Dissecting The Most Confusing Dress Code In Existence

This article was originally published on October 15, 2015.
If I am ever asked during a job interview what is my greatest strength and greatest weakness, the answer to both questions would be the same: I don’t like being told what to do — especially when it comes to my wardrobe. You can tell me when to show up and you can tell me how you want something done, but please don’t try and control what I’m wearing when I show up to do it. The problem with this is a little something called “business casual,” the widely accepted, not-so-contemporary dress code of corporate and even most non-corporate jobs today. It’s the idea that you should come dressed up to work, but not too dressed up — that you should be judged solely on your work, but still use your clothes to connote that message — that confuses and frustrates women across the country. I was pretty far into my life as a wage-earner before I started having trouble with what I wore to work. The paper route, sneaker store, and flower shop that employed me were pretty easygoing with the dress code. But once I left college and entered dental school, I had many “conversations” about my office attire. Female professors commented on the “way” I wore my scrubs (there’s the “right” way, where the pants are tied up around your rib cage, and there’s my way where you roll them down a little bit. Apparently, my way was scandalous.). When I actually entered the workforce, supervisors told me my scrubs made me appear too young, so I should dress up to treat patients. But when I tried to (my first encounter with the dreaded “business casual”), I was told the colors I was choosing were too bold. After one particularly confusing conversation, I went home dejected. Then, I went to the mall. I bought black slacks, some gray sweaters, and more black slacks. Getting dressed would be way more boring, but at the same time, it’d be easier, right? On the one hand, I felt like I wasn’t being creative with my attire, but on the other hand, I didn’t really have to think about anything when I was getting dressed in the morning. I would just sleep in a little longer, put the basic outfit together, be acceptable, and do my job. For me, it turned going to work into an out-of-body experience; it’s you, but it’s not really you — but just for that short period of time. Then you go home, change clothes, and you’re you again.
According to cubicle legend, business casual started in Honolulu in 1966, when a Hawaiian shirt company needed to sell more product. They encouraged “Aloha Fridays,” where people would wear Hawaiian shirts to work. This idea became Casual Friday, which then spread to the mainland, which was then adopted as an everyday acceptable way to come to the office. In 1992, Levi’s Dockers brand, known exclusively for business casual-wear, sent out a guidebook to Human Resource directors across the country, encouraging them to adopt business casual as a way to make their employees happier at work. The idea was that you could be relaxed (and not have to get your shirts pressed each morning), but not too relaxed. More women-centric retailers popped-up, like Ann Taylor and Banana Republic, and became places that women could find dressy outfits for work (but again — not too dressy!). A dress code set as business casual is like getting invited to a wedding with a “beach formal” dress code. You know what both things are, yet it’s difficult to understand where the two overlap — especially if you’re interested in style, too. Guys have it easy: They can grab a collared shirt, trousers, any shoe that isn’t a sneaker or sandal, and throw a tie in the desk drawer in case of a meeting. For women, the business casual uniform is much more open to interpretation. You can wear a skirt (but what length is okay?), a top (but how low cut or fashion forward?), shoes (Flats? Heels? KITTEN HEELS?), pants — okay, pants are easier, go with pants. But maybe don’t add a blazer, someone might think you’re trying to wear a suit. You haven’t even gotten to jewelry yet, or what bag to use, or how much makeup you should wear. By the way, your male colleagues left for work an hour ago with wet hair, and you’re still trying to pick out a slip that doesn’t show past your skirt. Business casual is also confusing because its definition (and therefore, its freedoms and confines) is variable depending on the industry. Someone working in corporate America is held to a totally different standard than someone working in the music industry, which is inevitably different than someone working at an art gallery. Some companies have an actual dress code and others have an implied one. Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, used to work in the HR department on the team that developed the company’s code of conduct. During her time there, she replaced a 10-page handbook dedicated just to workplace attire with “dress appropriately.” But what does “dress appropriately” really mean? I decided to ask women across different industries how they get dressed for work each day.
Cate, a corporate attorney in NYC, says she doesn’t have a handbook on what to wear, it’s just generally understood. She generally sticks to pants, a blouse, and a cardigan; and while she doesn’t dress like that at home, she finds business casual easier than having to put together more formal outfits everyday. Not everyone in her office understands the implied dress code, though. “Every once in a while, we get a reminder for people not to wear shorts to work, which I find hilarious. Seeing someone in shorts at work would be like seeing a unicorn.” Yimu, whose job as a digital associate producer in L.A. does allow for her to wear shorts to work on a regular basis, finds that the warmer weather, combined with her office vibe, makes more casual attire totally acceptable in her field. “People at my office wear everything from crop tops to yoga pants, cut-offs to flip flops.” Even so, there’s a certain level of professionalism that she likes to maintain, so when she gets dressed in the morning she always tries to remind herself to dress “less Kylie, more Kendall.” Suzanne, a TV agent in NYC, falls somewhere in-between. “In my work, you need to be able to meet with YouTube stars and heads of networks in the same day, and then meet clients out for drinks afterwards.” She generally relies on what she describes as a classic “Ralph Lauren" look: good skinny jeans, a great blazer, tall black leather boots. "You want to look professional, but not look too dressed up." It seems that business casual has gone from “relaxed, but not too relaxed” to “dressed up, but not too formal,” which can certainly leave you with an early morning headache that, despite those after-work happy hours, is not caused by tequila shots. A common theme among all the business-casual women I spoke to was that looking too dressed up is frowned upon — that it makes an employee look out of place. This is especially true for women, who, likely because of all the variations in how they can interpret business casual, often receive comments based on their chosen attire for that day. Because men tend to wear very similar clothes in the business-casual world, there isn’t much to comment on. But women can be bombarded with opinions of their outfit on a daily basis. Yimu’s coworkers regularly make comments if she is dressed too formally and Cate’s colleagues always know if she’s headed to court that day based on her attire — and let her know that they noticed her outfit. As if women didn’t have more serious things to deal with in the workplace, (the glass ceiling, sexual harassment, equal pay for equal work), discussions about the outfit you chose that morning can be belittling. Certainly this depends on your chosen field. You may not care to hear what Joe in accounting thinks of your sweater while you’re writing a brief, but if you work in a creative field, discussing your look of the day can be part of the job, and one that you enjoy.
Once you’ve figured out how to dress appropriately at your office, you’re only partway there. The trickiest thing now is how you inject your personal style into your daily outfit. The things that define on-trend office-wear (a stand-out color, cut, fabric, or pattern) inherently makes it distracting. So how do professional women walk the line between feeling like they can be unique, self-empowered individuals in a workforce while also blending in? How can we survive business-casual confusion while still feeling like ourselves? “Jumpsuits. I own an obscene number of jumpsuits,” said Suzanne, the TV agent. "A jumpsuit is professional and stylish. I can wear flats and a blazer walking to work, and throw on heels for client drinks without looking like I just came from an office.” Cate, the attorney, also uses her accessories to express her personal style, “I rely on my shoes and jewelry primarily. My accessories are how I choose to stand apart.” Yimu finds that dressing for work in L.A. is best accomplished by putting together “Goldilocks” outfits that she can adjust with temperature changes (and depending on what meetings she has) throughout the day. “Office temperatures are extremely unstable. One day it’s a tropical jungle, the next an arctic tundra.” Her L.A. version of Suzanne’s jumpsuit is her trusty romper, which she finds most useful when she has after-work drinks or an event to head to that night. There’s something to be said for showing a bit of flair at the office and showing your coworkers that you have style. It’s about standing out, but not too much. Incorporating trends, showing that you have a signature look, or demonstrating a kick-ass (yet appropriate!) accessory game can tell your boss that you aren’t just an office drone, you have interests outside of four walls of a cubicle, and demonstrate your creativity without having to say a word. My life with business casual came to a glorious halt when I had aged to the point where I could wear scrubs again without appearing too young (and yes, I still defiantly roll them down). There is less room to express myself than if I were to wear my own clothes, but like the other women, I found comfort in a lax dress code that allowed me freedom from overthinking my wardrobe every single morning (and in my case, it’s just cleaner than trying to get saliva out of your sweater when you get home). I felt a sense of relief when I didn’t have to plan an outfit everyday, knowing I could just change into my uniform when I got to work. With scrubs, there is even less room for personal style expression, but I try my best with fun sneakers, jewelry, and even my makeup. It seems that as women across many different industries, we all have a touch of the business casual love/hate relationship. Some have mastered it more than others, and certainly some industries leave women with way more autonomy when it comes to picking out their daily attire. But I guarantee that no matter what you do, there is always a moment in the morning when you stand in front of your closet, eyes half-open, and wonder whether you should let a little more of yourself out. Shop Our Workwear Essentials: Super Casual
J. Crew Striped Culotte Pant, $88, available at J. Crew.
Pixie Market Fit And Flare Shirt Dress, $72, available at Pixie Market.
Loéil Farrah Top, $82, available at Loéil.
H&M Sandals With Heel, $29.99, available at H&M.
Zara Braided Messenger Bag, $49.90, available at Zara. Somewhat Casual
MSGM Cropped Tie Waist Cotton Shirt, $222, available at Moda Operandi.
Finery Addison Contrast Panel Trousers, $89, available at Finery.
Everlane The Modern Point, $155, available at Everlane.
Clare V. Simple Tote, $650, available at Clare V.
Mango Metal Pendant Earrings, $19.99, available at Mango. Old-School Office Appropriate
Theory Perfect Cotton Shirt, $235, available at Net-A-Porter.
ASOS Super High Waist Trouser, $48.53, available at ASOS.
& Other Stories Crochet Dress, $145, available at & Other Stories.
Dorateymur Pumps, $440, available at Farfetch.
Forever21 Double-breasted Blazer, $20.99, available at Forever 21.

More from Trends

R29 Original Series