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The evolution of office dress code


In the past 100 years, the way people dress in the office has changed. First of all due to fashion trends of each decade, but also due to generational mind-sets.  But the biggest evolution was felt recently in the past 10 years, when business casual “stole the scene“. Nowadays even in more formal professions such as law and accountancy, the dress code is changing.

In the beginning of 20th century women in the office wore dresses, blouses, full skirts and tied up hair, and men wore office suits. For almost 100 years, the evolution of office dress code was slow for woman but almost non-existent for men. The Infographic below gives you an historical perspective on office dress code:

The so called ´millennials´ (the range of people born between 1984 and 2000, more or less) are probably one of the biggest reasons for the late change. Millennials are very exigent with their careers and with societal issues. When compared to their predecessors, millennials care much more about work-life balance, organizational culture and workplace environment. Thus, this generation finds it weird, when confronted with dress code restrictions, not to be able to dress the way they feel comfortable. For them to dress casual should be natural in the workplace. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook and one of the most influential entrepreneurs for millennials, believes that there are more important things than the way people dress at work. He states that “I'm in this really lucky position, where I get to wake up every day and help serve more than a billion people. And I feel like I'm not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.”

But the tendency to dress casual at work was starting to be felt way earlier than we think, during the 60’s. A movement in Hawaii called “Aloha Friday” showed that people already felt the urge to dress comfortable at work. This trend was later called Casual Friday when it flew to mainland. Also we should avoid misunderstandings. To dress casual doesn’t mean to have a careless or untidy appearance. Casual means that you don’t need to wear a suit and tie, if you are a man, or high heels and long skirts, if you are a woman. So, you should have common sense to know what you should wear or not. 

The eternal debate will always be whether or not personal expression conflicts with company’s identity. Nowadays, we try to identify so much with our jobs that we believe we are able express our true selves at work.  But is it that simple? What if company’s values are not exactly the same as ours? It is true that there is a general modern tendency for accepting differences and different ways of personal expression, including the way people dress at work. But still we have to look to the context because what can be acceptable in one company cannot be in other. Also most of the executive positions are taken by a generation that grew up in a different reality where freedom of speech didn’t even exist at the time.

Office dress code is a matter of continuous evolution towards acceptance, but there is still a long way to go. Thus, you should be careful when looking or accepting a new job. Make sure that the office dress code among all other organizational values match with your personal ones and this way you will feel more engaged with the company.

Text and Infographic by: Joana Correia

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