Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

Business Casual: Oasis or Abyss?


Remember when Business Casual looked like this?
Q: What do the following items have in common?
  • Rubber flip-flops
  • Belly baring shirts
  • Gold lamé leggings, and leggings worn as pants
  • Velour track suits
  • Hawaiian shirts worn unbuttoned over undershirt
  • Floor length halter dresses
  • Sweatpants with “Juicy” across the derriere
  • Skin-tight tank top with the word “Bootylicious” across the front in glitter script
  • Cargo shorts

A: All have been worn by people in our office under the auspices of “business casual.”

The upside of a more casual dress code is that it can be democratizing and a morale booster for employees. Many companies have made efforts to create a less rigid and hierarchical workplace, and managers or executives in strict corporate wear can undermine that environment. I’ll admit that I’m not missing the skirted suits and (bleah!) pantyhose that were once de rigeur in corporate offices. I sailed through from the mid-1990′s until a few years ago in pantsuits and “sportswear” separates, and found the clear boundaries for workwear convenient, requiring a minimum of guesswork and planning. Getting dressed for work was easy when the uniform was clear and consistent, though I am enjoying being able to express a bit more personal style, mostly through accessories. In our current environment, even a pantsuit worn with a t-shirt feels a bit too stiff and formal, so I’ve been subbing a sweater for the jacket worn with trousers, or pairing my jackets with dark-wash jeans.

However, it’s long been une femme’s opinion that Business Casual, while worthy and welcome in concept, has Gone. Too. Far. Despite articles in various newspaper Business sections to the contrary, there seems to be no apparent reversal of the “anything goes” dress codes that seem to have taken over many companies. While I would never advocate a return to strict Corporate Drag*, it seems the “business” part of Business Casual is increasingly left out of the equation.

Why does it matter? After all, many people who work in offices do not have contact with the public as a part of their job, and in these tough economic times, expecting workers (especially those on the bottom to middle rungs of the corporate ladder) to spend a good chunk of change on clothing specifically for work seems a bit unfair. But une femme would argue that getting dressed in the morning with business in mind helps get one’s head in the game, and helps change the mindset from one of leisure to productivity. It’s been my observation that wearing the same thing to work that one would wear to a beach party keeps the brain partially in beach party mode. I believe there is a happy medium: dressing comfortably with allowances for personal expression, while still maintaining some professionalism and polish. (In my perfect world, the flip flops would be the first thing to go!)

What kind of dress code (if any) is enforced in your workplace? Does it seem appropriate for the work you do? If you wrote your company’s dress code, what changes would you make?

*Thanks to Duchesse at Passage des Perles for this great expression.
~

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 United States License.

36 thoughts on “Business Casual: Oasis or Abyss?

  1. nurmisur

    I miss when people would dress up for work.Not in full Corporate Drag(The Duchess is a genious) but with clothes diferent than the ones they would wear to go out or on vacation.
    I worked in both kind of environments and it’s pretty bad when people look at you as if you’ve done something wrong just because you happened to dress a dressier skirt and a heel that day.
    I to agree that when you dress the part you feel more motivated.And , frankly I think that the way some people dress for work reflects the quality and the effort they put in their work.

    Reply
  2. Sher

    Our corporation was built on the premise of being lax on the “old corporate rules” My brother figured we all have to make a living. Why not make it a place one wants to get out of bed to go to? Many of our workers left “stuffy” atmospheres to come to work for us. They took a cut in pay, they packed up their families and moved closer to our place.

    In the beginning the clothes were extremely lax, but we never made it an issue. The whole idea was not to have a corporate handbook.

    But as we’ve matured, so has our wardrobe and I think we have settled on a happy medium. And never once has our wardrobe hindered our contracts with those big wig corporations that we deal with. In fact I think it has helped.

    Reply
  3. Maravonda

    My clothing problem is different but frustrating, as well…in my workplace the nurses, aides, housekeepers and dietary people all wear scrubs. I have begged for nurses to be able to wear “real” clothing with a white lab coat…it looks professional and the difference in response from patients and clients is amazing! But no, we are forced to come to work in “pajamas” and sneakers daily. Many co-workers love it “It’s so COMFORTABLE!!!”. I, for one, prefer something a bit more proper. (Thanks for listening)

    Reply
  4. Northmoon

    I work in a male dominated profession that requires visits to construction sites, so I’ve been wearing “business casual” for years. This has meant slacks and a good shirt or top, a jacket if it wasn’t too hot out. Recently I’ve added dark wash jeans to my work wardrobe occasionally, especially for meetings at sites where it’s going to be muddy.

    I have always dressed carefully to present authority in my work environment. In the early days I’d have to watch out for being mistaken for the secretary or someone’s wife when I was in the field!!

    I have to say I’d never wear those items on your list even in my casual wardrobe, except perhaps the cargo shorts.

    I don’t miss panty hose, but I agree that dressing for work should convey a degree of respect. Appropriate attire is important if you want to be taken seriously. As a friend of mine in management (banking) tells her staff “If you would wear it at the beach, you can’t wear it to the office.”

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  5. Nancy (nanflan)

    Ugh, business casual. Lately it seems that it’s a race to the bottom. In other words, how low can we go with our attire? with an overtone of reverse snobbery.

    And yet, you didn’t get into those other aspects of BC, the tats and visible body modifications. I’m ok with them (within reason) at some workplaces, but in mine I’d rather not see them.

    Reply
  6. Sal

    I completely agree. A little bit of appearance-related effort does wonders for keeping people alert and focused. Suits? No way. But flip flops? NO EFFING WAY!

    Reply
  7. materfamilias

    My academic work environment tolerates almost any kind of dress — some of my colleagues wear jeans and t-shirts more than anything else. Most of us prefer a more professional look, altho’ still casual and definitely with more room for creativity than corporate culture might allow. For me, besides the professionalism, I like my work clothes to signal that I’m still engaged in the “real world” of my students, so I try to balance between kowtowing to trends and showing that I do know what’s going on — always with some authenticity, a good solid link to my own identity, ’cause students detect phoniness faster than they fall asleep during a boring lecture . . .

    Reply
  8. Anonymous

    Funny I should read this today. A co-worker in our very small office mentioned last Friday that he’d been “taken aside” by the sales manager and told that wearing athletic shorts to work was “offensive”. He, of course, was offended that anyone would be offended. But since we don’t, to my knowledge, have a written dress code I suppose that’s what we can expect.

    This week I noticed he’s upgraded to cargo shorts.

    Reply
  9. Miss Janey

    Miss J’s workplace (an investment firm) requires conservative business attire. Suits and ties for the men, no khakis or jeans (save for maybe three “biz casual Fridays we might have in a year, and even then NO jeans.) It was made very clear to Miss J when she was hired that she needed to dress appropriately to the atmosphere. This is a place where, 10 years ago, women didn’t even wear pantsuits. The story of the first female analyst they hired showing up in a pantsuit is a bit of a legend: the men convened a meeting to discuss what was to be done! It was decided that it would be allowed.
    What Miss J would change has already changed: Miss J wore pantyhose when she first started- to her chagrin. Then a 20-something hottie was hired for the early morning shift & she didn’t wear pantyhose, so Miss J decided she wouldn’t. No one objected, happily. The office manager returned from NY last week inspired by all the biz women there who no longer wear pantyhose. She’s been here almost 20 years, has sensational legs and only last week quit wearing pantyhose.
    Even the the conservative stuff is amusing, Miss J is actually glad for it. She has seen what a lax dress code can provoke in people and it ain’t purty.

    Reply
  10. SewingLibrarian

    Maravonda, I hear you! I used to go to a doctor whose nurse always wore the white uniform and cap. She looked so professional and competent. I do think today’s nurses look as if they are wearing their pj’s.
    I work at a community college where the librarians are more dressed up than at the state university where I used to work. Maybe it’s because they are better paid! ;)

    Reply
  11. indigo16

    The rules are simple where I work. No Denim and dress smart.
    I could rant for some time at the dogs dinner the staff make of that simple rule. I have seen fleeces, ill fitting baggy washed out T shirts, 6 inch heeled thigh high boots. And thats just the men!
    Seriously, I am amazed at what people get away with, my clothes are very limited by the matarials I work with (art teacher) and I have been known to wear a denim skirt occasionally. We are in many ways role models to very young impressionable girls, yet teachers are on the whole a very badly dressed bunch.
    Sometimes I think a well cut pair of jeans is worth a dozen nasty ill fitting synthetic suits. Maybe they should introduce lessons in style& dressing at teacher training college.

    Reply
  12. Meg

    Here in Florida, I certainly don’t feel like I’m missing out by not wearing pantyhose and suits. However, I do not think that “business casual” and “casual” are the same thing and I hate it when people treat them like they are — especially since I don’t want to see most of those things being worn even when the dress is “casual” (unless MAYBE at the gym or beach).

    Sad to say, companies NEED DETAILED dress codes. Why? Because Gen Y — and a good part of the older generations, too — just have no clue how they are supposed to dress and don’t care or don’t know to search out good business attire advice.

    And as for all the Gen Y bull crap about freedom of expression, yada yada yada, people can dress how they want in the privacy of their own home, but I know I certainly would NOT want someone dressing so trashy while they sit in my office representing my company. And if these people just can’t seem to ever find a job, maybe they need to consider what they’re wearing to interviews and decide if it’s really worth being penniless just so they can tell people how “hot” they are (because people really judge hotness based on what’s written across your butt or chest, of course).

    And for people who don’t know me who think I’m picking on Gen Y, I AM part of Gen Y. And frankly, I’ve heard the excuses for dressing so poorly since grade school and I’m sick of it as well as all the rest of the whining about how unfair life is and how they should be accepted just as they are (i.e. without compromise to anyone else’s needs).

    Reply
  13. hollarback

    I don’t equate how someone dresses with the quality of their work at all. Perhaps it is my age, or that I have generally been employed in “creative” fields. As long as their body is covered and they do the job, I don’t care what anyone wears. Judging someone by how they dress seems an old fashioned mindset. It often speaks to money as opposed to job skill level. In my experience how one dressed in the office was used competitively, to show off how much one earned, or as a cover (the least qualified person dressed authoritatively to give the impression of competence – very clever)

    I also have had underpaid positions where the company expected one to dress far above their pay level. How that was logically going to happen, no one knew. It was just another example of the executives of the company not really knowing what things were all about with the worker bees. (Most people quit that company)

    Besides, LA is ungodly hot a good portion of the time. Who on earth wants to be all dressed up and sweaty? In a hot climate, such as in the sunbelt, I see no problem with dressy versions of hot weather clothes: well cut bermuda shorts, leather dressy flip flops, sundress with a cardi over it, etc…

    Though that said, there are a fair number of slobs who should make some sort of effort.

    Reply
  14. hollarback

    It depends on where you are in the country too, I guess. Los Angeles has always dressed more casually than the rest of the country. I only see suits if I am downtown or in Century City.

    Reply
  15. Audi

    A lot of what passes for business casual is just plain bad taste whether you’re at the office or not. I’d say both in and out of the workplace, there are a growing number of people who are in serious need of style lessons. I’d ban most of the items on your list from EVER being worn under any circumstances if I had my way!

    Reply
  16. tiffany

    One thing I enjoy about my occasional forays into ‘The City’ (financial sector) is having to dress the part, but maybe that’s because I don’t have to do it everyday. I also work as a primary school teacher occasionally, and although jeans are now acceptable attire for teaching (and very practical), I only wear them when I know I’m going to be active (teaching drama or sport) and I only wear very conservative, dark wash, well-cut jeans, with a blazer or the like. Some of the younger teachers now wear whatever they like (including low-cut jeans that reveal the tops of underwear) and although I hate to sound old-fashioned, I find this inappropriate. I don’t much like the message it sends to the kids.

    Reply
  17. Imogen Lamport

    I think many people don’t hear the word ‘business’ in business casual, they just hear the word ‘casual’ and this is where the problems start!

    I would say, if you wear it to wash the car, don’t wear it to work. If you wear it nightclubbing or out socialising at night, don’t wear it to work.

    Business casual – is still Business first – or think of it as Relaxed Business.

    Reply
  18. dana

    In academia, the rule seems to be, if you’re on the admin side, keep it traditional. If you’re on the academic side, anything goes.

    Ugh. People who work in labs, jeans and tshirts, fine. But academic folks who work in offices? Let’s try, folks. Jeans and sweats? No. Dark wash trouser jeans and nice tshirt? Ok. In my humble opinion. It’s all so hard to say. But even in my casual environment, there’s still a distinction between work and off work. Does anyone else sort their tshirts by “work” and “off”? I do!!!!

    Reply
  19. LPC

    I like the concept but the execution is mostly poor. I agree. Perhaps the rules just need to be clearer. Only who will write them? The community, I suppose.

    Reply
  20. metscan

    I prefer separate clothes for work. I don´t wish to mix business with pleasure. That said, you can still identify yourself with your accessories, remembering to keep them in balance. But I do like your `casual Fridays´.

    Reply
  21. Belva

    I work for a fairly conservative insurance company with a “business casual” dress code. As our workforce gets younger and younger, the clothes get sloppier and sloppier (at least in the women; the guys get by very well in golf shorts and chinos and look neat and tidy). The women execs all look great; as a “woman of a certain age” and the sole corporate trainer in my office, I dress up by comparison, as I’m sort of a public figure. You’d think the younger women would look at these VPs and take notes on their image. Alas, no….

    Reply
  22. Duchesse

    A company is well-served by a code (which can be minimal) if only for the 1% who think gym shorts are OK. (I do not want to see your equipment in a meeting, OK?)

    (hollarback, agree dress does not equate to quality of work, you can be a dingbat in a beautiful suit. And, in many sectors in many regions of North America, the people who run things care about the visual impression of created by workers who have contact with clients, customers or business partners.)

    If one cannot tolerate the conformity required by a dress code, it’s a signal that she is not going to enjoy corporate life, which imposes constraints to total autonomy though various policies and procedures.

    My favourite (from a pharmaceutical corp.) is “If you can see up it, through it or down it, don’t wear it to work.”

    Another company (communications) says “Dress like you’re on a first date”, which is a witty way of saying “make an effort”.

    And then there’s grooming: policies for piercings, hairstyle and nails. Sometimes it’s very prescriptive (e.g., Disney), other times no restrictions at all.

    Reply
  23. lagatta à montréal

    I have almost always worked in “creative” fields, but few people here would dress as poorly as pseu describes and decries in her opening post. A notorious exception is the computer-nerd subculture – though this may be changing a bit with the crisis. Time is, they would turn up, even at banks and investment firms, in filthy old t-shirts and jeans or sweats I would not be seen in washing windows outside the house.

    A lot of “creatives” spend as much or more on jeans with a good fit and buttery leather jackets as “suits” do on, well, suits.

    One thing I would not tolerate is having to wear closed shoes and tights in the summertime, as my feet swell (arthritis).

    I remember my resentment when working as an ESL/FSL teacher and being expected to dress in clothes I couldn’t possibly afford in such an ill-paid job. Those who could were young people living at home or bankrolled by their parents. I enjoyed the work, but private language schools can be very abusive employers as they have a large pool of underemployed language and literature grads to choose from.

    Now, most days I work at home. I do have a couple of more businesslike outfits to wear working in certain settings.

    Even working at home, I wouldn’t wear any of the things on pseu’s list!

    Reply
  24. Belle de Ville

    This is a great post and a subject of importance as younger people, who have only dressed casual their entire lives enter the workforce.

    I try to wear reasonably put together dresses and skirts Monday-Friday, often with comfortable ballet flats. When I have a client coming in or a business meeting I step up the look usually to a sheath dress or suit, usually in navy or black, with south sea pearls or a statement brooch.

    I save my cargo shorts and birkenstocks for weekends when no one else is at the office.

    Also, I agree with Audi about business casual and bad taste.
    Certainly business casual would differ across industries and locations, but bad taste is bad taste, whatever the occasion.

    And, I love the minimal corporate dress codes posted by Duchesse.

    Reply
  25. L

    Une Femme: I was laughing when I read this post because I have seen some pretty crazy things in the workplace. In addition to the items you mentioned, I do remember one particular Halloween where some associates dressed up. One woman wore a sexy Dorothy outfit…complete with white thigh-highs and “ruby” stilettos…I was horrified.

    Reply
  26. Deja Pseu

    Thanks, all for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

    I wanted to be clear that I’m certainly NOT advocating a return to very strict and formal dress codes, however the lack of coherent guidelines, I believe, has been a detriment to a professional atmosphere and even behavior. But maybe I’m just an old fogey railing against the tide, who knows?

    Reply
  27. Toby Wollin

    The problem with ‘business casual’ is that when it got started in the early 1990s, HR depts. had been sold on the idea that allowing this was a way to give a benefit that cost them nothing. Then, it was casual Fridays. Then it was writing on the butts and it’s been straight downhill every since. My biggest beef on this though is the use of golf shirts as some sort of business casual uniform in some places. Golf shirts look uniformly horrid on anyone who is not a tall, fairly thin, male. If you are anyone with either a belly issue or a bustline, you end up with a shirt where the shoulder seams are halfway down your arms. Just awful.
    And though I don’t miss the suits/shoulder pads/blouse with the tie/pumps/etc. look, I do feel that the more casually a woman dresses, the less credibility she is seen to have and the less respect she gets in the workplace. This goes double for women under the height of about 5’5″ – lack of height and casual dress are just the worst combo I can think of.

    Reply
  28. Christine

    Corporate Drag is hardly a new expression, I’ve heard it in use for at least 2 decades.. In San Francisco at least.

    Apart from that, it strikes me that people who think that having their toes enclosed for instance leads to thinking work-like thoughts are precisely the people who’ve been subjected to corporate drag rules for much of their working life. People like myself who’ve studiously avoided these situations have no trouble at all distinguishing being at work from not, even if they are in their pjs at the time. Unless of course we’re totally distracted by some uncomfortable item like pinching shoes :-).

    Reply
  29. Meg

    @Christine,

    Yeah, I’m not one that thinks that just the toe of a shoe holds quite that much power. However, I do think that what you wear overall can affect how you feel — and certainly how people judge you and the company you work for. For example, I’d feel more comfortable using a bank where people dressed professionally in suits instead of in clothes so casual it looked like they were all headed to the beach or worse.

    Anyhow, I believe the main reason closed toe shoe rules stay in place is because it’s an easy way of saying “no flip flops or other sandals”, because both are casual and in some cases just too casual for the dress code of a business.

    Reply
  30. Deja Pseu

    Christine – well, the expression was new to me. ;-) I’m certainly not advocating that anyone wear anything that’s uncomfortable. And I’d be the first to protest a “closed toe only” rule, especially during the summer. I just think rubber flip-flops are taking “casual” too far.

    Reply
  31. Keilexandra

    Do you have any thoughts on (non-halter) maxi dresses? My office is a notch below business casual; there’s no official dress code and the women wear anything from flat sandals + sleeveless top (cleavage appropriately covered) to strappy heels + dress + cardigan (mostly the older women).

    I’m currently testing out a maxi dress + long cardigan (+ wedge heels because I’m too short for the dress otherwise)… Tried multiple blazers over top, but it feels too put together for a casual “look professional” office.

    Reply
  32. une femme

    Keilexandra – it sounds like it would be fine for your particular office. I think as long as it’s not something that would double as a beach cover-up, you’re probably good.

    Reply
  33. Lucy

    Think of it this way, would you want a surgeon wearing flip flops and a shirt that said, “Party hardy” on her right before she gets ready to cut you open? You might wonder if she just Partied before she popped into the room? I think it is all about time and place for certain clothes!

    Reply
  34. Mika Lane

    Here in Northern California, where life is very casual even at law and financial services firms, the dress is very much dictated by generation. It’s interesting to see how different clothing is tolerated for different age groups. It’s ok for the twenty-somethings to wear hoodies but if I wore one I would be thought unprofessional.

    Reply

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