Has smart casual killed the traditional business suit?

Dress to impress, the old adage goes, but with even the most professional corporate environments loosening their sartorial codes, Australian offices are fast embracing the smart casual slide, with a trail of abandoned ties and heels left behind.

Raising the bar

When Nick* upped sticks from one high-flying media job in Melbourne to take on another in Sydney, he expected the tie bar to stay high. "I wore a T-shirt for years because I could get away with it, but I stepped it up when I had to start being the boss and figured I should smarten up a bit," he says.

"I just felt when you have staff that you're managing you should try and set the standard. Not that I'd care if anyone else dressed down, but as the boss you feel like you should set some sort of bar."

Braving the summer sun, Nick arrived at his new office wearing a crisply ironed shirt tucked into tailored suit pants and shoes buffed to a shine only to discover that jeans and T-shirts were the order of the day, with untucked short-sleeve shirts about as smart as it got.

Go hard early

While Nick says he wasn't entirely surprised, he certainly didn't regret going formal, believing it better to dress up than down. "Well, you go hard early, right? Make the right impression." However, he's considering pairing it back a little now. "It's more of a transition. You can't just go to Ts overnight, I feel like it has to be a staged process."

There's definitely a positive aspect to staying sharp, Nick argues. "I always walk with more of a spring in my step when I'm suited up with tie and all, and I do love a bit of tie/shirt matching. I say I'd love to wear a suit every day, because you certainly feel a bit more important around the place, but I'm sure the novelty would wear off very quickly and I'd get sick of it."

One of the reasons Nick's  avoided smart casual for the last few years is because he's not entirely confident how to strike the right balance. "I struggle with smart casual. I don't really know what's in the middle of tucked/collared shirt and Ts. I quite like the T-shirt/suit jacket look but it's too hot and it's probably too ad-world-w***er."

From sofa to office

Emily* is a writer and content strategist who recently contracted with a Sydney-based advertising agency for a few months. "Heading back to an office after many years as a freelancer in my tracksuit pants at home was a rude shock. I also realised I had absolutely no idea what one should wear to an advertising agency gig, so I went back to my corporate roots and suited up."

Acknowledging that she's not one to do things by halves, Emily donned a white business shirt, blazer, tailored pants and brogues. "I looked like an extra from The L Word, with a little bit of Liza Minnelli thrown in. I wasn't sure if I was there to write or tap dance."

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The relaxed approach to office attire surprised her. "Newsflash: unless you work in finance, legal or government, no one dresses corporate anymore. It's as passé as having a Hotmail address. Everyone was in jeans, sneakers, shirts, casual dresses and flat shoes."

Confidence booster

While she was happy to tone down the dressing up, Emily believes defining a stylish look is the key to confidence. "A great outfit will pull your shoulders back, open up your face into a smile, and give you a confident stride and firm handshake. If you're feeling yourself, others will too. So if that's a suit, wear a bloody suit, but if it's cool sneakers and a T, that's fine in my books too."

Set a standard, but feel comfortable

Fashion commentator Janice Breen Burns agrees that it's important to feel comfortable and happy in your office outfit, but that certain standards of presentation should always apply.

"In any sort of workplace where you are going to be encountering people for eight hours a day, you still want to maintain the basic rule of grooming, even though most of the professional workforce seems to be casualised now," she notes. "There's even talk of having formal, rather than casual, Fridays."

Casual doesn't have to mean sloppy. "Your clothes should be very well laundered and ironed and your shoes cleaned. If you are adopting the casual dress code, it's a neat casual. I applaud anybody who still goes into the office and actually wears the corporate code. I don't think anyone should ever feel uncomfortable about dressing well."

What are your thoughts on office dress codes? Tell us in the comments section below.

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