August 10, 2016

What did you wear to work today? Slacks and a sports jacket? Dark jeans and a nice sweater? A hoodie, perhaps? Regardless of what you picked out of the closet this morning, it’s probably more casual than your parents’ work wear, and worlds different from your grandparents’ office attire. Disappearing are the days of mandatory pantyhose and skirts, suits and ties. Today you are more likely to see a coworker in Under Armor than Armani.

It’s not only employees who are ushering in this change. Businesses are championing more casual office attire too. Three days before starting my new job this summer, I got a typical welcome email giving me information about how to find the office, what to bring, what to expect from the onboarding process, and then there was the golden line—“We do not have a formal dress code. Jeans and a t-shirt are fine by us!” Score.

Casual is no longer just for Fridays

According to the Society for Human Resources Management, 83 percent of organizations offer some type of causal dress—40 percent of which allow employees to dress down every day. Even the oldest names in the business, known for sharp suits and ties, are loosening the reigns on dress code. This summer, Wall Street’s JPMorgan Chase & Co said, “leave the ties at home,” as they moved from a 'business' dress code to a more relaxed ‘business casual’ standard. Along the same lines, a friend of mine in consulting, who at one time was restricted to black slacks and a blazer, is now allowed to wear clean jeans and a blouse—‘smart casual,’ they call it. Of course dress code is a spectrum, but regardless of the label, organizations across the map seem to be moving in a more casual direction.

Dress code is a spectrum, but regardless of the label, organizations across the map seem to be moving in a more casual direction.

The organizations that resist these changes are receiving scrutiny from employees and society alike. In March, Nicola Thorpe, 27, was sent home from her London office because she was not wearing heels. “I don’t see why what I’m wearing is going to affect my job in any way,” she said, “dress code should reflect society.” And society supported her. Over 150,000 citizens signed a petition to make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work. Such restrictive dress codes seem stuffy and outdated, and in some cases even sexist.

Last year, Millennials surpassed Gen X as the cohort making up the highest percentage of the labor force, thus most recruiting efforts are likely aimed at this group. As many young professionals are drawn to the idea of wearing jeans at work, saying, “we’re casual,” has become a common recruiting tactic. Tech companies also play a hand in this movement. With employees spending long hours sitting behind computers, comfort is key, and stockings and ties aren’t synonymous with comfort. Since technology is embedded within most industries today, other fields have been following suit (pun intended).

Dress to impress (yourself)

When employees are able to express themselves freely, whether that means wearing running shoes or power suits, such freedom can boost morale and productivity. Believe it or not, These cognitive predispositions are explored in a theory called "Enclothed Cognition.” Accordingly, if you are a doctor, you will be more precise and attentive when you are wearing a lab coat than when you are not. Why? Because you symbolically associate a lab coat with being a doctor, and the physical experience of wearing a coat reminds you of this role. Putting on a lab coat takes you from citizen mode to doctor mode. If you are an artist, dressing in a way that makes you feel like an artist may enhance your end product.

When employees are able to express themselves freely, whether that means wearing running shoes or power suits, such freedom can boost morale and productivity.

Clothing can also influence one’s scope of thinking—formal clothing has been shown to enhance abstract, or long-term, thinking, while casual clothing helps individuals focus on short-term goals and the concrete present. That being said, it makes sense for a forward-thinking financial planner to dress more formally than a detail-oriented auditor.

Self-expression is not one size fits all

“I feel like I can actually express my style with the casual attire,” says Kendal, 25, financial analyst, “It’s also so much more comfortable.” Those in favor of the move to casual work attire stress the importance of self-expression in the office. Perhaps you have tattoos or eight piercings—a limiting dress code would force you to cover up so much of what makes you who you are.

But for some people, who they are is the opposite of casual. Instead of thriving in jeans and trendy sneakers, some prefer tailored clothing and have a closet full of suits at home. “Do you have an interview today?” their peers ask. No, they don’t. They just have a sophisticated style. Many years ago, individuals defied the dress code by wearing Hawaiian shirts on Friday. Today we may identify a similar counterculture in the individuals who wear formal attire in their casual workplaces.

I like wearing Levis to the office and you may like wearing a tie, but neither of us are wrong. This is the clothing that makes us feel confident, powerful, smart—which is how we should feel at work.

You wear you

In a perfect world, we would be able to wear whatever we want, wherever we work. While there are companies where anything goes, completely relaxed dress codes are not widespread (yet). However, not all hope is lost when it comes to finding your power outfit. Within each dress code at each organization, there is a range of appropriate attire. Whether you are working on Wall Street in a ‘business’ environment, or in a San Francisco tech company notorious for street attire, keep these points in mind when dressing for work:

  1. Wear clothing that makes you feel your best. The way you dress for work should not hinder your everyday duties. If you’re a receptionist like Nicola Thorpe, walking clients around the office for nine hours a day, heels might not be the best choice. If you are working on computer code or spreadsheets all day, comfortable pants like jeans may be just fine. Crazy, I know. Wear clothing that functions best for your career and ambitions.

  2. Your attire should command the respect you desire. We’ve all heard it—“dress for success.” If you want respect from others, look like it. If you’re leading a team meeting or going into a job interview, dress it up a tad. This shows others that you have intention behind your actions and that you made an effort to look your best. If you look lazy, people are going to think you’re lazy.

  3. Communicate the respect that is deserved. Certain situations and individuals command higher levels of respect than others; the clothing you wear is an essential element of giving this respect. Think through your day. Are you interacting with clients or the press? Perhaps dressing up and looking polished is the best option, as you are a projection of your company and its image. A meeting with your CEO? Also an opportunity to give the jeans a rest—it would not be appropriate to arrive at his or her office wearing sweats. If you’re a writer working remotely from home, nobody is going to judge your yoga pants as long as you are still producing quality work.

If you’re a writer working remotely from home, nobody is going to judge your yoga pants as long as you are still producing quality work.

You may notice “pockets” of different attire within your company, perhaps from floor to floor or department to department. Understandably, people will dress according to their roles, who they interact with, and the necessity of projecting a positive image of themselves.

When you’re getting dressed in the morning, let’s just remember that work, is still, work. Express yourself and wear what will make you most confident, within reason. This is not spring break—no bikinis here, my friends.

Our Millennial view series is not just for Millennials. Everyone can gain insight on these important workplace issues. Topics such as When giving two week's notice is complicated impact us all, regardless of generation.

Sara Lighthall is a content marketing intern at Zendesk and a student of life. When she’s not demystifying the Millennial generation on Relate, you can find her with her toes in the sand and a latte in her hand. See what she’s up to on Twitter: @saralighthall.