Work attire has become more practical and streamlined over time. geargodz via Getty Images

Is the corporate dress code dead?

Iman Jafri Jun 4, 2021
Work attire has become more practical and streamlined over time. geargodz via Getty Images

Workplaces were already changing their office dress codes before the pandemic, with many needing to make space for more diverse, expressive styles. With remote work, white-collar workwear has become more casual, from old sweatshirts to leggings and even pajama pants. Now that people are starting to return to offices, it is likely that even the most corporate buttoned up spaces are going to be at least a little more relaxed, experts say.

New York-based stylist and personal shopper Jessica Cadmus, professionally known as the Wardrobe Whisperer, has seen this dress code shift up close in the corporate world. Around 90% of her clients are in finance, and she herself is an alumna of Goldman Sachs. Dress codes in the finance sector have historically had the most conservative, formal standards, and even those are changing.

Before the pandemic, in 2019, Sachs issued a memo stating, “Given our firm philosophy and the changing nature of workplaces generally in favor of a more casual environment, we believe this is the right time to move to a firmwide flexible dress code.” Cadmus said other firms like Morgan Stanley have issued similar memos, making space for more casual options, like sneakers instead of loafers.

However, both Cadmus and Richard Ford, professor at Stanford Law School and author of “Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History,” believe this trend towards the casual is more complicated than switching out a blazer for a sweatshirt. “There’s been this message that things are headed in a more casual direction, but you have to read between the lines,” Cadmus said.

While explicit dress codes have become more flexible in corporate spaces, making suits and ties optional and even allowing for jeans in the office, according to Cadmus, every workplace has its own implicit standards. Figuring them out is a way for new recruits to prove themselves. “I think there is an inherent expectation that you are well adjusted enough and sense it enough that you look around and can figure it out without people telling you,” she said.

Citing the Midtown Uniform Instagram account, Ford points out that a uniform can be disguised. The page showcases men assumed to be working in finance wearing the nearly identical outfit of slacks, a button-down shirt, and a fleece vest, preferably from Patagonia. “Essentially, this is just a modified form of the business suit, and it’s because they’re still concerned with dressing appropriately,” he said.

One potential pitfall to more comfortable work clothes, Ford said, is the link to an increasing lack of work-life balance. “It’s worth noting that the decision to allow employees to wear casual clothing has corresponded to increasingly demanding business schedules,” he said. If any clothing can be workwear, it stands to reason that you could always be dressed for work, taking away another barrier between work and the rest of life. This has of course been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The trend toward the casual doesn’t affect all demographics the same way. On Zoom calls, Cadmus noted that amongst her clientele, “Most of my guys, to be honest, were doing a mullet wardrobe: business on top, party on the bottom.” In contrast, her female clients showed a wider range of outfit choices varying in level of formality. Many of them exhibited creativity and polish in their Zoom ensembles. Women have consistently faced greater scrutiny than men in how they dress, said Ford, and this carries over to the workplace.

Race also plays a role when it comes to implicit dress code. “I do think that people of color need the symbols of professionalism, including attire, more than white men,” said Ford. 

He gave the example of a Mark Zuckerberg-type wearing a hoodie versus a Black man, even in a corporate space. “For people of color, the relaxed, unassuming, ‘I don’t care how I’m dressed’ ethos doesn’t work the same way.” People of color in the professional sphere have long had to navigate aesthetic minefields, from having the right hair to the right body type such that “rightness” is often coded as proximity to whiteness. Though some workplaces have faced lawsuits for the ways in which their dress codes are discriminatory, there’s still a long way to go when it comes to perceptions of professionalism.

If you’re not sure what to wear as you transition from the living room to the board room, Cadmus recommended having a chat with someone from HR, and if you’re starting a new job, give yourself two weeks to figure out what’s normal and how you fit into that.

Ford said that our ideas of what to wear and where to work have continued to change during the pandemic, and we will most likely see that reflected in workplace standards. “Whatever you’re going to be wearing at home will seem more normal at work,” said Ford.

But Cadmus also noted that picking up a wrinkled tee-shirt off the floor and calling it a day will still receive censure, subtle or otherwise. 

“The careful consideration of your aesthetic and how you’re presenting yourself to the world is still important,” said Cadmus. “It’s not dead with COVID.”

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