Read: Wearing a suit makes people think differently
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can be far less benign: Employment law is riddled with cases like that of a black woman who in 2010 had a job offer rescinded because she refused to cut her dreadlocks; the company’s dress code stipulated only that hairstyles be businesslike, professional, and not “excessive.”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.”