When it comes to office-appropriate clothing, there’s been a marked shift from business casual to just plain comfortable.
Even as employees return to professional workplaces, their clothes are now reflecting years of more relaxed working environments. And as employees have proven they can be productive and successful no matter what they’re wearing, it’s less likely they’ll be donning stuffy suits or constricting clothing just to appear professional.
“You don’t have to have a suit and tie on to be competent,” says Corey Andrew Powell, marketing content manager at the National Society of Leadership and Success, an honor society. “And a suit and tie doesn’t make a difference if employees are incompetent and don’t know what they’re doing in their jobs.”
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Around half of employers have a formal dress code policy in place, with 41% citing “business casual” as the most common, followed by “street clothes,” like jeans, according to a 2023 Gallup survey. Just 3% describe their dress as “business professional.” Still, presentation matters: A separate survey by Office Team found that 86% of workers and 80% of managers felt clothing choices could affect someone’s chance of being promoted.
Powell says he previously worked for an employer that encouraged employees to dress comfortably in leisure wear, though they suggested they dress up when meeting with clients. Today, he works entirely remote, and says employees are expected to look “presentable,” with no set expectation around what that means. He acknowledges these trends are not always welcomed, especially in traditionally white collar professions, like finance and law.
“People are required, in the financial world for example, to wear a suit and tie, because it makes the customers feel better,” Powell says. “One of the biggest hurdles are the old school gatekeepers who are in these power positions in organizations, and they are really used to a different corporate America. So they are going to be very resistant to allow certain changes because they feel they can’t have an office culture without that. But I would argue that’s not true.”
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Today, younger workers are continuing to drive this change — many Gen Z employees may have never experienced a traditional office environment since entering professional life and feel comfortable expressing their authentic selves through their clothes, Powell says. As employers eagerly tap into this demographic, enforcing outdated ideas around fashion should be at the bottom of their priority list.
“Young people are like, ‘Hey, I really need to be allowed to be more relaxed and let my authenticity show so that I can be my best self,” he says. “Gen Z drives so much when it comes to corporate vitals, so [employers] have to be compromising when they want to have the Gen Z generation in their organization.”
At the end of the day, the style of shirt should be the least important part of an employee’s contribution to an organization, Powell says.
“It’s irrelevant,” he says. “Just come in, do a good job, and I’ll thank you when it’s done. I don’t care if you’re wearing a muumuu — just do the work.”