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Who Decides What Professional Clothing Is?

Very few people wear a suit and tie to work anymore.

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When I was 13, my older cousin told me that when I started working, I’d have to wear professional clothing. At the time, my wardrobe staples were knee-high rainbow socks and skirts with printed cats on them, so I rejected the idea immediately.

In all but one workplace setting I’ve been in, I’ve barely altered my outfits from what I would wear outside the office, including my signature fluffy tulle skirts that inspired my nickname, the Tutu Girl. Even when I worked in marketing at a manufacturing company, I paired my lavender tutu and glittery bow bracelets with sensible closed-toe shoes in case I needed to tour the factory. It was all about finding the delicate balance between expressing myself through my fashion and my desire to be taken seriously. I was facing the question: What does it mean to dress professionally? Who decides what the rules are, and who do these rules exclude?

Photo: Paul Bradbury/Getty Images

Professional clothing no longer means wearing a suit to the office, or even a blouse and high heels. From casual Fridays to startup culture, more employers are offering a lax dress code and allowing employees to make these decisions on their own. “Letting employees be comfortable and wear what they want can contribute to a happier and more productive work environment,” says Marc Cenedella, founder and CEO of the career website Ladders. “Millennials are now the largest portion of the workforce, and they've worked in more casual environments their whole careers ... so expectations of what constitutes professional clothes have changed.”

According to LinkedIn’s New Norms @ Work Survey, 88 percent of employees no longer have to wear a suit or formal dress to work. Blair Decembrele, a career expert and group manager at LinkedIn, believes this can have an effect on employee performance. “With today’s workplace becoming more flexible than ever, a casual dress code allows people be more comfortable — which can go a long way for productivity,” she says.

Typical rules governing professional dress codes often unfairly target women and marginalized people, particularly anyone whose body doesn’t fit with societal norms,” says Megan Remien, owner of Raven & Crow, a sustainable pajama and loungewear company. “Dress codes can also be exclusive in terms of cost.” Raven & Crow has a small staff, so Remien tells her employees to dress how they see fit, and she sets an example with her own business casual attire so she can prepared to meet potential customers or buyers at a moment’s notice. “Does a company expect women to [dress professionally] or reward women who wear expensive power suits? Can their mail clerk afford to buy a couple with her salary if she’s making a fraction of what a top executive woman makes?’”

Cost is only one factor that makes professional dress codes difficult to obey. These rules also target people of color, LGBTQ people, and the disability community. If a company expects employees to wear tight-fighting clothing and high heels, that might not be accessible for someone with a mobility impairment. Some dress codes explicitly target hair for women of color or religious minorities, such as those who wear hijabs.

Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

“My blackness is prominent in my hair,” says Moeima Makeba, a Brooklyn-based writer and producer in the fashion and creative industries. Makeba says that past employers have told her not to wear head scarves and red lipstick, and she often feels uncomfortable when she notices people are staring at her hair, which she wears naturally. “Barring braids or dreadlocks or cultural wraps will put a strain on the employee, inevitably giving way to low morale. As for the company, if these are their concerns, it’s pretty clear they do not have an interest in supporting their employees of color or an interest in maintaining a diverse work culture.”

What happens when employers let people choose how they dress on a daily basis? There’s often a fear that the fashion equivalent of anarchy might occur — think of all the millennial-bashing aimed at college students who wear pajamas to class. But it’s possible to lay out light, necessary guidelines (and realize that responsible adults probably know how to dress themselves) without people showing up to the office in bikinis all summer. “Dress-code requirements are great because they get rid of any gray areas,” says Valerie Streif, a career advisor at The Mentat, an organization that focuses on hiring and mentoring prospective job candidates. “The key is having very specific and clearly written-out dress-code requirements.” If you’re letting employees choose their office outfits, it might be worth specifying that sweatpants or flip flops are out of the question to avoid confusion. Most of the time, employers don’t need to lay out guidelines telling employees not to come to meetings in a Snuggie, but if it comes up, it can’t hurt to have a conversation about boundaries.

There are also professions where a specific dress code makes sense. Cynara Geissler is a writer, performer, and book publicist from Vancouver, British Columbia, who wears her signature Toddler Grandma style to the office every day. “I try not to be prescriptive about style or shade anyone’s shine, but if your job involves diving with sharks or wrangling bears or wolves, wearing a meat dress — no matter how stylish the cut — is a bad idea,” she says. The same can be said for rules governing the medical profession, where safety and sanitation are key, or physical labor jobs that require protective equipment. If your job is client-facing, too, it might make more sense that your employer wants you to wear the company red polo so that customers can easily spot you in a crowd if they need assistance.

Natalie Slater, a marketing director and cookbook author from Chicago, Illinois, started the hashtag #OfficePunx because she found herself mixing brands like Iron Fist and Hellbunny with office wardrobe staples, like cardigans and flats, to create what she calls “work-appropriate outfits with a little edge.” The hashtag is full of photos with employees donning bright colors, flashy patterns, tattoos, and vintage apparel, showing that it’s possible to integrate personal taste into a professional setting.

Despite the progress workplaces are making in redefining what it means to dress for work, many people are still excluded. Even in offices without a professional dress code, gender-role expectations can put a lot of people in an uncomfortable position. “Even in a more lax setting, women are simply still judged more harshly than men when it comes to appearances,” says Remien.

“I was required to wear dress shoes and stockings as part of a dress code for a previous job,” says Addie Tsai, a writer and professor who loves Oxfords, bow ties, ruffles, and rainbows. “Living in Houston, I found the stocking rule unhealthy given how hot it gets here, especially in the summer, as well as shaming of women’s bodies. I also think that dress codes create a rigid feeling of uniformity in the office, where individuals don’t feel free to express themselves in a multitude of expressions.”

Choosing what to wear can be a difficult decision for LGBTQ people in particular, and even more difficult for disabled LGBTQ employees. Alex Haagaard, a designer, artist, and disability rights activist, says that they have to keep both accessibility and gender identity in mind when they pull together an outfit for work. “I've become more cognizant of my chronic pain,” they say. “The most striking consequence of this is that my professional style has become much more feminine. Because I am genderqueer, this can result in some dysphoria on days when I am feeling more masculine, but am unable to express this with my clothing while at work.”

Trish A., an engineer in Oakland, California, agrees. “As a queer not-very-femme woman, wearing ‘traditional’ women's clothing makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable and out of place,” she says. “Anytime I try putting on makeup I feel like a clown. Let's not even talk about heels.”

Photo: Milton Brown/Getty Images

Trish, who is Asian-American, is also mistaken for someone younger than she is all the time — she constantly has to correct people who think she’s an intern and assume she’s inexperienced. For that reason, she doesn’t usually wear relaxed clothing. But the problem isn’t with Trish, it’s with perceptions of professionalism. As an ageist society, we’re hypercritical of people at both ends of the age spectrum; if you’re too old, you’re deemed “out of touch,” and if you’re too young, you’re dismissed as immature. Geissler’s Toddler Grandma style, a term coined from the idea that only toddlers and grandmothers are allowed to wear whimsical clothing, directly combats the idea that dressing in a boldly colored patterned dress means you’re unprofessional.

Workplace dress code rules place restrictions on fat bodies, too. Restrictive dress codes can be uncomfortable and downright impossible for people who wear larger sizes, particularly because plus sized clothing generally costs more and dress codes are designed with slimmer bodies in mind. “My day-to-day experiences of being fat in a society that fetishizes thinness have taught me that certain people will see me as ‘slovenly’ or ‘careless’ or ‘lazy’ based on my size, no matter what I am wearing,” says Geissler. “That cultivates a feeling of always needing to be dressed up to try and mitigate those assumptions.”

Historically, dress codes have been created by those in power, without any thought to how these rules affect marginalized people. As the workforce becomes younger, it’s possible that the future of professional dress will shift to reflect millennial career ideals — meaningful work, informal work environments, flexibility, and creativity.

“A few weeks ago a barista told me that my outfit gave her ‘so much life,’” says Geissler. “I think that’s a good way to put it — I dress to give myself life and joy. I dress for the celebration I want my life to be.”

If all workplaces move in that direction, allowing employees to be proactive in choosing how they dress, maybe we’d all be a little happier at the office.

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