Manners & Misdemeanors

Dress for Success: The New Meaning of Attire as a Status Symbol

With optimism over the economy livening up the social scene, the matter of attire as status symbol takes on new meaning.

It is not often that we are asked to give fashion tips. And there’s a reason for that—we don’t know much. Still, this does not mean we have nothing to say about what being properly attired entails. We will limit our comments to male attire as we can use personal experience and observations for this. Female attire entails whole magazines and more knowledgeable fashion denizens than moi. So, those interested only in feminine wear can skip this whole article as we will even delve into the sociology of accouterment.

In terms of denoting hierarchy, the military and the Catholic Church (for formal occasions and before the entry of the street look) have the edge on dress codes over corporate types. Bankers used to be reliably suited or wore long-sleeved cotton barong. But with the entry of flatter organizations and a plethora of vice presidents comes the entry of the casual look.


Since being launched by the Internet companies in the late '90s, the casual attire (partial to denim blue) seems here to stay. Dress codes have equated casual attire with creativity and diva moods beloved by advertising and media types. A suit shouts, “You’re on the wrong floor, buddy.”

In the wake of changing corporate cultures, big-pond types moving to smaller bodies of water are replacing their wardrobe in a modest makeover bid. Let’s review the corporate landscape—and I’m not talking about gardens, love.

Weekend attire is now acceptable in any office, and no longer just for Casual Friday. Even once-staid bankers now sport smart casual.

Suits and ties seem passé, likewise long-sleeved barong with dark pants. Suits can still be worn on occasion to be aired, but without a tie.

Plain long-sleeved shirts, including soft denims, are in. Thick denim ones that look like life jackets, especially when trimmed with fake fur, are a bit much. The all-denim look is more closely associated with overseas workers coming home after years of being away, sporting long hair and accompanied by five big cartons with names and addresses—but no zip codes.


Shirt sleeves are rolled up to two inches from the elbow, with three folds from the cuff. Aside from denim blues, shirts can come in other subdued colors like mauve or chartreuse. Plaids and pajama stripes are out. Pinstripes and tiny checks are acceptable.

Slacks, even jeans with torn thighs sections (but a few inches southeast of the zipper), are allowed. This grungy, hip-hop look can go with pointed boots. This attire is a declaration of creativity, especially when accessorized with a key chain dangling from the belt strap for keys and a Swiss Army knife with forty functions.

Socks are optional. Most people do without them, although this derelict behavior can be embarrassing when one is having lunch in a Japanese function room. It’s fine to have socks that don’t match. Holes in toes can be conversation pieces.

Rubber-soled shoes with leather uppers are fine. Wearing sneakers may be a little extreme unless one can slam-dunk or is working on a new operating system that reduces headcount by 22 percent. Programmers do not follow dress codes. Nobody even sees them, so why worry about appearances?


A hand phone can be hanging from a belt with a wireless attachment that looks like a giant cockroach about to nibble some earwax. To actually be holding a hand phone, waiting for a ring tone is old fashioned. With the bigger iPads, accessorizing is anathema. These are carried like folders.

One neutral accent is the wristwatch. The leather strap is preferred over metal. A whimsical design such as swimming fish on the watch face scores high marks. Yellow straps are passé.

Note again that this mostly unreliable corporate fashion guide is limited to males. A similar casual look can be drawn up for females… but not by me. I can offer only two small suggestions in this area—forget eye shadow, and when wearing thin white pants, consider underwear lines and designs.

The casual look projects nonchalance (Do I look worried if I am not generating revenues?) and liberates the wearer from concerns about a formal look. Still, attire should provide hierarchical clues. Hence, the chairman, while looking casual, should be distinguishable from a collection clerk wearing fake Lacoste. They are called “copies.”


Clothes are seen as obstacles to open communications. Does a t-shirt approach a suit without an appointment? Many more companies are decreeing casual attire to signify membership in the knowledge economy. Showing up at a business lunch with bankers looking as casual as an advertising creative director (Were they ahead of their time?) can seem too in-your-face for a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist over sixty. But sweet dreams are made of these. The moment is saved from being awkward only when bankers too show up in open shirts.

If there is indeed a new way of dressing for business, one must acquire the look. But is casual attire a fad? Already, the suit is making a comeback. Can the tie be far behind? Enough of corporate attire, let’s go to social occasions. Here, I can be more brazen in touching, though very lightly, on ladies’ attire.

While special people, like government officials without sirens and zillionaires with nothing to prove, and presumably attending many other events before and after this one, are seldom bound by rules of proper attire and can walk into the most formal ballroom scene in bespoke jeans, most peasants like the majority of us have to observe the rules of attire if we are not to look like road kill that the cat dragged in.


Too few heed the information in the invitation, ignoring especially the request to say whether one is coming or not and paying attention only to the venue, time and date. Here, “formal” does not mean white tie and tux, but a suit or barong for men and an evening dress for ladies. Lately, invitations have been using the more precise descriptions—Business attire, instead of formal, excluding such non-mainstream businesses as pole-dancing bars or shipyards.

Casual attire for afternoon events, like the opening of a new noodle shop or the launch of a new, collectible artist’s works, consists of morning dress for ladies (nicer material than the ever-reliable duster) and slacks and shirts, no tie, for men. Evening relaxed wear is now called “smart casual”, which is the same as casual but using shinier material and lower necklines for ladies, and long-sleeved shirts for men—no tie, no jeans.


New categories are always coming up for attire. They include the following:

  1. Filipino Formal—A jusi barong is expected, but preferably piña and black pants for men. The same material in long gown for women. This is classic attire for weddings with fancier versions (Black continental tie on men’s barong went out with Cyndi Lauper) for the wedding entourage.
  2. Ballroom Formal—More than attire, this note signals the following: If you don’t tango or swing, you’re not wanted here. Ballroom attire includes a dance instructor with three changes of underwear and industrial-strength cologne.
  3. Sixties Retro—Flared pants, paisley shirts, and beads for people who feel very secure about themselves.
  4. Bollywood—This goes with turbans and harem pants and swift side-to-side movements of the head.

Optimism over the economy brings with it a more active social scene. The matter of attire as status symbol takes on new meaning. With a horde of newly minted millionaires who have to leave their BMWs and Benzes outside, it is more difficult to tell the haves from the want-to-haves in a simple social setting.

While jewelry for women used to be conclusive, synthetic stones are giving the upwardly-mobile horde a much-needed boost in social circles. Intellectual property rights and the sacredness of brand names are also being routinely trampled. Is that the same Rolex that Cecilia Bartoli wears?

Because our piece has already covered work and parties, and you can disregard what’s proper attire when you’re at home watching TV, we may as well cover what people wear in the street when they are just on the way to watch a movie, without necessarily flashing their senior citizen’s card.


Street attire is an indicator of a country’s economic progress. Many news programs use street scenes to establish location, if a country does not have the Eiffel Tower or the Parthenon. Ordinary people crossing the streets give the foreigner a lasting impression of a city and his desire to visit or avoid it.

A street scene of Tokyo will show men and women in suits talking on their cellular phones and rushing off in a tightly packed horde to cross the street. This same scene even in the heart of Makati, while picking up men and women in a hurry in their suits or barong, will also catch another in an undershirt and tatty shorts selling boiled peanuts or a young girl in a t-shirt advertising a candidate in elections past trying to cadge loose change.

As a country wanting to join the ranks of emerging economies that routinely merit television footage abroad, we need to dress up our man on the street. He should at least be attired in Filipino Informal—khaki slacks and a plain white shirt in a rush with somewhere to go.


Street-vended paraphernalia like bottled water, giant strawberries in a box, and toy helicopters taking off and landing beside cars stuck in traffic should not be part of our man-on-the-street's regular attire as he dodges between cars for a sale. Only when we have achieved a positive attire index can we really be sure that as a nation we have arrived, or at least have some place to go.

This story was originally published in the October 2010 issue of Town&Country.

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A.R. Samson
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