On January 5, this year, Kenya Methodist University released a memo addressing the school’s dress code. It gave a raft of tough conditions for students.
This elicited heated debate on Twitter with a prominent legislator tweeting: “This should be enforced by all universities and learning institutions. We are training leaders in various fields, not prostitutes!”
Among the inappropriate dresses or appearances the school could not tolerate, the memo read, were dreadlocks, plaited hair, earrings, untucked shirts, vests that showed bare chests and hats or caps in classrooms and offices for men.
For women, tumbo-cuts, bare backs, miniskirts, a skirt whose slits went above the knee line, dresses or blouses with neckline running down more than 4 inches, body-tight trousers and see-through clothes were prohibited.
The legislator further wrote: “Imagine your doctor, lawyer, engineer in dreadlocks.”
Professionals flocked his timeline with photos of them wearing dreadlocks, wondering what their hairstyle had to do with their performance.
Fast forward to April and a medical student in Bungoma narrated how an older patient was hesitant to subscribe to his services because of his hairstyle, a Mohawk. It took the convincing of the client’s daughter, said the doctor, for the old man to accept that he was in safe hands.
Another debate ensued.
What has grooming to do with your professionalism? Human Resource Manager Faith Kosilbet says older people are either impressed or discouraged by professionals’ presentations, especially in dressing.
“Dress code and presentation are critical to the older generation. The first impression matters; if they perceive that serious people only dress formally and then see you dressed otherwise, they deem you unserious hence not qualified or competent,” she says.
When the uproar on Twitter following the legislator’s claim that dreadlocks were unprofessional spiralled out of hand, he clarified that the issue was gender sensitive.
“Ladies are cool in locks. Not men. Dreads take away male oomph and make men look effeminate!”
The attacks continued, with a commenter calling the claim “lowkey homophobic” and others reminding him how Mau Mau fighters, the manliest of them all, wore long, sweeping locks.
When the doctor whose elderly client showed hesitance towards accepting the young man’s medical services tweeted his experience, one of the people commenting wrote: “I would most likely look for another doctor not because you are not qualified but because I am socialised to see doctors without studs and not looking like DJs.”
Is this some kind of bizarre indoctrination or should professionals, especially those in white-collar jobs, groom in a specific way and should we be hesitant to accept them if they choose to dress otherwise?
“The society judges us on our dressing,” says Faith Nafula, a counselling psychologist. Older people do not tinker much with their dressing and are keen to dress formally for their white-collar jobs and not so much adopt the modern style of hair trimming, or other accessories, she says.
They also trust their age mates, believing they are better versed in their careers due to many years of practice.
“People believe more in older professionals because they believe in expertise. The longer you have been in the industry, the more experienced they think you are,” she says.
The older folk, keen to appear as professional as possible, are sensitive to details that may make them look otherwise to their clients. “How we dress, apparently, matters a lot in some professions. For example, for me as a psychologist, I need not to distract my clients with my dress code. I need to dress the part. Some dress codes send wrong signals to the clients which should not be the case,” Ms Nafula says.
Employers, also aware of the behavioural and belief differences between the old and the young, could go for staff that conforms to the beliefs of a majority of their clients.
“The old generation would prefer older Gen Y and baby boomers than Gen Z and Millennials. Most young people like immediate gratification, and don’t stick to employment,” she says.
“They get bored easily and they don’t like things that tie them down; one will prefer to be paid a salary inclusive of pension and medical, which lets them then plan after being paid. This is unlike the older generation, as they negotiate on their package because they want a secured future.”
A Gen Z workplace, however, is led by a younger generation which equally needs younger employees who are flexible and tech-savvy.
For these ones, the dress codes might not be very strict and their clientele might probably not mind it or could be groomed the same way because they are probably of the same age. “Human resource managers should have a good balance of their employees, to bring in agility and tech as well as experience,” she says, faulting those who only go for the older, more seasoned workers.
Ms Nafula feels that with time, there has been an erosion of the seriousness that some careers were associated with as most of the young practitioners are only there for the monetary benefits.
“Of late people are taking professions not because of passion but because of the remuneration. So the young generation is imposed by parents to do some courses, which are not their calling and this you may find they don’t do well. Most young doctors in satellite clinics use Google to diagnose and administer medication,” she says.
While traditional dressing associated with some careers, such as pilots’ regalia, may never change, there is a great likelihood the world will learn to adapt to the changing appearance of young professionals which may be harmless but unconventional.
And maybe at such a time dreadlocks, mohawks or even studs like one worn by former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga will gain more acceptance.