Most workplaces enforce some sort of dress code. In many companies, office dress codes are meant to demonstrate to outsiders, clients, and visitors that their employees are "smart professionals who are diligent about their work." The notion that the clothes (meaning suits and ties and similar dress for women) make the man (or woman) has held particularly steadfast in the private banking and many law firms, where corporate clients expect formality for client meetings and court appearances.
With the exception of a few industries, you'd be hard-pressed to find an office where employees are still dressed to the nines like extras on Mad Men. So, how should employees navigate this newfound sartorial flexibility?
Aloha! Casual Friday and the Rise of Business Casual
For the better part of the 20th century, office attire was dominated by the business suit. For women in the 1950's, the gold standard was a smart Chanel knit suit. For men, you could not go wrong with a classic Brooks Brothers suit, crisp white shirt, and a tie—preferably with no more than two colors. Business suit styles evolved over the years and included everything from double-breasted suits, two-button suits, women's suits featuring large shoulder pads, and more. The trends changed, but popular wisdom stayed the same.
That is, until the early 90's, when companies strapped for cash during the recession adopted Casual Fridays as a "no-cost perk" for employees. Without the rigid policies of standard office dress, however, many professionals found that their employees were perhaps getting a little too casual, "showing up in Hawaiian print shirts or sandals and shorts." Jeans giant Levi Strauss jumped on the business opportunity created by this new workplace conundrum, marketing their new Dockers brand by sending "A Guide to Casual Businesswear" to human resource departments nationwide.
By the end of the decade, spearheaded by these now-quintessential khakis, "Business Casual" had become "the safe global standard" for office attire and not just on Fridays.
Women at Work
Business casual for men in the US is basic and simple. A pair of well-fitting non-denim pants, leather shoes, and a button-down shirt will do. For women, however, the greater availability of styles and variation in trends can make professional dress a bit trickier. "The permutations for women are endless. Business casual for women can best be categorized by what it's not than by what it is. For example no jeans, no shorts, no low necklines, no miniskirts, and no stiletto heels. It is not enough to simply say that a female employee may wear skirts or dresses, pants, and close or open-toes shoes because women's clothing styles vary so wildly.
When gauging whether an outfit is office-appropriate, the fit is the determining factor. Pencil skirts have had a certain amount of staying power in women's workplace dress, but they can come across as too sexy when worn too tight. With necklines, err on the conservative side. A pretty solid rule of thumb? Look at the highest ranking woman in your company and emulate her style (but not the exact outfit).
How Casual? Who's Casual?
With Silicon Valley leading the way, the latest trend in office dress codes could be to do away with them entirely, or in the case of Mark Zuckerberg, wear a corporate uniform (gray t-shirts in his case). This laissez-faire approach to workplace dress has even crept out of the startup world and into the legal industry. Speaking to the Careerist blog in 2011, William Urquhart of the highly respected firm Quinn Emanuel while wearing shorts and flip flops, boasted that his firm "[takes] casual dress to a whole new level" and asserted that dressing comfortably enables lawyers at his firm to think more creatively and levels the proverbial playing field, empowering younger associates to voice their concerns and opinions.
Nevertheless, the old mantra "dress to impress" still seems to hold true, and one should be wary of using their company's casual dress code as an excuse to look like a slob. In a client-facing role, there are few situations in which it would be a safe bet to flaunt tattoos or wear shorts. Further, doing the bare minimum when it comes to office dress could negatively impact your career prospects, signaling to management that you don't care how you are perceived at work.
The norms of casual office dress are also highly subjective depending on cultural context. While professional men in Cuba, The Dominican Republic and Haiti sport guayaberas at events both formal and informal, business casual in London manifests as "two-button, peaked lapel, ticket pocket, double-breasted blazers with British spread collar shirts (no tie) and light wool slacks—all tailored, of course, to fit perfectly." And let's not forget Bermuda where the national dress is Bermuda shorts, which are worn with tie and jacket.
The best way for human resource departments to address the issue is to have a clearly-defined list stating what sort of office wear is appropriate.
When in Doubt, Ask and Observe
A quick google search proves that there is a myriad of resources and opinions on the intricacies of "business formal" vs "business casual" vs "smart casual." Alas, the only way to be certain where your current or potential workplace stands on the matter is to ask and to observe how others on the senior management team are attired.
Especially when preparing for an interview, knowing your audience is essential. What works in one office or industry might be unheard of in another. Nobody wants to be underdressed when making a first impression, but walking into a tech startup in a suit and tie will make just as bad an impression. It would send a loud and clear message that you do not understand the company culture of the place where you are interviewing.
Whether your office dress policies are strict or relaxed, the most important thing to remember is to wear clothes that make you feel confident both in your appearance and your ability to get your work done and consistent with the brand and image of your employer.