I work at a startup. Take one look around my office and you’ll notice everyone dresses pretty comfortably: jeans, t-shirts, jerseys during football season, shorts when summer hits. When a co-worker walks by in a dressier outfit—and it certainly doesn’t go unnoticed when they do—we all assume they had an important client meeting or went to a networking event.
I also have friends who dress very differently for work. Some wear full suits, tie included. Others can’t cross the “business casual” line—meaning dark jeans and a sweater are OK, light jeans with a t-shirt are not. And I even have friends who dress differently depending on if their boss is in the office or not.
So recently, I started wondering: What’s the deal with work clothes? Where did “business casual” come from? And on the flip side, what makes certain companies stick to formal dress codes?
I decided to investigate.
Shall We Begin With a Brief History on Business Casual?
In an effort to sell more clothing in the ’60s, the Hawaiian fashion industry distributed shirts to the government in the hopes that they’d wear them during the summer months in support of local businesses. The concept became so popular that organizations lobbied for “Aloha Fridays.” Eventually, other states picked up the idea (sans the necessity of owning a Hawaiian shirt), turning “Aloha Fridays” into “Casual Fridays” across the country.
However, this transition wasn’t as seamless as you’d assumed it would be. As cited in Marketplace.org’s podcast “The Marketplace Morning Report”:
‘We found when guys shed their coats and ties they really didn’t know what to wear,’ says Rick Miller, who was doing public relations for the Levi’s brand ‘Dockers’ back then. ‘People were showing up in Hawaiian print shirts or sandals and shorts. Frankly, there were concerns on the part of management that work might become too much fun.’
So, in the early ’90s, Levi’s created a campaign around what “business casual” could be, inspired by Docker’s golf-style khaki pant (of course, so they could sell more clothing). They published a brochure titled “A Guide to Casual Businesswear,” outlining how employees could outfit themselves to look appropriate for work.
In an article on this history of business casual in The Atlantic, author Deirdre Clemente states that many companies simply put dress codes into the hands of employees and managers, and it was ultimately up to them to decide whether they were worth enforcing:
Little by little, often-ignored infractions eroded the sanctity of any top-down policy: hose-free legs when the weather permitted, a tweed blazer for a day with no client meetings, loafers instead of dress shoes. Cultural change occurs most quickly when it is led by the people, for the people.
If This Is True, Then Why Do Dress Codes Still Exist?
Of course, despite the shift in culture away from formal business attire, companies today still choose to enforce their own rules around dressing for work.
While I found the reasons around why this is tend to vary, none of them shock me.
Your Clothes Reflect the Company or Founder’s Values
I spoke with Bruce Wilmsen, Vice President of Media and Community Relations at The Daniel’s Fund—a private charitable foundation dedicated to making life better for people through grants programs, scholarship programs, and ethics initiatives—about his company’s dress code and how it came to be.
For background, The Daniel’s Fund’s policy consists of men wearing dress pants with a collared shirt and tie, and women wearing skirts or pants with a blouse or sweater. This specific style is ultimately a reflection of its founder:
It was important to Bill Daniels for associates in his companies to project a professional image. For Bill, etiquette, punctuality, keeping buildings and workspaces clean and orderly, and dressing professionally all went hand-in-hand. We feel our dress code helps demonstrate a respect for those you are working with, both inside and outside the organization.
Your Work Involves Meeting Clients
When you work with clients (or customers, or the media), you’re representing your company—and whatever image it wants to portray.
“If you, say, work with a company that’s very traditional, if you show up in ripped jeans and flip flops you’re not going to be seen as a credible professional to deal with,” says Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick, etiquette expert and founder and president of The Etiquette School of New York.
While in an ideal world you’d be judged solely by your skills, expertise, and personality, at the end of the day first impressions matter—and your clothes are a huge part of that (but more on that later).
Your Clothes Can Help to Put Everyone on the Same Playing Field
As one Taledo article notes, your clothing can create equality and between you and co-workers. In theory, if everyone’s wearing similar clothing, it makes it easier for managers to focus on people’s skills and ideas, rather than what they’re wearing.
You Need the Guidance (No, Really)
“Companies set these codes to make it clear to everyone that this is what they expect of their employees. And I think it makes employees feel more confident when they know this is the dress code,” says Napier-Fitzpatrick.
When you have people from different backgrounds working together, you’re going to have varying opinions on what is and isn’t appropriate. So, companies outline these rules so employees can spend less time worrying about what other people are wearing and more time actually, well, working.
The Reality of What “Dressing for Work” Means
As dress codes slacken, things do become more ambiguous—which is why the age-old advice always seems sound: If you’re unsure whether it’s appropriate, it’s probably not. When in doubt, always dress up rather than down.
Because dressing up still does carry some weight today—even as business casual becomes second nature. Says Napier-Fitzpatrick:
If you look the part you’re more easily able to act the part. You’ll have more confidence, you’ll gain respect from co-workers, and you’ll make a better impression on clients. We’re in a very fast-paced world. We look someone over very quickly, and even though we’re told not to make judgements of people we are making assumptions about them.
What’s clear from all this is that what you wear to work is mattering less and less in many industries. It’s possible to close a deal or land a job or get promoted without owning a suit. We can, in many cases, choose to be comfortable, wear clothes that reflect who we are, style our hair and nails and jewelry as we please, and show off our tattoos or piercings.
Sure, there are exceptions to this rule (especially when it comes to what’s expected of women in the workplace), but the growing shift from putting importance on how you appear to how you deliver at work is certainly reassuring.
Photo of people at startup courtesy of Maskot/Getty Images.
Previously an editor for The Muse, Alyse is proud to prove that yes, English majors can change the world. She’s written almost 500 articles for The Muse on anything from productivity tips to cover letters to bad bosses to cool career changers, many of which have been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, Inc., CNBC's Make It, USA Today College, Lifehacker, Mashable, and more. She calls many places home, including Illinois where she grew up and the small town of Hamilton where she attended Colgate University, but she was born to be a New Yorker. In addition to being an avid writer and reader, Alyse loves to dance, both professionally and while waiting for the subway.More from this Author