Most workplaces have at least some kind of dress code, and for many of those who greet customers and perform service jobs, a specific uniform is required. Even in the most ambiguous situations, context clues abound on the bodies of colleagues: If no one ever wears jeans, you probably shouldn’t either
Much of that confusion is the result of rapid change. Millennials, notorious murderers of American institutions and social norms, are now the largest generation in the country’s workforce. As the oldest members of that group, people in their late 30s, accrue power in their organizations, they’ve started to reshape the meaning of “work clothes” in their image—upending the very idea of a dress code as a single standard to which all should aspire. When they’re done, work clothes might be dead for good. Whether that future looks like a descent into midriff-baring anarchy or a sweet reprieve from the tyranny of binding waistbands probably depends on whether you’re a person who makes rules or one who is subject to them.
In the American imagination, the standard for professional workwear has long been a suit or a conservatively tailored dress, even for workers who don’t go into an office. That’s largely held true despite the successful invasion of “business casual,” jump-started by Dockers as a marketing gambit in 1992. That many of the world’s most profitable companies—Google, Facebook, and Apple among them—allow employees to come to work in jeans and sweatshirts all week has yet to meaningfully destabilize that perception. With that in mind, at the beginning of every new term, Regan Gurung shows up to teach his psychology students at Oregon State University in a full suit and tie.
It’s no secret that there’s a rising premium on “being yourself, being an individual, bringing your full self to work, broader expression of who you are
Gurung is also taking a cue from his own work. According to two studies he conducted, women, at least, are rated by others as more competent when they wear formal attire. And we actually act as though dress influences our abilities: Subjects clad in white lab coats performed better on tests than those without them. The gap between our internalized notions about professionalism and what a company’s dress code says is why going to work in shorts still causes anxiety that pushes some people onto Reddit and Facebook with their skittish inquiries about what to wear.
In a twist in the we-are-what-we-wear story, researchers at Harvard identified what they called the red-sneakers effect. It posits that as long as the person ignoring workplace guidelines is perceived to be doing it purposefully, evaluations of that person improve—think Mark Zuckerberg and his “fuck you” hoodies in early Facebook business meetings. After all, there’s no greater power than being exempt from the rules that govern everyone else.
It’s no secret that there’s a rising premium on “being yourself, being an individual, bringing your full self to work, broader expression of who you are,” says Scott Cawood, the CEO of WorldatWork, a global association for human-resources professionals. “You traditionally had men in the C-suite, and they had certain conceptions of how men and women should look. That’s why there was so much concern about can you wear skirts, can you wear pants,” Cawood says. Some of those rules are still enforced in workplaces that prize formality—fine-dining establishments, white-shoe law firms… Doing away with these standards is a question not just of gender, but of class: The more comprehensive the expectations for presentation, the more resources required to meet them, and buying a closetful of workwear is a lot more expensive than just using what you already own.
Even the mass entertainments that have made the suit-and-tie look such an enduring shorthand for professionalism are beginning to fade, no doubt because the same young Americans who now constitute the majority of the broader labour pool have real influence in shaping what ends up on your screens. TV series such as Silicon Valley and Superstore depict occupational aesthetics as something closer to what they’ve been for millions of Americans for the past decade: people wearing the same clothes to their job that they’d wear to the movies or to lunch with a friend, sometimes complemented by a company-issued jacket or an ID-carrying lanyard.
Gurung, Cawood, and Hall all agree that the mandate for greater fairness in the workplace—spurred by nondiscrimination laws and the need to retain workers in a tight labor market—will likely spell the end of the dress code as we know it, sooner rather than later. The entire dress code is two words: Dress appropriately.
Ultimately, what such simple dictates acknowledge is that workers are adults, not babies at productivity daycare. “People just generally know how to self-govern, and I don’t think you need these archaic rules to punish that outlier that may or may not occur,” Hall said. “Just cover the things you want covering and call it a day.”