Image credit: Zofia Chylak (R)
The thought of showing up to work in anything other than a suit used to be unthinkable. Not so much today, where companies are increasingly giving employees more flexibility in the way they dress. If you want proof, look no further than Silicon Valley, where start-up employees have traded their business formal attire for jeans and hoodies. Tech world leaders such as Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs have become uncanny poster boys for this movement, lending their weight to the argument that less time spent fixing one’s shirt cuffs and straightening one’s tie, only means more time spent focusing on more important things.
We question the relevance of office dress codes in a time when some of the most successful moguls live in t-shirts and jeans and the idea of corporate uniforms are becoming more and more passé.
The New Normal
It started with the widespread institutionalisation of Casual Friday in the 1990s as a way to raise employee morale but that quickly snowballed into a pervasive cultural phenomenon that is still practiced today.
“The idea of formal and traditional office attire is less relevant today,” says Sven Tan, co-founder of Singapore fashion label In Good Company.
He notes a shift towards a more individualistic style and a daring embrace of colour and unconventional silhouettes. “There is, perhaps, even a move towards more smart-casual uniforms than the traditional suit as a symbol of corporate professionalism,” says Tan.
Notions of work-appropriate dressing have also evolved with the times, helped in part by hot-button conversations around gender equality.
Just a few weeks ago, news broke that receptionist Nicola Thorp had been sent home from her job at PricewaterHouse Coopers for refusing to wear heels. She made her appeal public, starting a petition for a parliamentary hearing to make it illegal for companies to impose dress codes that require women to wear high heels at work. British media swept up her story, fuelling debate over whether employers should be allowed to dictate that women wear heels. Under such public scrutiny, Thorps’ agency backed out on its heels policy, declaring flats acceptable.
“Workwear has evolved as women have gained more independence and confidence in the workplace,” says Shireena Manchharam, Managing Director and Founder of Sheens Image Consulting.
She believes women now have more choices when it comes to workwear. “While women were traditionally encouraged to wear black pantsuits and skirt suits, they now have the freedom to be more bold and creative in terms of dress,” says Manchharam, who is also the Founder of accessory label, House of Sheens.
“These changes came about as women ascended the corporate ladder. The ability to dress as a “woman” and not suit up to mirror a “man” is very empowering for females. It gives us a choice to dress femininely and yet be respected in the workplace,” she adds.
In Good Company
We live in a world where careers take precedence over all other aspects of our lives. The numbers tell the same story. The average worker clocks in 40 hours per week — that’s 35% of any given waking week. We spend more time with colleagues than with friends or even family. Under such conditions, work and what one does for a living is increasingly tied up with one’s perception of self. Workers and millennials in particular, identify strongly with their work and desire to work for a company that they see as reflecting their values. Ideally, their workplace of choice should give them the freedom to express themselves.
For some, getting dressed for work could simply mean getting out of one’s pyjamas. Technology has made it easier for independent workers to land jobs, signalled by the growing numbers who either telecommute or freelance from home, cafes and co-working spaces. As the boundaries between work and home become increasingly fluid, we start to see dress codes evolve in accordance with our changing lifestyles.
“There will be more people making a shift towards freelancing and flexible work-from-home culture, so work uniforms might get even more casual,” says Tan.
As we increasingly take on multiple roles in today’s society, no doubt, the 21st century work wardrobe will demand better comfort and versatility in order to accommodate this new workflow. As a result, people are trending towards pieces that suit all occasions, and gravitating towards multi-tasking separates that can take them from boardroom meetings to post-work parties with ease.
The end of the office dress code?
Although corporate uniforms are slowly being phased out in favour of more individualised interpretations of office attire, certain segments of work society choose to remain isolated from the wave of casual dress. For the most part, employees working in legal, banking and government are still required to adhere to strict dress codes.
“Office dress codes are still exceedingly important” [in maintaining a professional image], says Manchharam. In her view, companies must still uphold certain standards of dressing to maintain consistency among employees and for a strong brand message.
The presence of a dress code is particularly essential when it comes to client-facing roles. “Often times, the ability to make a sale rests on first impressions of the employee representing the business,” says Manchharam.
As a show of formality, professionals who are frequently interacting with clients should dress to match the expectations of that client. Dress codes should also reflect the nature of your work and the environment you are in. While we are definitely moving into an era where personal expression is allowed more airtime, unspoken expectations in terms of office dress still hold weight.