work attire through the ages: are dress codes dying out?

If you’ve been employed in the last twenty years, you’ve witnessed rapid-fire change in your workplace. Technology has made it possible to work in ways that once seemed like little more than science fiction. Workspaces are more open, flexible and collaborative; employees are more diverse, independent and confident, determining how, when and where they work. Workplace attire, previously a subject carved in stone reflecting social mores, gender roles and the division of labour, continues to evolve as a reflection of these changes.

are dress codes dying out

dress codes through the decades

the 50s

If you were a man employed in the 1950s (or mid-century, as designers now refer to it), you wore gray flannel suits, striped ties, fedora hats and heavy oxford shoes. Your female co-workers were increasing their presence in the workforce in Chanel-type suits, seamed nylon stockings and heels.

the 60s

Work clothes begin to relax for men who donned brighter colours and patterned clothing. Women’s workplace clothing reflected the Jackie Kennedy style of elegant, monochromatic, softer shades and of course, pearls and the pillbox hat. Few, if any, workplaces permitted the tie-dyed clothing and headbands worn by the hippie generation of the mid- to late-60s.

the 70s

Bell-bottom pants rang in the 70s, along with wide jacket lapels and ties for men and bow-tied blouses for women, whose looser, more expressive style reflected the women’s liberation movement of the times.

the 80s

The 80s are dominated by the power suit for women; their fight for equality and gains in workplace leadership roles were reflected in more masculine suit structures and massive shoulder pads that could clear a subway car and guarantee a seat.

the 90s

Organizations usher in Casual Fridays – khakis, designer jeans, sweaters, sports jackets, polo shirts, regardless of gender – as a perk to attract workers. Suits for men and women were more comfortable, looser and more neutral in tone and pattern.

21st century

Which brings us to modern 21st-century technology-driven workplaces. Computers, it seems, don’t care what you wear when you program them as long as you get the zeros and ones in the right sequences. More offices adopt casual dress codes, if they have one at all.

the science of clothes

Some things never change. Studies show that what we wear affects our behaviour and how others perceive us. Researchers at Northwestern University found that when they wore a white coat during psychometric testing, subjects instantly assumed they were more professional and that the test itself had more merit. Wearing white coats caused the researchers to subconsciously feel more competent and professional. This new field of study, known as ‘embodied cognition’, says we not only think with our brains but also with our physical experience, including our clothes. What you wear doesn't just affect how you feel and function but how others feel about, and function around you.

With that in mind, it’s no accident that women who wanted to get ahead in business wore – and in some cases still wear – their version of masculine, conservative attire so hiring managers would see them as more capable, hardworking, self-controlled and reliable, and certainly asexual. It’s why women wear power suits, and Hilary Clinton adopted the pantsuit as her signature look. We’ve been conditioned since infancy to recognize distinctions like these and make associations where we assume a person’s future success or failure based on what they wear. Uniqueness, individuality, gender identity, capability – these and other qualities were subjugated for decades in the pursuit of success.

Thankfully, changes to the world of work, what defines it, how it’s performed and by whom has created a paradigm shift in concepts of dress codes. What’s appropriate wardrobe in today’s workplace is as varied as where work takes place, be it a boardroom or your dining room table. Startup tech entrepreneurs encourage workers to dress and feel as comfortable as possible. With a younger workforce, employers competing to attract and engage top candidates are offering a casual dress code as a perk. Fitting in has a whole new meaning. In these environments, someone in a suit is either a job applicant or an employee with an important client meeting.

the future of dress codes

Organizations are redefining what ‘business casual’ means and whether or not to establish it as a dress code. For some, it could mean a suit without a tie while in other businesses it could be jeans and a t-shirt. After all, it’s hard to sit in a beanbag chair in a three-piece suit. What to wear to work is ambiguous and can be confusing to employees and especially HR and managers – the ‘enforcers’ to whom these decisions are often deferred.

Whether an employer has a tacit dress code in place or not, what employees wear continues to reflect the organization’s values and the image and level of professionalism that is an important part of a company’s brand. Internally – the ‘embodied cognition’ we spoke of earlier – your work clothes go even further in influencing work culture, how employees treat each other and how engaged they are. Indeed, clothing is a great equalizer, creating a sense of equality, regardless of levels, roles, skills and genders. Maybe considerations like these should form the bedrock of an organization’s dress code.

By establishing a dress code, organizations create a workforce that is confident and more secure, where everyone knows what everyone knows, regardless of backgrounds or experience, so everyone can focus on what’s really important: getting the job done.

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