The power of good service
We all understand the term ‘power dressing,’ referring to how the style and cut of garments can enhance an air of power and authority. Of course we might not always want say ‘I am the boss’, or ‘I am the richest’. We might want to say ‘I am the most popular’ or ‘I am the coolest’. But most people, at some time in their lives, choose their clothes to say ‘like me/love me’ or ‘obey me/listen to me’ or just ‘notice me – I am unique’. And of course once these basic games have been learned, the mind-games clothes can play start to become more interesting. Such as when they say: ‘I am rich and famous but I don’t need expensive-looking clothes to tell you that,’ or: ‘don’t think that because I dress like a hippy that I don’t have a razor sharp brain…’ Like all good art, the attraction of dressing lies in the way it plays with people’s expectations. Ninety-five percent of a garment may well fulfil a predictable role, but it’s the other five percent – the touches of originality or clever use of unexpected accessories – which can really influence perceptions. After all, if everyone wears an identical power suit, how do we know where the real power lies?
In his book Brilliant Pitch, the marketing guru Shaun Varga talks about clothes as a communication tool: Like plumage, clothes are very important in most forms of courtship. Pitching is a form of courtship and clothes are a form of plumage. Unlike birds, you get to chose your own plumage.
I began to develop and explore this fascinating psychology of dressing (aided by several glasses of good wine) after spending a long day, and most of the evening, enhancing some very special ‘plumage’ for a group of young would-be waiters. Not a profession which one immediately links with power dressing. But these were aspirants in a soon to be aired BBC TV series looking at the all-important public interface of a restaurant – as opposed to the ‘back-room’ dramas featured in programmes like Hell’s Kitchen.
What fascinated me about the project was how to transform and enhance a set of basically anonymous ‘uniforms’, purchased off the shelf, into garments which would communicate a single concept, ‘service’, whilst also enhancing the sense of identity of the young people taking part, several of whom had never before worn a suit of any description, male or female.
Uniforms are not like normal clothes. Their purpose is not to say something about the wearer, but only to signal what the anonymous wearer’s function is. A uniform can nevertheless say something about its corporate, civic or military owners. Uniforms in the service industries present a real challenge – just like the mixed messages of power dressing down I mentioned above.
They have to signify of course quality, status and function; but they also have to enable a certain amount of personal communication. Their wearers have to be able to establish a respectful rapport with the client in order to provide the best possible service – not too remote, not too familiar. Can a waiter’s uniform really do all this? That was my challenge.
Did I succeed? How did the young people make out – in a finale at one of the summer’s most prestigious catering events? To discover the answers you’ll have to watch the series when it airs later in the autumn. I’ll keep you posted of course.
Photo: Quality Exotic Birds