Issue #57: Dress Code

Tenue Correcte Exigée

The French have a very intimate relationship with clothing. This should not be a surprise, given the sheer size and impact of their renowned fashion industry, arguably one of the biggest contributors to France’s GDP.

Unsurprisingly, this relationship extends to their vocabulary. Expressions such as “l’habit ne fait pas le moine” (“do not judge a book by its cover”), “le cordonnier est souvent mal chaussé” (“the cobbler’s children are the worst shod”), or “déshabiller Paul pour habiller Jean” (“rob Peter to pay Paul”) populate the colorful language shared by Yves Saint LaurentInès de la FressangeKarl Lagerfeld, and Olivier Rousteing.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of the second-most translated book of all time, colorfully explained (also in French) the importance of dress in our society through a simple anecdote: the planet of the Little Prince had been discovered in 1909 by a Turkish astronomer that nobody took seriously because of his traditional clothes. Repeating his conference in 1920, this time in suit and tie after a reform in his country, he had been applauded at length.

Many professions can be recognized through their dress codes. Doctors and nurses wear aprons. Police officers, firefighters, and soldiers wear uniforms. Tennis players in Wimbledon must dress exclusively in white. Astronauts wear space suits. Dominatrices wear black latex catsuits. The Pontifical Swiss Guard in the Vatican wears the same outfit since the 16th century. Soccer players have matching kits. Wolverine fights evil dressed in yellow spandex. Software developers wear the t-shirts they got for free at the last conference.

To a certain extent, beyond the practical considerations of those clothing styles (both driven by safety issues and tradition), we expect practitioners of those professions to wear those uniforms, as if we wanted them to conform to certain stereotypes and/or prejudices. Not doing so would send a wrong signal.

Many locations enforce strict dress codes, like operas, or some restaurants, like Parker’s Restaurant in Boston, where

Appropriate dress is required. Jackets for gentlemen preferred. Shorts and shirts without collars are not permitted. Footwear is required.

We should never underestimate the power of clothing in our capacity to relate to others. Take, for example, the late Steve Jobs. Reading chapter 28 of his biography by Walter Isaacson, we learn that Jobs wanted Issey Miyake to create a uniform for Apple employees, an idea that, understandably, was poorly received by his peers in the upper layers at Cupertino.

In the process, however, he became friends with Miyake and would visit him regularly. He also came to like the idea of having a uniform for himself, because of both its daily convenience (…) and its ability to convey a signature style. “So I asked Issey to make me some of his black turtlenecks that I liked, and he made me like a hundred of them.” Jobs noticed my surprise when he told this story, so he gestured to them stacked up in the closet. “That’s what I wear,” he said. “I have enough to last for the rest of my life.”

Steve Jobs’ dress style was so iconic that Elizabeth Holmes, of failed Theranos fame, copied it almost verbatim to appear on the covers of Fortune, Inc., and Forbes.

These days, software developers expect to wear t-shirts and jeans to work, and any suggestion of a mandatory dress code is taken as nothing less than an offense. This has not always been the case.

John von Neumann was famous, among other things, for always wearing an eternal, impeccable 3-piece suit:

He always wore formal suits. He once wore a three-piece pinstripe while riding down the Grand Canyon astride a mule. Hilbert is reported to have asked, “Pray, who is the candidate’s tailor?” at von Neumann’s 1926 doctoral exam, as he had never seen such beautiful evening clothes.

Bret Victor gave his “The Future of Programming” talk dressed in a shirt and tie, just like any engineer would in 1973, and just like Douglas Engelbart did in his “Mother of all Demos” in 1968.

James Cortada, in his 2018 extraordinary book about IBM, mentioned the dress code of his fellow IBMers in various places. First, when talking about how Watson Sr. ordered his troops to wear the quintessential IBM uniform: a blue suit, with a white shirt and a matching blue tie. Then on page 604, when he shows a photograph of Brazilian IBMers having a beer (something unthinkable in a company that actively banned alcohol) wearing suspenders, shirts, and ties.

And the cover of the book about the ins and outs of one of IBM’s most iconic machines, the IBM 5150, literally shows Peter Norton wearing a pink shirt and tie. Closer to us: Maurice Moss in The IT Crowd, played by Richard Ayoade, always wore a tie for an increased comedic effect.

The dominance of IBM in the computer industry not only meant large installed bases of IBM 1401s, but also that those operating them would wear the same uniform as those selling them.

Things changed slowly, and then all of a sudden. This transition is quite visible in the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” series of commercials made by Apple in the mid-2000s, one of which even featured fashion icon Gisele Bündchen herself.

The inflection point of dress codes towards what we know today happened somewhere between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s, just as IBM’s culture started vanishing, and a newly born hacker culture, driven by personal computers, Free and Open-Source software, and later the web, gained more and more traction.

The classic photo of Microsoft in Albuquerque in 1978 shows no suits or ties but a few colorful shirts. More or less at the same time, in the Santa Cruz Operation or SCO, not to be confused with the infamous SCO Group,

Dress was casual to the point where some staffers went barefoot.


I deduce that the SCO staff never had lunch at Parker’s in Boston. On the other hand, it is no pizzeria, so…

Andy Hertzfeld mentioned an anecdote in page 13 of his book “Revolution in the Valley” telling the story of the creation of the Macintosh in the early 1980s:

Burrell (Smith) started thinking about what it would take to get promoted. It obviously wasn’t a matter of talent or technical skill because he was already far more accomplished in that regard than most of the other hardware engineers. (…) Finally, he noticed something that most of the other engineers had in common that he was lacking: they all had faily prominent moustaches. (…)

So Burrell immediately started growing his own moustache. It took around a month or so for it to fully come in, but he finally pronounced it complete. And sure enough, that very afternoon, he was called into Tom Whitney’s office and promoted to “member of technical staff” as a full-fledged engineer.

There is no mention of a dress code in Valve’s Employee Handbook or other company handbooks.

Sign of a macho-driven culture, Lenna was naked in pretty much every book about computer graphics, well into the 2010s.

Is the classic “geek” dress code a signal of longing for some sort of “lost paradise”? Are we all wishing to return to some kind of long-lost childhood? Are we therefore refusing to grow? No, clearly not. That is the common wisdom of much of the establishment intelligentsia in big corporations. The truth is, there is much more to the geek dress code than meets the eye at first. It represents a reaction, a counterpoint, and a staccato.

In Marillion’s 1985 masterpiece “Childhood’s End” the raucous voice of Fish told us that

You want to change the world
You’d resigned yourself to die a broken rebel
But that was looking backward
Now you’ve found the light

Breaking from the mold of the corporate dress code, geeks and hackers were able to show the world a new way of thinking, one that did not need the uniformity (and restraint) of a suit and a tie. Their radicalism brought forward a world driven by software, in all of its forms, in as many programming languages as we could come up with.

The Mentor, in The Conscience of a Hacker, proclaimed in 1986 such newfound freedom with clarity and purpose:

Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.

In The Tao of Programming, “translated” by Geoffrey James in 1987, we read the common reaction from the rest of the industry to this growing subculture:

A programmer from a very large computer company went to a software conference and then returned to report to his manager, saying: “What sort of programmers work for other companies? They behaved badly and were unconcerned with appearances. Their hair was long and unkempt and their clothes were wrinkled and old. They crashed our hospitality suite and they made rude noises during my presentation.”

The manager said: “I should have never sent you to the conference. Those programmers live beyond the physical world. They consider life absurd, an accidental coincidence. They come and go without knowing limitations. Without a care, they live only for their programs. Why should they bother with social conventions?

They are alive within the Tao.”

Suits are slowly disappearing from work spaces, and the COVID pandemic only strengthened this trend, just like there is now an unstoppable movement towards remote work. Well, except in some reluctant Fortune 500 companies, and in some countries like Switzerland, where managers stubbornly clutch at straws forcing their teams to look alike at all times and in person at the office.

A strict dress code only promotes and enforces an already problematic and pervasive, impossible dialogue between managers and programmers. It must be banned, it is anachronistic, and quoting some influencers, it is completely unfashionable. As DeMarco and Lister colorfully put it in their classic book “Peopleware”:

Uniformity is so important to insecure authoritarian regimes (parochial schools and armies, for example) that they even impose dress codes. Different lengths of skirt or colors of jacket are threatening, and so they are forbidden. Nothing is allowed to mar the long row of nearly identical troops. Accomplishment matters only to the extent it can be achieved by people who don’t look different.

It is only a matter of time now. Suits will soon be gone, not only in IT teams, but everywhere. Even Goldman Sachs realized that it needed to relax its dress code to attract talent. “Casual Fridays” are no longer enough, and this is just the beginning.

As Karl Lagerfeld once said,

Fashion is a language created in clothes to interpret reality.

Reality in 2023 is vastly different from what it used to be in 1959, 1986, and even 2019. Fashion codes will interpret it accordingly, even through endless collections of geek t-shirts.

Now, if we could also get rid of open spaces, I would be most thankful, too.

Cover photo by Benjamin Rascoe on Unsplash.

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Adrian Kosmaczewski is a published writer, a trainer, and a conference speaker, with more than 25 years of experience in the software industry. He holds a Master's degree in Information Technology from the University of Liverpool.