DEBENHAMS has seen a 50 per cent rise in sales of white shirts as employees smarten up in the office and interview candidates stick to safe and formal clothing.
While casual and quirky clothing goes down well in boom times, the current recession has persuaded many people to return to traditional office wear.
When the economy is doing well, wearing casual or quirky clothes to an interview can suggest a free-thinking, risk-taker.
But image consultants say that when risk-taking has a bad name and jobs are scarce, it is better to turn up in a plain, dark suit and white shirt if you are a man and a sober skirt, jacket and blouse if you are a woman.
Sandy Ruddock, founder of image consultants Public-i, said: "What people don't want now is to be different, they want what they know."
Bryan Morel, spokesman for Debenhams, said: "These days people don't want to look too flamboyant. The white classic shirt has flown off the shelves. Serious times call for serious clothing."
This is partly because the people doing the hiring these days are more likely to be older, more conservative executives who have avoided redundancy themselves because they are more expensive to lay-off.
They are more likely to want to employ what they see as solid, reliable-looking types for the struggle ahead. "There is absolutely a move back to more formal dress for interviews," said Ms Ruddock. "I would err completely on the side of looking conservative and traditional."
Sally Hanley, image consultant at York-based Clearly Confident Image, advises clients to introduce colour into their wardrobe as a dark suit and white shirt can increase the doom and gloom.
"I'm not talking vivid, loud fabrics, but colours have energy and affect how we feel," she said. "Funeral clothes are dark for a reason." She agrees with Ms Ruddock that workers should never wear frivolous or over the top clothing, but advises people to lighten up with a coloured shirt or accessories.
Consultants also believe that in the current environment, people need to be seen to be trying harder. "There is a link between formality and control," said Lucinda Slater, founder of consultancy Best Foot Forward.
"It's about not wanting to leave anything to chance. Dressing more formally is a way of looking like you really care about your job."
Ms Slater's firm has seen increased demand for advice and guidance on how to get staff to look their best.
"Enquiries from professionals for advice for themselves have included phrases like: 'I know I need to sharpen up, look like I belong'," she said.
She cites a recent conference where human resources managers were all in suits and ties when last year they were dressed more casually. "HR people, being in the front line of the jobs market, know when it's time to smarten up," she said.
A backlash against bankers for wrecking the global financial system and precipitating a deep recession has also had a noticeable impact on dress codes in financial districts.
Flamboyant dress in the financial or business world is seen as being poor taste.
"People want to blend in a bit more now," said Gabriel John, retail manager at the City branch of high-class British shirtmakers Turnbull & Asser.
The shirtmaker, founded in 1883, counts the Prince of Wales as well as Hollywood stars such as Sean Penn and Michael Caine among its clientele.
Mr John said the company is selling more classic white or simple striped shirts at the moment, instead of shirts and ties in bold colours, often popular with City bankers and traders.
"There is much more conformity," said Mr John. "The 'dandys' in the City are in hiding at the moment."
In terms of role models for hard times, the new occupants of the White House Barack and Michelle Obama are having a big impact on dress codes.
"He and his wife dress very traditionally," said Ms Ruddock.
"They are bringing back an element of that old-fashioned Sunday best." She said that was in tune with the current climate.
"You are going back to old values. Old values were – if you
didn't have money you didn't spend it."
THE BE-SMARTER CHECKLIST
What to wear to an interview
Charcoal grey or navy suit.
Formal style, but not old-fashioned – three buttons with a high-break (where the lapels cross over)
Pale shirt, white, off-white or very pale blue or pale pink.
A silk tie with polka dots or small geometric pattern.
Black lace-up shoes
A matching skirt suit or dress and jacket, not trousers – they are regarded as less formal.
Shirt with button-down collar – a collar carries more authority than no collar.
Plain navy or black court shoes with heels.
Skin colour tights
A woman also needs to be careful about not showing too much flesh – thigh, upper arm and cleavage.
Make-up (as important for a woman as shaving is for a man), but avoid bright pink glossy nails and garish lipstick.
Sources: Public i and Best Foot Forward