Almost all of us remember the first job we had that required us to conform to a dress code. For women, dress codes can be brutal, especially if they involve wearing high heels all day or sporting nylons in a humid climate. Dress codes can be uncomfortable for men, too, as a tie can feel as if it is choking you in the case of that dress shirt being a notch too tight around the neck. Wearing a polyester blazer on a hot day is also a hassle during that eight- or 10-hour shift.
A current exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) museum in New York City is a reminder of how uniforms have long been a tactic to enforce social order and gender roles. To others, uniforms engender a sense of belonging and achievement, and on the lighter, or even creepier side, fetishes — as in Japan’s sekuhara craze during the 1990s.
Some uniforms, however, have proven to become iconic. Flight attendants working for Dubai-based airliner Emirates sport uniforms that are futuristic yet are a nod to the Gulf region’s traditions. Stella McCartney’s design of the 2012 United Kingdom Olympic team’s uniforms raised eyebrows but imparted a modern and progressive Britain.
Nevertheless, this FIT exhibit is a reminder of how strict dress codes and even uniforms are, for the most part, on their last legs. The dress code’s demise started over a generation ago in Silicon Valley, when companies such as HP and Apple emphasized collaboration and comfort instead of their employee’s conformity and cookie-cutter appearances. Dress codes became even further relaxed during the 1990s dot-com boom, when startups realized heels and neckties got in the way of a good time playing foosball in the employee break room. “Casual Friday” has also become more of the norm across the U.S., and some organizations even use the wearing of blue jeans as work as a way to raise some money for a local cause.
Recent cases have also revealed the absurdity of many dress codes in an era in which employees insist that the drive to “dress professional” leads to the creation of absurd workplace rules. Social media, for example, was on fire earlier this spring when the consultancy PwC was nailed for sending home a tech worker who dared to show up at its London office without wearing a two- to four-inch heel. Several years ago, 200 miles to the northwest outside of Manchester, a grammar school teacher was dressed down in front of his colleagues and escorted away from the campus when he showed up with his shirt tucked out and did not sport a tie.
Changing demographics and more openness in the workplace also make the dress code seem fit for TV shows such as "Mad Men" and the U.K. classic "Are You Being Served?," but not for today’s work environment. Despite the current vitriolic political atmosphere, Muslims will continue to assert their right to dress how they want at the office. And while many women are rightfully bored over the fuss over how First Ladies dress, Michelle Obama has made plenty of bold statements on occasions when she has decided to wear a suit over a dress. She also stayed true to herself while visiting one of America’s most obstinate allies—asserting that a woman can look fantastic and unapologetically feminine without adhering to stubborn “traditional” norms of how one should dress for a certain occasion.
The acceptance of transgender employees in the workplace, instead of a bygone era when they felt they had to hide their identity in order to succeed in corporate America, also has diminished the importance of dress codes. The Human Rights Campaign has been proactive when it comes to advising companies on how to draft rules related to professional attire. More companies are ensuring that a dress code applies to all and does not favor one gender over another.
Some professionals still insist that a dress code is important to crafting a company’s image. But in this age of social media, that argument has no leverage. The days of when a company can carefully protect its image are over as stakeholders are now the tail wagging the dog. McDonald’s was widely mocked for trying to cull “stories” from customers. Starbucks was eviscerated in the United Kingdom when a Christmastime Twitter campaign turned into painting the company as a Scrooge as it was accused of not paying its fair share of taxes. The stubborn fact now is that companies have bigger fish to fry than worrying whether its employees are wearing the right shoes or outfits within the workplace.
Image credit: Emirates
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.