First off, this is not a piece about fashion! Not only am I unqualified to write about fashion, it comes as a surprise to many that I just don’t have that much interest in it. My enthusiasm and focus relate to the messages clothes send to those around us, and the psychological impacts they have on our confidence, self-worth, and ability to reach our goals, rather than what’s trending or what the ‘It Girls and Boys’ are wearing.
No, I’m writing this about jeans for a very different reason than fashion, following a recent meeting with a leader in the financial services industry. Picture the scene: his jeans were so tight that his fly kept bursting open, and he was continually ‘adjusting’. Amusing for some, perhaps. Uncomfortable and incredibly distracting for me. A credibility crusher for the leader in question.
This is about leadership credibility and personal branding.
There’s no doubt that jeans are becoming more and more common in the workplace and are no longer reserved for team off-sites or casual Fridays. Furthermore, as Australia slowly begins to return to the office following COVID-19 lockdowns, I’ve noticed leaders donning a significantly more relaxed dress code than their industries would ordinarily allow for. And lots and lots of jeans.
But the allure of comfort that is so often accompanied by denim can result in a sloppy and dishevelled look that speaks more to lazy student weekends, than a leader who’s going places.
It takes a concerted effort to pull off jeans well. So here’s a short guide to introducing jeans to your work wardrobe, while ensuring that your overall appearance and leadership brand remains polished and professional.
Fit is essential.
Often the trickiest part to crack, your jeans must fit well. This is largely driven by your unique body shape and, of course, what you like and what you’re comfortable with. Additionally, different cuts and styles are designed to finish in different places so some simple adjustments to hem lengths are usually required. In terms of style, your safest bet in a more conservative and traditional environment is a slim, straight, or elegant bootcut (for women). For more creative environments and more adventurous female personalities (I have yet to see the following work for men!), consider a more relaxed and voluminous style such as wide legs, flare, or cropped jeans. I urge men and women to apply savvy caution to skinny jeans – they can easily make some feel and look over-exposed.
Choose a darker rinse.
Considered more professional, opt for darker rinses. Lighter washes are more casual and playful in tone, which won’t be the message you’re looking to send if you’re wanting to maintain leadership presence and gravitas.
Pair with a good blazer or sports jacket.
A tailored blazer that fits well is your best and essential friend for pairing with jeans at work. Classic neutral colours such as navy, black, or camel, in fine wool, cotton, and silk blends, are always a good choice. However, if your industry allows for a little more creativity, individuality, and impact, experiment with bold colours, prints, and buttons.
Stay with your ‘work’ shoes.
The minute you add sneakers or sandals to jeans, or expose your toes, you’ve lost your leadership edge. If you’re relaxing an otherwise formal dress code, stick with the same shoes (and accessories) you’d choose to wear with your more formal attire – a court shoe, quality flats, or elegant ankle boot, Oxfords, loafers, or brogues – to keep the look elevated. Apply this same principle to your tops, blouses, and shirts.
Please, no rips!
For the vast majority of us, distressed denim will never cut the mustard in a professional environment. It can quickly diminish your leadership pre and offer a distraction that takes the focus away from your talents and on to your jeans. Your clothes should not take centre stage. Save them for weekends or consider letting go of them altogether.
Treat them with respect.
Jeans are not simply a throw-on designed for comfort and function. Jeans tell us something about you, too. If your jeans look like they’ve been scooped up from the floor, or pulled from an overloaded draw, you immediately tell your audience that you don’t care. Stated as the number one concern for the executives and CEOs I speak to who have implemented or are considering, a more relaxed dress code, jeans should not be considered an invitation to relax your attitude or drop your standards. Care for and respect them as you would any other item of business wear. Continue to demonstrate, with that powerful non-verbal communication tool – your appearance – that your focus, commitment, and positive attitude remain.