One of the more popular Polish proverbs is: Nie szata zdobi człowieka. English has two equivalents that render more or less the same message: Beauty is only skin deep and Don’t judge a book by its cover. I think the latter better suits the topic I want to bring up. Indeed we shouldn’t judge other people by the clothes they wear, but on the other hand a person’s outfit can speak volumes about them.
To my eye, the role of proper attire is to communicate to the world that you really care and to show respect to people you meet. A proper outfit is not enough though. Last week a new colleague joined a sales team in my department. When he came to my room to be introduced he was impeccably dressed, but as we shook hands he kept the other hand in a pocket and chewed gum. I don’t know whether I was the only one in the room who noticed this gaffe, or if my other colleagues also decided to turn a blind eye to his misbehaviour as I did. Here’s the rub — there are many DOs in savoir-vivre, but to avoid such embarrassing situations it’s sometimes more advisable to focus on the DON’Ts.
The topic of dress code has been widely discussed in recent weeks as Poland was plagued by a heat wave and many office workers had to resist the temptation to break the dress code rules they normally strictly abide by. High temperatures put us to the test, and not everyone passes. The hotter it is, the more likely Poles are to slip up when choosing what to wear.
I decided to write about men’s fashion only. After the heat wave and all the sensations it involved I now have no reservations about women’s outfits, although actually it’s better to cover more of your body if you want to appear in public. As a witty observer I’ve drawn up a short list of the crimes against dress that men in Poland tend to commit.
1. Wearing sandals with socks is, according to the Polish statistics office, the number one sin committed by Polish men. It is slowly sinking into oblivion, because younger Poles have already realised this combination is horrific and they simply don’t wear them together, so as not to lay themselves open to ridicule.
2. An even more disastrous shriek of inelegance is choosing to wear sandals, socks and a suit. Your chances of seeing this are near zero because Samoobrona has been out of the Polish parliament for three years and is unlikely to come back, but a bad taste remains.
3. A short-sleeve shirt, a tie and a suit — a profanity seen quite frequently in Warsaw in mid-July 2010. To put it simply: if it’s too hot to wear a long-sleeve shirt, it’s also too hot to wear a tie and a jacket. Go to the Polish countryside and you’ll see an enhanced version of this slip-up. Rural lads wear short-sleeved shirts with waistcoats, plus, by dint of their attachment to tradition, they have ironed creases in their sleeves. Below: Polish gentlemen, (in)famous for their elegance in every corner of Europe. Watch out for the paunches and indispensable spare tyres.
4. Even if a Pole wears a suit and a long-sleeve shirt there are still many traps he may fall into. A jacket usually has two or three buttons, but just because someone has sewn them into the jacket doesn’t mean you have to do them all up. This is young Poles’ sin. They won’t put on socks and sandals but they still have problems handling the buttons of their jackets. The general rule is that you don’t fasten the bottom button, no matter how many buttons a jacket has. Please don’t try to stretch this rule to the top button as our model did.
5. Even if the footwear is matched properly, only the right buttons are done up and your attire is beyond reproach there’s still some room for making gaffes when you have to choose what to carry your stuff around in. I wouldn’t advise you to use a shopping bag, which is fortunately infrequently seen, but it’s not a great challenge to find a Pole wearing a suit with a rucksack on his back. I have nothing against rucksacks and, if you dress casually, they can prove capacious and convenient, but if your dress code is ‘business casual’ or higher, please leave the rucksack in your closet and invest in a briefcase.
6. Move a level higher from ‘business casual’ and you encounter ‘business informal’. No matter how not formal it sounds, this code involves wearing a tie (so forget about short-sleeved shirts!). The tie is a symbol of elegance, but many men feel sick at the mere thought of knotting it. Length matters – the biggest plague I have noticed are ties that are too short, their ends not even reaching the belt. Another affliction all the rage these days in Warsaw are narrow ties, so called śledź (literally: herring) ones – they make a nice element of party-time dressing, but don’t seem suitable (at least to me) for official meetings…
7. Show me your shoes and I’ll tell you who you are. Footwear reflects upon a man and, regrettably, the sight of dirty (usually soiled with mud) or totally worn-out shoes worn together with classy clothes is not uncommon in Poland. There is also another remarkable issue about elegant shoes. No matter whether the temperature is -15C or +30C a Pole will wear the same pair of elegant shoes. I am one of a small number of weirdos who have three pairs of elegant shoes – insulated winter ones, normal ones (for warm winter, cool summer, typical spring and autumn) and ventilated summer ones. If I wore only one pair, my feet would get cold in the winter and sweat in summer. I suppose few men have the same problem, or few men admit they suffer from it, because shoemakers rarely distinguish between “winter”, “summer” and “in-between” shoes. Actually it took me a lot of shopping around to find shoes suitable for extremes of weather.
8. Patent leather shoes—once deemed to be a symbol of elegance and these days a bit of a way of showing off your alleged importance. Acceptable, as long as worn with a good quality, dark suit; unacceptable if combined with worn-out denim trousers.
For sure this short list could be supplemented with several other examples of blatant dress code violations. At this point I’ll finish the hapless litany and leave the floor (or keyboard) to the witty and observant readers of Polandian.
Rather than summing up what I’ve written, I’ll illustrate it with a picture – a model example of how (not) to dress. Feel free to copy it and paste it anywhere on the Internet, don’t hesitate to print it out and put it up in a public place. If it helps one person to avoid a slip-up, it will have been worth the effort.