the UK, where Camilla is currently living, professional dress code is more specific and in general, more conservative. For example, an employer can demand that a female employee wears high heels at work. A recent attempt to challenge this was struck down in court.

Men mainly wear suits to work. But, says Camilla, “The suit is not always treated with respect. I have seen colleagues pull out wrinkled suits from sweaty gym bags and put them on. People are used to ill-fitting school uniforms that start out a size too big and end up a size too small by the time they are done with. It’s utility wear and that mindset sometimes carries over to professional life.”

However, in some industries you will experience a level of snobbery, where the “right” type of suit or outfit is needed. In general though, says Camilla, “A suit is a suit and it needs to be worn. There is slow change however and a recent study shows that 1 in 10 do not wear a suit to work in the UK today.”  

In France there is a different approach to business attire. Quality, good fit and accessories are important. In business, the prevailing idea is to express good dress sense through detail but to not stand out – you don’t want to be remembered for what you wear.

Dress code in Russia varies greatly depending on where in the country you are and the type of company you are working for. Large cities tend to be very fashionable and your appearance will impact how people treat you.

Women will push the envelope even in the professional world and it’s not unusual to see younger women going for a sexy look, showing skin, wearing high heels and heavy make-up. There is a “if you have it, flaunt it” mentality, although individual companies may have a more conservative dress code in place. In general, men wear traditional business attire and will stick to suits.

The examples above are just a few to highlight how dress code is viewed across the world. Navigating these aspects of living and working abroad is part of the bigger picture of how to settle well, and settling well is key to a successful assignment abroad!   

By: Felicia Shermis

Good leadership is a matter of culture
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