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L’Affaire Denim: Accounting Firm Dress Code Debates Span Borders, Decades

Cosmic issues are being raised in the great Dress Code debates: Is denim okay every day? What’s the largest allowable team logo on a sweatshirt? How about pajamas outside the house?

My experiences may offer some useful historical and cultural context.

In the late 1990s I was expatriated to Paris with one of the then Big Six –- during the first wave of large-firm agita about how far adults in their 20s could be trusted to dress themselves for work.

The professions in London had gone casual with a vengeance. Staff facilities there had promptly taken on the appearance of locker rooms in provincial soccer stadiums: all tattered jerseys and dirty boots.

When my small group of in-house lawyers –- I being the only American –- received the US firm’s memo on acceptable standards for casual Fridays, the walls echoed with hysterical laughter. Five closely-typed pages laid out rules of Talmudic complexity: sleeve lengths and collar requirements and shoe styles; height of hemlines, forbidden fabrics, and a blanket fatwa on all T-shirts.

It was a pronouncement truly lovable only by a profession capable of grappling with GAAP/IFRS reconciliations, CDO portfolio evaluations or the Internal Revenue Code.

My European colleagues, both bemused and horrified, had always been stylishly presentable as a daily matter –- with the subtlety and je ne sais quoi that seems injected into European newborns as part of their government-provided health care. At any given time, however -– men and women alike — at least half would have been in violation of the American code –- perhaps a designer blouse without sleeves, a collarless Armani tee under a two-piece suit, or marginally too much display of femur or collarbone.  

As enforcer, I’d have had full-out rebellion on my hands, not least from our paralegals -– a long-stemmed trio averaging about 1.80 metres each, who would have sooner joined Marianne in storming the barricades than surrender the bare legs and open-toed sandals of Paris in the springtime.

We negotiated an armistice: they were free to ridicule the uptight Americans without restraint, so long as they produced quality work and never provoked comment or embarrassment with either clients or our management.

Peace prevailed.

Meanwhile, beyond our little group, casual dress was floated for the entire Paris office.

Only in that rule-ridden country -– declared ungovernable by Charles DeGaulle with its official recognition of 246 varieties of cheese –- the proposal fell within the jurisdiction of the comité d’enterprise –- the workers’ council, or in American usage, for debate and consideration by the staff themselves.

The outcome is relevant to the topic of casual dress today, because it was overwhelmingly rejected. France being known, then as now, as rigid and hierarchical in its allocation and recognition of status and stature, its young accountants essentially demanded the right to maintain traditional business dress -– the professional costume they felt was earned by their university training and licensing success. 

Proud of their achievements, they insisted on a mode of dress that enabled public recognition. Not for them, in other words, to be indistinguishable on the Metro from postal workers or shop clerks, food-mongers or manual laborers.

How do these stories speak to today’s discussion? Judgment and taste still count, along with a sensitivity to context and culture. My clients in European boardrooms are still pleased to see not just a necktie, but a white shirt, while an audit team in the field -– whether a factory floor or a scrap yard or a sterile laboratory –- had best be adaptable to the local flavor lest credibility and effectiveness dissolve.

Otherwise, just as with the rules on revenue recognition or lease accounting, if the rules were so easily fixed or articulated, we would have had them by now.

Jim Peterson is the author of the recently-published book "Count Down: The Past, Present and Uncertain Future of the Big Four Accounting Firms" and is available on Amazon. Don't let the cover price dissuade you — pool interests, charge a copy to the job as research material, and pass it around.