So, this isn't a knock against British culture, because this is one area that almost exactly mirrors the idiosyncracies of the US system, but dress code may be the most unclear, confusing, and subjective system. I mean, can anyone tell me what business casual really means? (I am talking for women here. Guys, you have got it easy. Polo shirt and jeans is casual, polo shirt and khakis is business casual, throw a blazer on top and you can be high-end business casual or even business in some settings, sub out a dress shirt for the polo and a tie and you have business, and then a full suit is business professional.) No, you can't. And if you say you can, you are lying, either to me or to yourself. Take it from me. I "taught" business casual to high schoolers last year, and now I must confess that I have no idea.
And when you are trying to navigate the dress code in another country (where some things are lost in translation as you are only able to interpret their terms through your hazy understanding of your own system of dress code), things can get a bit crazy. At least twice a week, I find myself asking, "Now what do they mean by THAT?" And I have to confess that I probably get it wrong over 50% of the time. The good news is that I am gettting much more comfortable with being wrong. The bad news is that I will soon start disregarding dress code because "trying" to dress appropriately doesn't seem to bring me any closer to the expectation than a lack of effort would.
To complicate matters, in addition to the reality that no one really knows what any of these codes mean, you complicate things by the fact that many people disregard the dress code anyway! Let me demonstrate with a brief quiz...
You arrive in Washington D.C. where you will be meeting your 31 newest friends for the next two years. You are told that the dress code is casual, which has been defined as shorts and a tshirt, you...
a. Are excited that you don't have to get dressed up and throw on your favorite shirt and capri pants.
b. Notice that several of your peers are definitely stepping up the dress code. You decide to aim for the middle with a nice casual look.
c. Wear a suit or dress. Why follow the dress code when you could take advantage of this opportunity to be extra impressive?
The next day, you have another "casual" event. The host reiterated to you that it is indeed intended to be casual, but you recognize a "dress code escalation" going on around you so you...
a. Decide to follow the host's advice and go casual.
b. Decide to follow the host's advice and go casual. Except then you get to the event (on the first floor of the hotel) and realize that you are the only obedient participant; everyone else is ranging from dress pants, to dresses, to suits. You are glad that you arrived early, glad that you didn't actually wear your Chiefs shirt, but realize that you are going to feel like a heel in your long-sleeve top and corduroy capris. You give into the escalation pressure, go back up to your room, and change into dress pants, a button-up shirt, and a cardigan. (Was that too long to seem hypothetical...)
c. Wear a suit or dress. Why follow the dress code when you could take advantage of this opportunity (provided by the heels in option b) to look extra impressive?
The dress code for the following day says "business casual". While this is a loosely defined term, you realize that these definitions are all relative and that business casual must be understood in relationship to casual, so you...
a. Wear a similar outfit to what you wore for the "casual" event. After all, you were dressed business casual.
b. You wear a suit in an attempt to keep up with the dress code escalation.
c. You attempt to talk to some of your peers in an effor to convince them to stop the madness.
Now the dress code is business. You...
a. Refuse to go because you have nothing nicer than a suit; you have maxed out your dress code escalation.
b. You go get an updo and wear a formal gown.
c. You have completely lost faith in the definition of any of these terms. They might as well make each day a "spirit day" with costume guidelines; they would have a similar effect.
I hope you can see my point. Add confusion to social pressure and you have a recipe for dress code disaster. Now, imagine trying to decipher what smart dress, smart dress neat, smart dress casual, and several other deviations of "smart" dressing are supposed to be, as well as trying to determine what they actually are. After all, it doesn't do you any good to be right about wearing slacks and a sweater. If everyone else is in suits and dresses, you will feel stupid and being right will be no consolation.
As a general rule of thumb, my typical strategy is to shoot for middle-high dress. You don't want to be excessively over dressed, but you want to be dressed nicely enough to blend in with most people. You want to be in about the 30th percentile...give or take a percentile.
You may be wondering why I am writing this post now. Well, as soon as you think you know something, the dress code humility hammer falls on you. I thought I had finally gotten this dress code thing figured out: shoot for the 30th percentile, know that everyone is going to get more dressed up than they are required to be because of sheer competitive drive resulting in dress code escalation, and develop an attitude that says, "I am confident enough to look good in whatever I am wearing." And maintain that confidence even when a Polish girl gives you the once over, giggles, and suggests that you look ridiculous when you are seen wearing sweats at 8:30 in the morning. (Yes, that actually happened).
Back to the hammer. So, I thought I had all of this figured out, and then I went to London for a recruiting trip. Because I wanted to dress to impress, I decided to shoot for the 20th percentile or even a bit higher. I wore a nice brown skirt suit with a white collared shirt. Classy, neat, but not a complete power-suit (Although, let's be realistic. Any suit looks more powerful on a 6-footer, just like all shoes look more manly in an 11 than they do in a cute 6). Well, the only problem is that the business that I was going to prides itself on NOT wearing suits. I met the CFO, who was in jeans and probably mentioned three to four times that at BLANK company, they don't wear suits. Just when I thought I had it all figured out...The good news is that all of my experiences of being confident and under-dressed still carried over...and I could take off my suit jacket.