‘Vestis virum facit’ … ‘Clothes maketh the man’

‘Vestis virum facit’ (Erasmus, Adagia 3.1.60) is a saying coined by the 15thcentury writer Erasmus. Today the quote is better recognised as ‘Clothes maketh the man’. It could perhaps be further refined to ‘Clothes maketh the person’.

Up until the beginning of 2020, millions of people began their days by donning ironed shirts, dry-cleaned suits and stylish work shoes. When Covid struck and we all moved to at-home working, our clothing habits changed. For some of us this happened quickly; for others it occurred more slowly. I remember speaking to one client who said she continued to get dressed as if she were going into the office, with full makeup and heels. At the end of the day, she would close her laptop, take off her makeup and change her shoes to mark the end of her workday. Others preferred the approach of ‘all work on the top; party on the bottom’. 

Over the last two years I have observed gradual changes to the etiquette of work attire. It is not unusual to attend an online meeting in workout clothes and once I was even told, ‘I am not putting my camera on today as I’ve just gotten up and am still in my pyjamas!’

Like a frog slowly boiling to death as cold water heats up, many of us haven’t noticed the gradual change from corporate to casuals. I first registered the difference last week and it surprised me. I usually train in the morning and will walk my dog in the afternoon, which means I often stay in my gym clothes all day. I will dress up for an online meeting with some lipstick and a scarf, changing my T-shirt to a more suitable top while my trackpants and slippers remain unseen.

However, recently I had an earlyish meeting with a client whom I know quite well. I texted him the day before to say, ‘I’ll be coming from the gym – are you okay if I wear my gym clothes?’ He replied that it was no problem.

The following morning, I was planning out my day and realised that I was about to go to a work meeting in lycra. It struck me that this casualisation process had gone too far. I left the gym 15 minutes early and quickly changed before heading to the meeting. When I arrived, the client said, ‘Oh, you’re dressed.’ I explained my thoughts and he said, ‘Don’t worry, half our team comes to work now in gym gear. We are really casual – too casual.’

As we slowly move back to face-to-face meetings and working in the office the question has become: ‘When is casual too casual, and why is this important?’

How we turn up and the first impressions we create define how we are seen and ultimately treated. What message are you sending? Do you look professional and trustworthy or relaxed and easy-going? Do you exude confidence or disorganisation? How will these perceptions and impressions impact your career options and success? Unfortunately, in the words of George Eliot, we often ‘judge a book by its cover’. How are you going to be judged?

As you get dressed to attend your next face-to-face or online meeting, ask yourself what impression you are making. If you would wear the same outfit to the gym, the beach or a nightclub you probably shouldn’t be wearing it to work!