Armour, Strait-Jacket or Hair Shirt? The jacket Dilemma

Once upon a time, and not so long ago, dressing for business was simple: you wore a skirt suit in black, charcoal or navy. That was it. End of meaningless self-induced angst and trauma.

women's business suitThe Perfect Business Suit. Sorted.

Then came the Eighties,  Dallas and Dynasty. Linda Evans did business in scarlet. But it was still a suit; with a big flashy brooch and a precisely tied scarf. We still knew where we were, because, after all, we’re British and we don’t do sex or scarlet (although we do apparently now do sex in 50 shades of grey – but that came thirty years later).

In the Nineties we sort of lost our way a bit. The internet came out of Silicon Valley and with it this concept of “Business Casual”.  Suddenly, the business suit was as endangered as the Snow Leopard.

Nowadays I would suggest that very few of us do business in a suit. In fact, as I go round varying offices I realise that the suit is usually the sign of a low-ranking employee, one who is on the first rung of that management ladder; it is usually they who get the coffees. When I see them my fingers normally itch to take those poor girls and boys off to one side in order to explain to them just how to wear that suit with authority and pride – although first I will taste the coffee to see if it’s actually worth me taking the time for them!

But the jacket remains. For some of us it as dear as our Security Blanket, for others it is a bugbear. So what is it about the Jacket? How do you know which one is right for you, or even if any jacket is right for you?

Firstly, we need to be clear on what the jacket says and does. It is both professional armour and a statement of authority and power which is why it needs to be worn with the appropriate accompaniments/symbols of power – see photo below). If you are the only one in the room wearing a jacket, newcomers to that room will automatically assume that you are the person in charge. So you need to be aware of that.

BaronesaMargaretThatcher Margaret Thatcher. For her, that symbol of power and authority was always appropriate (whatever one thinks of her politics).

Last week I attended a training course and purposely chose not to wear a jacket. I was glad I had made that decision when the course leader shared with me when, if she enters the room to find a delegate in a jacket, she is intimidated. A useful thing to know and consider, I think.

So let us firstly consider your working environment . Some jobs do still call for the suited and booted/court-shoed approach;  the majority are more flexible. Is the management culture where you work relaxed, or is there an unspoken rule that if you want to get on, you dress as if you do? Or do you run the risk of appearing too formal if the jacket appears?

Secondly, let us consider whether you personally would benefit from a jacket. Do you need the authority and armour of a jacket or do you carry sufficient authority by your height and personality? I know a number of women for whom a long-line structured cardigan in a soft knitted fabric works much better than a formal and restricted jacket. All of these women are above average height and own a commanding presence. Drape and flow in their garments allows them more self-expression than the formal structure of a traditional jacket.   Without exception however, those women are in a coaching/teaching role: they need authority but a certain amount of creative leeway is not only acceptable, but expected. My tall rangy friend who lectures to chartered accountants would certainly not enter a training room sans her jacket; she would immediately lose credibility with that particular audience.

kettlewell long cascade The Kettlewell Colours Long Cascade Wrap – used as a business jacket by many of my colleagues.

I stand five feet one and a half inches without my heels, and need my clothes to have structure and neatness. I also need all the help I can get with carrying authority, professionalism and power. I would not dream of trying to teach anyone older than five years without the background support of my jacket – even if my present favourite is bright yellow!

jellow jacket waspThis is what I got when I Googled Yellow Jacket!

And, if you decide that, yes, you still want this bastion of tradition in your wardrobe, then, even beyond colour,  there is the vexed question of style, shape, length, texture, lapels, fastenings, and – of course – where the blazes you get one from  when you’ve finally decided what you want, what you really, really want.

But that’s for another blog on another Friday, I feel.


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