After the Pandemic, the Office Dress Code Should Never Come Back

Are “fancy” sweatpants here for good?

image of people working on computers
Asia Pietrzyk

Being online has many rules. Some of the more exciting or distressing ones have names—Godwin’s Law, about the inevitability of someone invoking Hitler during an internet argument; Rule 34, which guarantees the thematic completeness of the web’s pornography. But mostly, the internet’s rules are just de facto guidelines for what to expect in this or that circumstance—observations rather than codifications. Among the most reliable and least frequently noted of these is that wherever people gather to chat about anything, the conversation will eventually turn to the problem of what to wear to work.

In subreddits dedicated to accounting, engineering, and New York City, people ask to see others’ work outfits or for descriptions of their employee dress code. In Facebook groups about weight loss or motherhood, inquiries abound on where to get an inexpensive black blazer, and who makes the best office-appropriate cropped pants. On Hacker News, a message board for Silicon Valley tech workers, a man in his late 30s recalled being humiliated by the CEO at his new job for daring to wear a button-down shirt among his cargo-shorts-clad co-workers. On Yahoo Answers, the world’s least qualified people have been meting out bad advice on twinsets and shin-length skirts to confused 23-year-olds since 2005.

In theory, the question of what to wear to work shouldn’t pose an unanswerable dilemma. Most workplaces have at least some kind of dress code, and for many of those who greet customers and perform service jobs, a specific uniform is required. Even in the most ambiguous situations, context clues abound on the bodies of colleagues: If no one ever wears jeans, you probably shouldn’t either. But the agita over how to groom yourself for work—hair straight or curly? cover your tattoos or live in the year of our Lord 2020? leggings as pants?—appears to afflict baristas, lawyers, cops, and the denizens of suburban office parks in roughly equal measure.

Much of that confusion is the result of rapid change. Millennials, notorious murderers of American institutions and social norms, are now the largest generation in the country’s workforce. As the oldest members of that group, people in their late 30s, accrue power in their organizations, they’ve started to reshape the meaning of “work clothes” in their image—upending the very idea of a dress code as a single standard to which all should aspire. When they’re done, work clothes might be dead for good. Whether that future looks like a descent into midriff-baring anarchy or a sweet reprieve from the tyranny of binding waistbands probably depends on whether you’re a person who makes rules or one who is subject to them.

In the American imagination, the standard for professional work wear has long been a suit or a conservatively tailored dress, even for workers who don’t go into an office. That’s largely held true despite the successful invasion of “business casual,” jump-started by Dockers as a marketing gambit in 1992. That many of the world’s most profitable companies—Google, Facebook, and Apple among them—allow employees to come to work in jeans and sweatshirts all week has yet to meaningfully destabilize that perception. With that in mind, at the beginning of every new term, Regan Gurung shows up to teach his psychology students at Oregon State University in a full suit and tie.

Gurung is also taking a cue from his own work. According to two studies he conducted, women, at least, are rated by others as more competent when they wear formal attire. And we actually act as though dress influences our abilities: Subjects clad in white lab coats perform better on tests than those without them (though the experiments were conducted with undergrads who didn’t wear lab coats regularly, so it’s hard to tell how enduring the effect would be once the novelty fades). The gap between our internalized notions about professionalism and what a company’s dress code says is why going to work in shorts still causes anxiety that pushes some people onto Reddit and Facebook with their skittish inquiries about what to wear. If a polo shirt is fine, wouldn’t a button-down be even better? If everyone around you at a start-up is wearing ripped jeans, wouldn’t a dress from Ann Taylor stand out in a good way? Is your company’s dress code just a secret test of high-level reasoning skills designed by fiendish bosses?

The association between competence and traditional dress is so durable, in part, because for years mass media have told us that machers wear well-cut suits or prim sheath dresses in neutral tones. Had our first glimpses of Mad Men’s Don Draper or Scandal’s Olivia Pope caught them in cutoffs and a raggedy souvenir T-shirt from spring break, their world-beating dominance might not have been as evident. In a twist in the we-are-what-we-wear story, researchers at Harvard identified what they called the red-sneakers effect. It posits that as long as the person ignoring workplace guidelines is perceived to be doing it purposefully, evaluations of that person improve—think Mark Zuckerberg and his “fuck you” hoodies in early Facebook business meetings. After all, there’s no greater power than being exempt from the rules that govern everyone else.

For the people roaming the internet second-guessing how comfortable they can really get at work, Gurung has good news, in the form of another psychological bias—toward the persistence of first impressions. “If your first impression is a good one and shows you’re taking the job seriously, the association between being dressed well and credibility and knowledge is strong enough that what you do later doesn’t matter as much,” he explains. As long as you don’t draw too much attention to yourself by being bad at your job or making your co-workers miserable, you can safely start wearing that one sweater you love that’s sort of like a fancy bathrobe. Most studies on clothing perception, after all, deal with snap judgments about strangers. Gurung’s first-day suit? It’s just for show. “Literally by week two, I no longer wear a jacket,” he says. By the end of the term, he’s tie-free, shirtsleeves rolled up.

It’s no secret that there’s a rising premium on “being yourself, being an individual, bringing your full self to work, broader expression of who you are,” says Scott Cawood, the CEO of WorldatWork, a global association for human-resources professionals. (WorldatWork, he notes, doesn’t have a dress code.) He traces the codes’ modern existence back to the Industrial Revolution, when standardized, indoor workplaces became the new normal. Before that, laborers were freer to dress in ways that suited their duties, often on family farms, and had smaller wardrobes to begin with. No one had to consider whether yoga pants were appropriate for gathering the day’s eggs.

As the norms we know now were developed, the people in power made them in accordance with their own preferences. “You traditionally had men in the C-suite, and they had certain conceptions of how men and women should look. That’s why there was so much concern about can you wear skirts, can you wear pants,” Cawood says. Some of those rules are still enforced in workplaces that prize formality—fine-dining establishments, white-shoe law firms, Congress—including guidelines about hosiery, makeup, and women’s hairstyles. Doing away with these standards is a question not just of gender, but of class: The more comprehensive the expectations for presentation, the more resources required to meet them, and buying a closetful of work wear is a lot more expensive than just using what you already own.

Racial bias, or at least blind spots, has also been embedded in dress codes, perhaps most notably in prohibitions on hairstyles popular among black people, such as braids and afros. “It’s a lack of perspective or empathy,” says Angela Hall, an associate professor at the Michigan State University School of Human Resources and Labor Relations—a thoughtlessness about what might make someone else’s life more complicated. But of course, the impact can be far less benign: Employment law is riddled with cases like that of a black woman who in 2010 had a job offer rescinded because she refused to cut her dreadlocks; the company’s dress code stipulated only that hairstyles be businesslike, professional, and not “excessive.”

Hall notes that changes to work itself have spurred a reconsideration of what constitutes “work clothes.” On the day we spoke, schools in East Lansing were closed for a snowstorm, so she was working and parenting simultaneously. And the more that work leaves the office—an evolution that may well be accelerated by the coronavirus—the harder it becomes to associate work with a particular mode of dress. The growing pains of that process have already created an icon of the contemporary workplace, however aesthetically unfortunate: the Patagonia power vest.

The seepage of work beyond the office is one of the defining experiences of modern employment—and from one perspective, the erasure of dress codes isn’t helping. In the past, you could come home and take off your uniform or office attire with the knowledge that you were totally free until the next day, mentally and physically. Now many people wear the same jeans they wore to work to cook dinner, cellphone and laptop never too far from reach, the mind and body never totally disconnected from labor.

Even the mass entertainments that have made the suit-and-tie look such an enduring shorthand for professionalism are beginning to fade, no doubt because the same young Americans who now constitute the majority of the broader labor pool have real influence in shaping what ends up on your screens. TV series such as Silicon Valley and Superstore depict occupational aesthetics as something closer to what they’ve been for millions of Americans for the past decade: people wearing the same clothes to their job that they’d wear to the movies or to lunch with a friend, sometimes complemented by a company-issued jacket or an ID-carrying lanyard.

Gurung, Cawood, and Hall all agree that the mandate for greater fairness in the workplace—spurred by nondiscrimination laws and the need to retain workers in a tight labor market—will likely spell the end of the dress code as we know it, sooner rather than later. For traditionalists, this might sound like an abandonment of pride and professionalism, but in reality, Cawood says, companies that overhaul, simplify, or drop their dress code rarely do anything but make their employees happier. Regulating bad behavior—everything from being a smelly desk neighbor to sexual harassment—doesn’t require rules about pantyhose or facial hair. Cawood points to General Motors as a model for policing how employees adorn themselves, even if it means managers actually have to manage. The entire dress code is two words: Dress appropriately.

Ultimately, what such simple dictates acknowledge is that workers are adults, not babies at productivity day care. “People just generally know how to self-govern, and I don’t think you need these archaic rules to punish that outlier that may or may not occur,” Hall said. “Just cover the things you want covered and call it a day.”

This article appears in the May 2020 print edition with the headline “Kill the Office Dress Code.”