I have fond memories of teaching young people in a business institute on the dress code they need to adopt when attending their first job interview.

While dressing up for a special occasion is an experience most adults handle with little stress, teenagers, on the eve of being interviewed for their first real job, find dressing up in formal wear an awkward experience. A mock interview dress rehearsal was part of the curriculum that many youngsters dreaded.

Historically, office dress codes once played a pivotal role in the work environment, particularly for women. Men usually dictated what women should wear in the office.

Dark suits, skirts, dress shirts, silk ties, cufflinks, pocket squares, dress shoes or closed-toe shoes were standard wear for formal and less formal business meetings. They still are in some ultra-conservative office environments like legal practices and financial institutions.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the unspoken rules became actual office policy, despite the political and social upheaval that had young people questioning social norms and institutions. Most employers had formal dress code policies. Even in informal business meetings, wearing T-shirts with controversial or political messages was a sure way of being sacked. Of course, such rebellious behaviour is still totally unacceptable in most modern business environments.

Today, both employers and employees are pushing back standards. People are fighting for offices to be more flexible, from gender equality issues and pay inequality to the 9-to-5 workday.

Working from home has given a boost to the business dress evolution. Katherine Watts, vice president of Women’s at Stitch Fix, a personal styling service, argues: “Dress codes are becoming an antiquated way of the past, similar to the increasing irrelevance of the standard 40-hour workweek. As the workforce engages in more flexibility, so, too, should employers and how they think about dress codes.”

Some famously formal businesses like Wall Street banks are relaxing their dress codes. This change in mindset started years before the onset of COVID when more people were asked to work from home. In 2016, JP Morgan Chase made the shift to business casual, but with caveats that employees “should dress formally for client meetings”.

Dress codes are becoming an antiquated way of the past, similar to the increasing irrelevance of the standard 40-hour workweek

In 2019, Goldman Sachs fell in line with these changing dress standards. In an internal memo, they stated that the time was right “to move to firmwide flexible dress code” while urging their 36,000 employees to “exercise good judgement in this regard”. This memo left a lot of room for interpretation, but it signalled a way out of the suits and traditional business dress paraphernalia into business casual.

Those who attend business meetings abroad must surely admit that on various business trips, they try to find a few hours to visit a department store to buy a silk tie in the latest fashionable colour or a designer shirt that often costs almost as much as a readymade suit.

Alexander Fury, a Financial Times columnist, argues that the traditional button-down shirt is becoming an endangered species, just like the silk tie. This may be a premature prediction as the coded power play of masculine tailoring is hard to obliterate.

As more people return to their office after the worst phase of the pandemic, Watts argues that our shopping habits are now being influenced by an “excitement for newness and dressing up again while maintaining comfortability. We expect to see workwear styles that are traditionally more form-fitting, like blazers and denim, to have more stretch post-pandemic, and even a looser fit”.

As expected, there will be some who will stick to the old-fashioned dress codes. They silently cling to what they perceive as good business dress codes. Some men will never give up wearing cufflinks and tie pins, while some women will keep wearing their grey tailored business suits.

The rebels will be wearing the designer suit this time around, while younger people don the establishment dress code, including jeans, collarless shirts, casual button-downs, T-shirts, casual tops and skirts.

Relaxed dress codes do not mean that there are no longer any rules on how to dress for business. Still, some trends define what is acceptable in different companies.

Technology companies, for instance, tend to be less formal in dress, while financial and legal organisations tend to be more formal.

An employee’s senior role in a company does not necessarily mean dressing more formally just because you hold more responsibility. Younger employees should be more concerned about making a good impression by dressing a little more formally than their established peers.


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