In the United States, society today is in favor of each of us dressing as he pleases without consideration for any larger group norm. Most restaurants no longer have dress codes and evening dress is not prescribed at the opera.
But in those parts of the business world that still hold with conservative business dress, and that's most of Europe and Asia as well as midwestern and Northeastern cities in North America, there is still a dress standard.
Meeting expectations is important. The wrong clothes can get in the way of ordinary business transactions by diverting attention or sending signals that a person "is not one of us," particularly among bankers, civil servants, and people in professional services (excluding IT where it's only slightly unfair to say that the standard of dress is execrable everywhere in the world).
The photograph was taken last year at an investment conference in a resort hotel in France in the summer, and everyone is wearing a suit although they are at the seaside.
Imagine the surprise of a first-time attendee whose U.S. conference experience led him to expect a group dressed in polos and trousers. When visiting an unfamiliar place on business, there are only five things to remember in order to stay safely in the club:
- Dress as if for a job interview or an IPO road show - the way the senior person you are meeting will be dressed
- The uniform is a navy or charcoal gray single breasted suit, a dress shirt, black oxfords, and a necktie, with no more jewelry than a wedding ring, dress wristwatch and optional cufflinks
- If someone says to dress "smart casual," they mean jacket/blazer, dress trousers, dress shoes and a necktie
- "Formal" on an invitation usually means black tie but get clarification - it can mean white tie and tails. It never means a suit, though a dark navy suit, black shoes, white shirt and black bow tie can get by most of the time
- Call ahead (even anonymously) for clarification of any questions.
Business dress conformity doesn't mean expensively dressed. Most of the suit-wearing people in the world wear inexpensive clothing, but the uniform can be spiffed up in subtle ways. For example, white shirts are a bit bourgeois during the day. Substitute cream with a navy suit and light blue with a charcoal suit. Add a solid navy tie with the gray suit, a charcoal tie with the navy, and show a quarter inch of white linen handkerchief in the jacket's breast pocket for a more sophisticated look that still won't raise any eyebrows.
Never underestimate the power of the suit. Here's one man's story:
"I was in a meeting room in Ludwigsburg, Germany with 150 other American managers of a German automaker. I was the only American wearing a suit and tie. Our host, a member of the Vorstand (Board of Directors) enters, surveys the room, walks over to me, introduces himself by first and last name, omitting his honorific ‘Doktor,’ and spends the rest of the evening talking to me. It shows you what a suit is worth in Europe."