The State of the Union in dress codes

Within the last several days, I’ve visited the offices of several clients. These firms are oriented around marketing and creative, so it’s natural that there would be a relaxed atmosphere. I was struck with the diversity of what I saw, although I was immediately able to make assumptions and draw conclusions about roles based on wardrobe:

  • A young man in jeans with button-down shirt and tie, nice shoes (probably a creative making some sort of presentation that day)
  • A slightly older male in business slacks and button-down shirt, no tie (probably in account management)
  • A young woman in a short skirt, flip flops, logo’d t-shirt cut in the front to reveal a tank top with cleavage, and multiple facial piercings (an intern, I decided)
  • A woman in a sleeveless, ankle-length black jersey dress with high-heeled sandals and a pile of necklaces (okay, I admit I was not able to interpret these cues; could have been a copywriter, art director, or even a senior executive)

Like many people, although I don’t have that many clothes, I agonize over what to wear, because the unspoken codes are different everywhere and we’re all cognizant that other people make conscious and unconscious decisions about us based on what we wear.

iStock_000003653380SmallWe’ve sort of had “dress codes” since ancient times, as human societies have always communicated social class, rank, and role through dress. And now in the business world we’ve endured decades of shifting norms. As I was reading a little background on office dress codes last night, I learned that casual Fridays seem to have actually started in Hawaii, migrated to the mainland, and were cleverly exploited by Levi’s to introduce us all to the wonderfulness of Dockers.

We are lucky that we work in the world of creative communications, because there are many more conservative companies that still maintain fairly tight constraints on office dress. But just as with school uniforms, the purposes of these rules are to make it easier to decide what’s acceptable, to be identifiable as part of the group, and to eliminate some variables that divide us. It seems that these days when a creative firm has dress code rules, it’s mostly to keep people from making each other feel uncomfortable, which is fair.

And I’m just grateful that I don’t have to wear pantyhose anymore.