Even a looming government shutdown, fortunately averted at the last minute, couldn’t stop controversy around the Senate dress code and Senator John Fetterman’s shorts and hoodie attire taking America and the Western world by storm.
On September 27, Senate representatives unanimously called time on a dressed down approach, voting to formalise a dress code and banish Fetterman’s gym wear to the closet.
Lawmakers lead countries, representing millions of people and taking up a place on the world stage. How they dress can be seen as a matter of respect for the electorate and the job at hand, and so despite myself hailing from a tradition of sometimes scruffy journalists, I tend to agree that they should at least to some extent gear up accordingly.
Nevertheless, Fetterman has never made any secret of how he presents himself, so to some degree he is representing voters in just the way they expected. Plus, at 6’8” (or 2.03 metres), it’s got to be tougher to source more formal looking attire that isn’t unpalatably expensive, an accommodation element that employers too should be considering. Fetterman probably can’t just nip into Old Navy or H&M.
This is hardly the first time in recent history that matters of state and dress have split the public. Look only to 2017’s ‘right to bare arms’ protest by US Congresswomen. Across the North American border, 2019 protests – in the guise of women wearing short sleeves – broke out in the British Columbia Legislature after at least three representatives were told to cover up.
In the UK, former special advisor to then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings (admittedly not a Member of Parliament himself) routinely drew ire for skulking around Downing Street, the seat of power, in tracksuit bottoms before public outcry at his drive to a faraway castle to ‘test his eyes’ during a COVID-19 lockdown saw him booted from the job.
I succumbed to a brief ‘Dominic Cummings’ workwear phase a few years ago – it’s not something I’m proud of, but it did happen. After all, then me asked myself, ‘if Cummings can do it, why can’t I?’ Why should I huddle over a computer sweating buckets in the itchy polyester nightmares that were in budget if not in vogue at the time while he got to unleash a plethora of policies on the nation, all while enjoying breathable cotton jogging bottoms? Perhaps some Americans belonging to one of the 49% of workplaces that have historically had a dress code were asking themselves similar questions about Fetterman.
Studies are conflicting on whether casual vs business wear affects performance and productivity; one oft repeated stat is that 61% of employees are more productive with a relaxed dress code, though the provenance of this has been hotly contested. Cutting down on dressing up time has also been lauded as a productivity booster.
In the other corner, studies have suggested that business attire could boost abstract thinking and informal wear could prove a big hindrance in negotiation territory.
For my part, I don’t believe the Cummings phase affected my job performance, but I’m not sure it did me any mega favours in terms of ‘personal branding’ and office politics or attitude, either. I never quite had the gumption to emulate my new anti-hero at City meetings; had I been working for some insurance companies or brokers, I’m not sure I would’ve been let through the door.
I’ll let you into a secret – I haven’t tested this across the Atlantic Ocean (yet), but if you want to get views on a UK web article intended for consumption by aspirational insurance employees, you might want to write about coverage for luxury watches.
That may be because watches are a ticking timebomb underwriting issue or could well be because insurance tends to be one of those more traditional industries when it comes to dressing to impress. Case in point: when Lloyd’s of London relaxed its tie policy in 2018, it hit national headlines.
Gendered policies, like heel and skirt mandates, are largely a thing of decades past, and rightly so. Dress code provisions across sectors have been relaxing to some extent over time, and the speed of change does seem to have accelerated.
Last year, I asked ‘why be an insurtech?’ and someone raised a fantastic rebuttal that I hadn’t considered the impact these businesses have had on talent through culture, with more relaxed dress codes being one more inclusive facet.
Would Lloyd’s have so willingly propelled itself into the 21st Century and said goodbye to the tie without a bit of insurtech and big tech prompting amid a talent challenge? I’m not so sure.
Traditionalists are also competing with the pandemic, which ushered in new ways of working. Forget tailored suits and crisp shirts, for 30% of British and American remote workers staying away from the office during COVID-19 shutdowns meant Zooming in wearing pyjamas, an Otter.ai survey found. More alarmingly, one in 10 of those surveyed even admitted to not wearing trousers/pants.
With 72% of companies now mandating office returns in some shape or form, as per the Unispace Global Insights 2023 study, the times they are again a’changin’, to almost quote Bob Dylan.
Where it comes to workwear and the exhausting ‘new’ new normal it all seems to me to boil down to striking a balance and a bit of common sense. For those that want to dress to impress full time, absolutely go for it. For others, there ought to be a bit of leeway when it comes to picking the moment, especially if hybrid sticks.
In today’s world, amid a cost-of-living squeeze, leaders should be mindful that not all staff can necessarily break the bank to look just like them.
Nor should staff want or need to be a carbon copy of their boss to succeed; if a rash of post-Disney deal Star Wars content has taught us anything, it’s that clone armies are not your friend. There should be nothing wrong with a bit of ‘zhuzh’ and personality (for a bold example, look to Aviva CEO Amanda Blanc’s impressive roster of shoes).
Ultimately though, finance and insurance workers may not be engaging in the global theatre of politics, but they are representing their company and – more importantly – themselves.
I might be in no position to judge anyone given my checkered past but as the Fetterman debate has shown, others certainly will. If you want success in today’s insurance business, you’re still probably better off dressing for it if you can.
Shiny shoes, a pressed suit, and – if you’re lucky – a Rolex or Patek Philippe are, though, little substitute for ingenuity and talent, and one person’s progress will always be another’s decline.
Should workers in the insurance industry still be dressing to impress? Share your views in the comments below.