First the bad news: if you think your co-workers dress like drones and pride yourself on your “unique” sense of style, you’re committing an act of sartorial career sabotage. A depressing new study has found that a “cohesive sense of style” in an office is perceived to create a better team spirit and foster higher levels of productivity. Accordingly, co-workers often subconsciously develop a uniform “look”. And before you start claiming the sartorial high ground, nope, it doesn’t matter if you dress better than your dull colleagues. Dressing differently is all it takes to find yourself rudely ejected from their style tribe and out in the cold.
Now the even worse news: it’s specifically your boss you need to style-stalk. In the same study, commissioned by Debenhams, more than two-thirds of managers admitted to a “heightened awareness” of staff with a similar style to themselves. Such colleagues “gain brownie points” they added.
Yes, the idea of copying your boss’s wardrobe to make them like you seems undeniably creepy; decidedly Single White Female. But the fact that employees emulate bosses, and that bosses approve, comes as no surprise to me, as someone who has worked in fashion journalism for eight years. I used to share a lift with the GQ team; I know that on any given day the office resembles a slightly unimaginative set for a Burberry campaign, so perfectly co-ordinated are their suitswith ties all at identical widths.
Last winter, Vogue suffered a severe outbreak of feather and fur gilets after a senior member of the fashion team debuted hers. The current dress code at Asos, I’m told, is tartan kilts and checks; they’re grunging like it’s 1994.There has been such a proliferation of Mouret-esque Galaxy dresses at News International that one Sun worker I know now refers to Wapping as Battleship Galaxy-Dress-Off. And ever since one former Shortlist editor started arranging her bleach-blonde tresses into a rockabilly beehive, hairlines rose as surely and steadily as dough during an episode of Bake Off. She fondly fingered these “tribute beehives”, as she christened them, and happily dished out tips to junior staffers on getting a good rise.
Upwardly mobile style copycats are nothing new, points out Julia Twigg, professor of social policy and sociology at the University of Kent. “Fashion has always been hierarchical in nature; historically lower-status people have dressed to emulate high-status individuals,” she says. And what of the shared office dress sense? “Fundamentally, fashion is about relating to each other in groups,” says Twigg. “Most people are very concerned at the idea of not fitting in.” What is an office, if not a sweaty roomful of desperate people all clamouring to prove how well they fit in?
A more prosaic explanation comes from 33-year-old charity worker Kate Lucas, who has noticed a shared dress sense among female co-workers at her offices in London. “People are busy so if you see someone in the lift wearing something you like, you’re bound to ask where they bought it.” Could it be this simple? That dressing like your co-workers is less to do with a tribal identity, and more about sheer laziness? Why bother scouring the pages of Grazia if your co-worker has helpfully demonstrated what looks good and what looks rubbish? Modeling Zara’s new denim dungarees is one task you can breezily delegate without an awkward email exchange.
But where does all this desire to copy and fit in leave competitive dressing and fashion one-upmanship? It’s a balancing act, admits Twigg. “Ideally, we want to be wearing the right clothes to fit into a group, but also looking slightly better than the others in the group,” she says. “The aim is to mark ourselves out as somehow better and different, but not so different that we don’t belong.” Easy.