Are corporate office dress codes changing?

June 9, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a lot of people to pine for the social comforts of their office. But one thing most people haven’t missed, is the corporate office dress code – and the time spent in the morning getting all dressed up and ready to go.

Getting a little too comfortable

If lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that it is fully possible to do an entire day’s work wearing nothing more than a smart shirt and some underpants.

For those of us who are used to working from home, this was nothing new. But for many, the ability to suddenly wear (almost) anything to work was a true novelty. And while most of us have been pining for the social comforts of office life, many of us have also forgotten just how long the morning routine used to take.

August 2020: Jane Harman of The University of Warwick shows off her office dress code during lockdown – shorts and a giant slipper!

Many people expect that attitudes to the office dress code will shift as we return to some form of normality. But should we be encouraging this change, or attempting to remind our employees of what it means to be professional?

Office dress codes through the years

The office dress codes we probably remember from early 2020, are still significantly different to the office dress codes of the 1950’s. In fact, in 2018, Point Park University did a great job of highlighting some of the main shifts during the last few decades.

  • 1950’s: This was the decade of the dying fedora… men tended to wear grey flannel suits over white shirts with stripy ties. Women wore slim-fitting tweed suits and below-the-knee skirts.
  • 1960’s: Icons like Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles influenced the 60’s. Bright coloured shirts with wacky patterns and slim ties became the norm for men. Women, on the other hand, tended to wear a dress with a fairly simple blouse in monochromatic pastel.
  • 1970’s: Wide lapel suits and kipper ties became the standard office dress code for men, while the style for women change dramatically with the popularity of the women’s liberation movement. The newly popular pantsuit was often worn with tie-neck blouses and fitted blazers – which, as with the men’s style, tended to have wide lapels.
  • 1980’s: This decade brought with it the “power suit”. Both men and women wore suits with shoulder pads, while men often accompanied theirs with a tie and suspenders, with women tying silk bows at their neck.
  • 1990’s: Jeans became acceptable in some offices, especially for women. For men, suits were often deliberately too big. Shirts and ties were still a big thing, but the 90’s also saw a rise in popularity for “casual Fridays” – perhaps the biggest shift in casual wear becoming acceptable in some workplaces.
  • 2000’s: The baggy suits were replaced with slim-fitting alternatives, and many women ditched the suits in exchange for casual blouses, short-sleeved dresses and cardigans.

This brings us back to the modern day – or, at least, the pre-covid modern day! In 2018, Point Park reported that 60% of people reported their office dress code as “business casual”, with 12% still reporting a fully formal corporate office dress code.

But looking back at that timeline, either we are lacking in creativity, or we are just scared of change. Because to me, it seems that corporate office dress code has remained a constant variation on the humble shirt and tie, along with the blouse and skirt/pants, for the last 70 years.

Is there any point in a formal office dress code?

Something I have often asked myself, is if there is actually any point in a formal office dress code. Before lockdown, I wrote an article on this, which in summary, made the following points:

  • Some jobs require uniform, usually for good reason
  • Most employers understandably want employees to look presentable for clients
  • However, some workplaces seem to insist on a formal dress code for no reason – even if employees never meet customers
  • If you’re OK with “dress down Friday”, why insist on “formal Monday-Thursday”?
  • Employees who can wear casual clothes tend to be happier
  • Happier employees tend to work harder
  • Being able to express our style helps encourage a more diverse workplace

So in a nutshell, I don’t believe there is much point in a formal office dress code in most circumstances. If the job requires a particular uniform, fine. But why force employees to sit in stiff uncomfortable suits when they’re simply at a desk all day?

How lockdown may have changed our attitudes forever

In the same way that COVID-19 forced us to come to terms with remote working technology – and probably sent us hurtling 20 years ahead of our natural trajectory – I believe that lockdown may have also changed our attitudes to the office dress code. And according to an article published in The Guardian, there is already evidence to support this.

It seems that only 10% of people actually get dressed into “work clothes” at the start of the day. Many just put on whatever is most comfortable. And while some people do admit to slipping a shirt and tie on especially for a Zoom call, most have found that they work just as well – if not better – when they wear clothes they are comfortable in.

Some experts predict that there will be a small shift back towards formal office wear as offices continue to reopen. But most believe that attitudes to the corporate office dress code will have been changed forever.

Which side of the fence will you be sitting on as you return to regular office life? Leave a comment below.

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