Few of us can forget the powerful – and sometimes terrifying – duo of Trinny and Susannah. They took over primetime TV in the 1990s with the mission of making Britain a better-dressed nation.
In the inexplicably watchable series What not to wear, the style gurus berated sorry garments that “did nothing for you, darling”. In their world, clothes were far more than a practicality – they were an expression of your personality that affected how others saw you.
It’s a truth that healthcare professionals have known for years. For pharmacists and doctors alike, the traditional white coat has come to mean much more a simple garment – it is a badge of honour. Wearing it commands a certain amount of respect from the public.
Today, this ubiquitous symbol of clinical status has largely gone out of fashion. But the importance of conveying a professional image remains. With much more personal choice available, deciding on appropriate workwear is more difficult than ever – and it’s an issue that divides opinion in the sector.
Suited and booted
For some, projecting professionalism means being as smart as possible. Andrew McCoig, secretary for Croydon, Merton, Sutton and Wandsworth LPC, always wears a jacket, tie and smart shoes to work. As a supporter of a formal dress code, he is concerned about declining standards within the profession and the “enormous variation” in what pharmacists and their staff wear. “In independent pharmacies, I’ve seen someone wearing a jogging suit and another person wearing trainers. Some wear jumpers, others wear jeans,” he laments. Controversially, he deems the worst offenders “those who wear cheap shoes”.
It may sound trivial, but Mr McCoig strongly believes pharmacists should dress in a “sharp and snappy” style to give the public confidence in their abilities. He is keen to emphasise the importance of first impressions. “Most people who walk into a pharmacy expect to find a professional, clean environment, which is mirrored by our appearance in pharmacy.
Some say it doesn’t matter how you look, as long as you give professional advice, but if you look smart as well, it’s a winning approach,” he argues.
Yvonne Tuckley, Numark’s learning and development manager, also emphasises the importance of dressing smartly. “There is a mantra, ‘dress for the job you want, not the job you have’,” she says. Ms Tuckley believes this is particularly important early on in your career. “It is a fact that many people associate youth with inexperience and, sadly, lack of knowledge,” she points out. “Avoiding overtly youthful or casual clothing will help counteract any of these negative perceptions.”
Owner, Hodgson Pharmacy, Longfield, Kent
“I prefer to wear more casual clothing at work because I find customers see me as being more approachable and it helps to build a rapport with them”
Keeping it casual
That said, Ms Tuckley warns against being too formal. As patient-facing clinicians, pharmacists need to be approachable, she says – and overly smart attire could deter patients from talking to you. “Get it wrong and you could look too intimidating to some customers,” she stresses.
This well turned-out yet approachable look appears to be a goal for many pharmacists. Royal Pharmaceutical Society president Ash Soni wears a shirt and a tie for work, but refrains from wearing a jacket “for comfort and approachability”. “This choice of clothing says ‘I’m professional, but I’m not here to tell you, I’m here to help you’,” he says.
Amish Patel, owner of Hodgson Pharmacy in Longfield, Kent, also subscribes to this school of thought. He believes a suit is “too formal” for the pharmacy. “When I first started out in pharmacy in 2008, I was ‘suited and booted’. Now I wear a more casual shirt and tie, or a jumper with no tie,” he says. “I prefer to wear more casual clothing at work because I find customers see me as being more approachable and it helps to build a rapport with them.”
There is a line between casual and sloppy, though – and Mr Patel doesn’t advocate straying into weekend wear. “Leggings and jeans are not smart enough. I know of pharmacists who wear jeans and polo shirts on a Saturday,” he says. “I’m not one to judge, but I do think you can be too casual and that you should look professional.”
Staff at Day Lewis in Ledbury
The shortlisted C+D Pharmacy Team of the Year 2015 opt for white
Staff at Rowlands, Lavender Road, Portsmouth
The runners up in the C+D Pharmacy Team of the Year 2015 in purple
A uniform approach
The problem with this smart-casual ethos is that it can be very subjective – what one person finds acceptable, another person may find scruffy. So should we do away with this uncertainty by simply implementing uniforms across all pharmacies?
For Mr McCoig, the answer is yes. He would like to see a standardised uniform or dress code in pharmacy – and points out this would make it easier for the public to identify different roles within the team. “If you go on a plane, staff are readily identifiable by what they wear – they have rigid dress codes to appear confident and competent at what they do.” Pharmacy should be the same, he believes, “as being recognisable speaks volumes”.
Some pharmacies have implemented this approach with success. In Hodgson Pharmacy, staff wear different uniforms according to their job title. “Our counter staff wear smart dark tunics that look cleaner and smarter than white, are easier to clean and last longer,” says Mr Patel. “Our technicians like to wear white coats because when they step into the dispensary it suggests a more clinical environment.”
And many Numark pharmacies mirror their multiple competitors by implementing uniforms across their teams, Ms Tuckley tells C+D. “This helps convey an appropriate image and the staff themselves are often grateful to have the decision of what to wear taken out of their hands,” she says. Ms Tuckley also believes wearing a uniform “helps put people in the mindset for work” because it creates a division between their personal and professional lives.
But the idea of uniforms comes with its own controversy. Gavin Birchall, director of healthcare design and marketing agency Dose, believes allowing pharmacists some control over what they wear is "probably the right thing” to do. He believes it is important for employees to wear what “they feel comfortable in”. “People will be able to spot very quickly if you are wearing clothes that you have had to force yourself to wear and that will damage trust,” he argues.
“It seems sensible to wear clothes that reflect the position of trust, knowledge and professionalism that most people afford to pharmacists,” Mr Birchall says. “What that is differs for different people, but it’s safe to say that you should wear smart clothes that fit your personality and environment.”
Director, healthcare design and marketing agency Dose
“It seems sensible to wear clothes that reflect the position of trust, knowledge and professionalism that most people afford to pharmacists”
A question of perception
It seems there is no one-size-fits all approach to what pharmacy teams should wear. Dress sense is so personal that it may always be a thorny issue. There is agreement on one thing, though: clothing is not just a superficial consideration.
As the RPS’s Mr Soni says, your choice of clothing is by no means the most important part of being a pharmacist. Whether you’re wearing jeans or a jacket and tie, your function is to be approachable and help patients get the most out of their medicines.
But giving the right impression with your attire can help you fulfil this role. As with everything in pharmacy, customer perception is what counts, Ms Tuckley believes. “In the same way that a disorganised and tatty shop can put customers off, inappropriately dressed staff can do the same,” she warns. “We all know that first impressions count for a lot, and this could be the difference between whether or not a customer approaches you for advice or asks the questions they want to.”
Dose’s Mr Birchall agrees. “Clothing carries powerful messages through the sense of sight and will have an effect on many aspects of the interaction you have,” he stresses.
So next time you’re getting ready for work, it may be worth giving yourself the Trinny and Susannah treatment. While the disparaging put-downs are best avoided, it is worth asking the question: what image does this convey? The answer could provide valuable insight into how customers see you.