Saturday, September 03, 2005

French Particularities No. 5: The Open Neck Shirt

Among the British professional classes, dress code for the office is fairly uniform. People either wear a suit and tie or at least a jacket and tie with smart trousers. In corporations, this dress code usually applies right down to even the lowest clerk. Women will often wear a skirt and jacket suit as well, and the wearing of trousers by women is sometimes frowned upon. I don't really know where this formality comes from, but I do know that it is deeply entrenched. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that a lot of schoolchildren in the UK wear grey, somewhat non-descript uniforms at school.

The French, on the other hand, never ask their children to wear uniform to school. Instead, at about this time of year, there are a lot of advertisements plastered in the metro trying to persuade parents to gear their children up in bright Benetton colours with a polychrome back pack to match. So maybe this is why the majority of children evolve into sartorially relaxed adults.

This really surprised me when I first started working for a French company in the UK. There was I, dressed in jacket and tie, having meetings with French employees from the main office in France who would turn up in open neck floral shirts and pleated slacks. It was quite bizarre.

I would still say the open neck shirt is pretty much the norm in France, especially when you leave Paris and go to an office in the countryside where people universally shun the tie. If you wear a tie to an office like this, you would certainly receive comments and funny looks.

In Paris, the situation is slightly different. Quite a lot of people wear suits (costumes) and ties (cravats). Why is this? I think one reason is the invasion of anglo-saxon corporate ideals into France. The same reason why French business men use words like 'le schedule', 'le timing' and 'un shortcut' to impress on their willingness to forge ahead with 'le business'. A second reason is that it is a sort of 'officers' uniform. It marks out people who are ambitious, a message to the bosses that: 'I want to get ahead'. So in France, you have to choose. Suit person, or open necked shirt person?

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