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The Rise of the Relaxed Dress Code



In the Mad Men days, office dress codes at ad agencies and banks alike were pretty clear. Men in their requisite suit and tie, and women in standard dresses or blouses. Dress codes pretty much since then required some sort of professional suit or look across the board in any profession.  Those were the days when higher ups were easily identifiable as higher ups. Perhaps in a bid toward more democratization, nowadays dress codes have become much more relaxed. For example, Facebook’s head honcho, Mark Zuckerberg, dons a tee shirt and sweatshirt daily.  Even when speaking with the press or making a major announcement (he refers to this as his “uniform”).  For someone like the CEO of a tech company like Facebook, the product is at the forefront and its consumer base is potentially universal.  There’s no need for slickness or polish – in fact, a monkey suit would only distance Mr. Zuckerberg from his audience in this age of increasing self-expression.  Wouldn’t it seem cold, impersonal, very…non-Facebook?

And in that vein is the core of the dress code issue.  More and more, what you wear is, in a way, who you are.  This applies to companies just as much as it does the individual.  It’s all about knowing your company’s identity.  Who are you selling to?  What do you represent?  Are you in charge of a highly-funded top investment house, or are you overseeing the operations of a hip Silicon Valley startup complete with graffiti art and pinball machines?  In the Mad Men days, the suit was king in an age of displays of power and success.  In an age of accessibility and relatability, dress codes are just one of many work staples getting a long-overdue makeover.

But with change comes a new set of challenges.  In an era that is more open about work attire, what seems like a personal choice for one person can seem highly offensive to a fellow co-worker, a client, or the head of Human Resources.

0625_workfromhome_630x420Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University and founder of the Fashion Law Institute, says dress codes have become more blurred these days, raising a brand new set of issues.

There are a number of reasons for this. With more companies offering Casual Fridays, interpretations of business casual have become complicated. It used to be that men wore khaki Docker pants and a button-down dress shirt. Women wore jeans with maybe a blazer. Then wardrobe selections became even more relaxed.   While flip flops and shorts might be acceptable for the staff working at a university in Southern California, for example, is it “professional” anywhere else? “Casual Fridays”, by the way, is not a new concept; Hewlett Packard kicked off the trend in the 1950s.

Another reason for the murkiness as far as which types of outfits work at work:  more and more people have the freedom to telecommute these days and spend at least half of their professional schedule at home. They get used to conducting business in their sweats and slippers. This mind shift brings up the realization that one’s ability to be a professional and get a lot done is not contingent upon the attire. It is theoretically possible to close a million-dollar deal while wearing pajamas!  We see this in our industry often as deals can be closed in off-hours or from our exclusively remote recruiters.  It’s not an issue – as long as you’re still closing those deals.

Another reason why dress codes have blurred is that employees now want to bring more self-expression to their jobs.  In the summer of 2016, Starbucks responded to this trend. Starbucks now offers their baristas more opportunities to show off their own unique styles.  While the green aprons will remain, additional shades of clothing are now acceptable as are hats in approved colors. For a dash of color, hair dyes in outrageous shades including purple and pink are now fully acceptable.  It’s a safe bet that larger companies who employ a “uniform” look will start adopting this trend in the next few years.

Office dress codes remain a tricky subject. Workers, especially younger ones, insist on being themselves at work—which entails showing off their personal style.  Companies must decide how to handle changing dress codes, riding the line between how to balance business and professionalism while at the same time keeping their employees happy.  It’s part of your company’s identity, after all.  So if you’re looking to ditch the tie, maybe you should look at your industry, your employer, and your clientele to get a bigger picture.  And leave the flip-flops at home.

Alan Cutter

Alan Cutter founded New York City's premier digital recruiting agency, AC Lion International, and continues to lead the growing company as their fearless CEO. For over 20 years, AC Lion has been the trusted provider of revenue generating talent in the digital and technology landscape. Our reach spans from innovative venture-backed startups to enterprise level organizations. AC Lion is a proud member of the Lionseye Group, a collective of brands furthering talent acquisition through Venture Capital, HR Technology and Thought Leadership.