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Culture

Clothes make the person - at least sometimes

When it comes to professional dress, women face more pressure than men. But much of what's considered to be conservative serves a practical purpose. Both bankers and politicians say it's important to dress for success.

Close-up of a man in a suit

Implicit dress codes make for easy decisions when getting dressed in the morning

The days when the majority of Westerners dressed themselves daily in starched collars and cufflinks, or high heels and petticoats, ended years ago. Nowadays, for most situations, jeans and a T-shirt will do.

But the Swiss bank UBS raised eyebrows last month when its very conservative dress code was leaked on the Internet. The comprehensive, 44-page document defined how men should knot their ties, and how women should care for their skin. Underwear in a neutral color is, apparently, a must.

While UBS was mocked for the paper, it was in part aiming to polish up its image and show customers that the financial crisis had claimed neither its pride nor its love of precision.

Wolfgang Thierse

Politician Thierse gets ahead even without shaving

Some professions simply do require higher standards of dress than others, while gender equality policies don't always compensate for differing perception of the sexes.

Take German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance. Any gaffe in a speech of hers is sure to be criticized - but she wouldn't get off the hook either for failing to thoroughly blow-dry her hair before addressing parliament. Meanwhile Wolfgang Thierse, deputy speaker of the parliament, sports a beard which wouldn't look out of place on a lumberjack.

Making a serious impression

At 28, newly-elected Green party parliamentarian Josefine Paul knows how to get ahead in the world. Although she likes to keep her wardrobe simple by wearing T-shirts with jeans or khaki pants, her new job as a professional politician has forced her to confront societal expectations about appearance.

"I do think that more of a facade is expected from women," she told Deutsche Welle. "That has less to do with the expectation that people maintain a halfway serious appearance. It has more to do with the fact that it's often expected of women that they do indeed seem feminine."

Parliamentarian Josefine Paul

Josefine Paul opted for a more conservative look once her political career started

Being young is another reason Paul has opted for more conservative clothing. Her lip piercing is gone, and she keeps her tattoo under wraps. That helps to divert the public's focus from her looks to her message.

"At my age, you don't really want to draw attention to yourself by being the most flippant person around," she said "You want to be taken seriously, and sometimes that's just easier when you're wearing a blouse and a blazer."

The clothes which make people

Gabriele Krischel, a Bonn-area etiquette trainer, says it's true that clothes make people, even if the phrase sounds dated. The clothes a person wears deliver a first impression to their counterparts.

"They say it takes 30 minutes to change a first impression. That means that if I think someone won't process my request properly, because they're dressed in a sloppy way, then it will take that person 30 minutes to convince me that the opposite is true."

Algerian soccer uniforms

Uniformity gives people a certain amount of confidence

A dress code, even an implicit one, can help people feel secure, said Krischel. "They don't have to ask themselves what's correct and what isn't."

What's a hippie banker worth?

Bankers, in particular, know the value of making a fastidious impression. After all, they're asking people to entrust them with their money. Financial institutions have made a point of finding out what their customers want to see and the decision to set conservative dress guidelines is a conscious one, said Dieter Doetsch from the bank Sparkasse KölnBonn.

He described an experiment conducted at another bank: "They wanted to attract young customers, so they put interns dressed in jeans and shirts behind a separate counter near the entryway," Doetsch explained. "Customers walked past - they didn't notice them."

Women with bare midriffs

Bare midriffs probably wouldn't go over well in a bank

In another instance, a bank advertised a special offer by having its employees wear promotional T-shirts, resulting in negative comments from customers, Doetsch said.

That could explain why - with or without a 44-page dress code - a peek into the working environment of most banks will reveal employees dressed as though they were decades behind current trends.

"With the men, it's always simple," Doetsch said. "They wear a suit, a jacket or a combination. They wear a dress shirt, a tie and matching shoes. With the ladies it's more complicated. They don't always need to walk around in a blazer. Instead, it's more about certain no-gos. Bare midriffs wouldn't be good, and neither would anything low-cut around the waistline."

Author: Marlis Schaum / gps
Editor: Kate Bowen

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