25.04.2016

The work uniform

Five professionals narrow down their office options and make it work

Words: Cayleigh Bright | Photographs: Nick Gordon

Although few would consider him a style icon, Mark Zuckerberg is someone that a good few people would like to emulate, so maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised that there’s been some talk recently of the wonders of a personal uniform – and mentions of his name, and his closet full of hoodies, alongside it. Steve Jobs and his black polo neck get a good few mentions, too, and so it seems that aside from the fact that looking a little odd is part of the job description for the misfits, the rebels and the round pegs in square holes who are plugging away at creating the latest Snapchat filter, streamlining your life through simplified dressing may be a step on the path to career success.

The argument that we should change the way we dress to keep up with the pace of living seems like a sad and slightly sinister one – there’s something dystopian about the idea of all of us pulling on matching fabric shells to march off to work in identical cubicles. We shouldn’t be aiming to eliminate pleasurable activities in order to devote more hours to corporate labour, and the plentiful think pieces about how the tech industry would like its employees to do just that aren’t helping the cause. But if, as the millennial life goal goes, your aim is to work in a role that lets you channel your passion and creativity, then there’s a good chance that the time you spend getting dressed in the morning isn’t where your creativity is best spent. The idea is that for some, choosing an outfit is proving to be more of an inhibitor of expression than a chance to show off your true self. If the most fun you’re having is getting dressed in the morning, you might just want to re-think a few life choices.

The beauty of it is that this isn't a pre-assembled outfit created for you and your co-workers alike – it's something that you get to make and own, whether you buy five of the same black dresses, have some suits made in similar cuts but different colours, or just theme your wardrobe around a few tones that look great together. And there's a certain smug satisfaction to it, which you’ll notice as laundry day approaches – whereas the remaining two occupants of your wardrobe may have in the past been boldly patterned pants and a ruffled blouse that produced a combined effect better described as “clown” than “nostalgic Carrie Bradshaw tribute”, you’re now left with pieces that pair up, no questions asked. Surprise stain on your favourite white T-shirt? No problem – just swap in another.

NINA-LEVI MAGNUSSEN

In a creative industry, the ability to keep things simple is valuable, and it’s a skill that Nina is mastering. From a background in styling, she now works at One League Creative Management, and is more closely involved in production – a change that shows in a wardrobe that’s pared-down and pulled-together. With her preference for beautiful basic pieces, she hopes that that more local designers will start to create the plain, simple items that have become her wardrobe staples. “Stiebeul does that really well,” she says, and goes on to say that local menswear’s getting a lot right. 

TWoU: What do you wear to work on a typical day?

N: Usually jeans or tights and a baggy T-shirt which’ll be black, white or navy. I wear sneakers – either Vans or Nikes.

TWoU: How has your style been shaped by your job?

N: As I’ve moved into production, I’ve had to dress more practically. And then there’s the fact that I’m beyond messy.

TWoU: How do you shop?

N: If I find something I like, I buy a lot of the same thing. In three different sizes. Summer jeans and winter jeans, you know?

NASH MARIAH

“My typical day involves coming up with social campaign ideas, and finding new trends, which means I end up spending quite a bit of time online,” says Nash Mariah. Time online translates to a lot of time spent in the Ogilvy Cape Town office, but as a Strategic Planner in PR and Social Media, Nash also finds himself in meetings and presentations, which means that his look has to be versatile. Happily, the time online also means that he’s developed a good knowledge of style and trends, which he applies to the capsule wardrobe of pieces he wears to work – though his own description of the thought process involved in choosing what to wear to work makes it sound a little less academic: “i) What haven't I worn this week? ii) What is clean? iii) Am I in a presentation? (if I am that means looking a little smarter than usual), iv) Will I be able to wear it at night? (if I have after-work plans).” Clearing up the misconception that a work uniform is something for people who don't enjoy buying or styling their wardrobes, Nash puts careful thought into the pieces he buys, for effortless outfit assemblage later. 

Do you think that wearing a uniform is a practical idea for work?

I think I already wear a bit of a uniform, that consists of a variation of black and white clothing, so I don't even think people would notice at this point.

What’s your work look?

Black is generally my standard look. I added the coat to this look to make it a bit more practical. The Dr. Martens are kind of like school shoes and I wear them all the time. The cropped trousers smarten up the look and make it seem like I made an effort. This is pretty much the perfect transitional outfit – without the coat, I can trick people into thinking I look smart while still being totally casual at work, and the all-black makes it acceptable for wearing at night.

What are the best long-term investments for a work wardrobe?

A good-quality coat (unlike the second hand one I'm currently wearing), and shoes (exactly like the ones I'm wearing).

RORISANG TABANE

“Gone are the days when our clients were just looking for people in suits,” says Rori, who’s an Assistant Manager in the Incentives division of PricewaterhouseCoopers. “We’re working with young clients – we have tech guys who are in their 20s, 30s, working with technology, app creators… These are guys who don’t like suits or people who look too serious. That’s one thing I like to consider.” Rori’s look is bold, but has the pulled-together feel that you’d expect from a professional – well-chosen accessories complement the dresses that she says she wears on most days, and she keeps it simple when it comes to makeup and jewellery. Her style makes it clear that 'work uniform' needn't carry connotations of stiff garments in shades of grey. 

TWoU: What would you keep in mind if you were assembling a work uniform for yourself?

R: Working in a legal or accounting firm, I’ve been advised to wear dark clothes, because people think that it comes across as more serious. They also always advise that clients are more likely to listen to you – you shouldn’t wear bright colours, because when you talk, it makes the client pay attention not to what you’re saying, but rather to how you look. So I’m the black sheep in the firm, wearing my hippie outfit into the office. And, apart from that we just like to be different. I don’t like to blend in with the crowd.

TWoU: How would you describe your current work look?

R: Casual and chic – or, it’s in a chic zone. It’s casual, but it’s got that chicness to it, and it’s respectful to the work environment. Not much colour, but I like patterns, which are different according to the season. I also don’t like to wear a lot of makeup, or any heavy jewellery. Another thing I take into consideration is comfort, and the fact that I’m up and down the stairs all the time.

BUNTU NGCUKA

“As I've gotten older, I've learnt not to compromise on quality when it comes to classic things. Jackets, jeans, shirts, sweaters and shoes are staple wardrobe items I intend on keeping for years, so I don't mind paying a bit extra for them,” says Buntu, who, as a Senior Content Producer at GQ, needs to look the part. “Every day is different in that there's always something new to write about or a change in our readers' behaviour which we have to adjust to. For the most part though, my day consists of me sitting in front of my computer from 9 to 5 (or 6 on a good day), trawling the net and typing really quickly to get new content up as often as possible. There are weekly planning meetings and sometimes I have to go to events straight after work to represent the brand and hopefully get fresh content.” With a schedule that can get a little complex, his wardrobe needs to keep things simple.

What do you consider when choosing what to wear to the office?

I consider what my day looks like. If I have to walk or take an Uber to a launch after work, I'll bring along a jacket or wear something dressier like a shirt or chinos. I'm seated in the office and under pressure for most of the day, so comfort is key and luckily it's a laid-back office so jeans and sneakers are usually my go-to. I also consider time. I can be pretty indecisive about what I wear and I can change 3 or 4 times before I leave in the morning and end up being late for work, so I try to keep things as simple and neutral as possible.

Would an office uniform work for you?

“I'm a poet and writer on the side, so I also want a look that isn't all over the place or complex like my work tends to be. I suppose you could say that my dressing simply gives me one less thing to freak out about. I'd have no idea what to wear with polka-dot pants.”

Why did you choose this look as a 'uniform' to suit you and your work life?

I'm a bit of minimalist in that I don't like bright colours and I only really own a few staple items that I just swap around and mix and match. I love bomber jackets, blazers, chinos, jeans and plain T-shirts. My clothes tend to work in both casual and smart-casual settings, so it's perfect for me to go to work then an event or even drinks with friends after work wearing the same thing.

CRAIG LARTER

When we visit Kestrel CNC Routing Solutions, we can hardly hear Craig over the noise of the large machine that takes up the lion's share of space in the room. “I like to be very hands-on. I don’t like to delegate too much if I can,” he says, and although it’s Friday afternoon, we do get the impression that he can’t wait to get back to it. Working with plastic, aluminium, wood, acrylic, and sometimes copper and brass as well, Craig creates molded objects of just about every shape, size and purpose imaginable “It’s quite a fun machine – you can really play around,” He says of the cause of all the noise, and the source of his livelihood. “Here’s something I did for a restaurant – two arms of a rail that fit together.” Fascinated with the work he does every day, Craig's managed to create a uniform that takes little effort to compile each morning – so that he can keep his mind on the kind of mental exertions he enjoys, mundanities kicked to the side. 

What do you keep in mind when you’re choosing what to wear?

It’s very important to be comfortable – you work better when you’re comfortable. When it comes to clothes – well, not necessarily black, but definitely not white, because it’s going to get dirty. There’s plenty of dust. Shoes-wise, I’ve always had dark, very breathable running shoes. I’m always on my feet. Always running.

Has your style been shaped by your industry?

I’ve been in the engineering industry for 15 years, and when I started my own business three years ago the way I dressed didn’t really change all that much. I used to wear steel toecaps at one stage. It was very uncomfortable. I always wear a hat to avoid getting a lot of dust in my hair. Don’t really wear facial hair.

Do you think that wearing a uniform is a practical idea for work?

It depends on the industry. Our company’s face is the product – it’s not really about meetings, and it’s not so much focused on what I’m presenting.