On Friday, Corporate HR sent out a notice that jeans would be permissible not just on Fridays but every day because ‘you’ve told us that casual dress improves productivity.’ (There are countless articles/blog posts/journals arguing for either casual or “professional” business attire, but my employer is leaning towards the relaxed end of the spectrum in an effort to be a workplace of choice for millennials – but that’s just my opinion 😉 .)

The email announcement brought a big reaction. Some clutches of people were grinning, while others huddled together and expressed anger. One woman my age told me that she felt “betrayed” because she owns nothing but professional dress, however it seemed like no one under 40 was angry, because dress codes are a generational thing.

Currently, most men wear the guy uniform – khakis, button-down shirt in winter, polo shirt in summer, and some sort of loafers on their feet. If it’s really cold, they’ll throw on a pullover sweater or sweater vest.

Women generally dress better.  There are few suits, but lots of flirty little dresses, skirts, stylish pants, fun jackets, super high heels, or boots now that it’s cooled off.

Office Wear 1990s
Typical Work Outfits from 1990 sewing pattern. Ticks all the boxes.

I came of age in a time when you had three wardrobes: work, play, party. A typical office dress code included a jacket or sweater (always covered shoulders), minimal “tasteful” jewellery, no bare-legs or open toed shoes. Skirts were often short, but not showing so much thigh as to gain attention from the dress code disciplinarian (usually a woman wearing sensible shoes and heavy hose). So my closet reflects the more formal end of the scale and it still has three distinctions – work, play, going out.

In general, those my age (late Boomers, early Gen X’ers) have the same attitude as our parents and endorse the view that one is more productive when dressed “up”. Sloppy dress = lazy attitude.

Part of me understands the feeling of ‘betrayal’. The times they are a’changing and sometimes it’s a real slap in the face when you begin to realize that the transformations aren’t being driven by you and your peers. Hardest still for Boomers who have ruled the roost forever: The world no longer revolves around us and our generation. Does aging gracefully require us to embrace this realization?

As I walked through the building this morning, the first day with the new dress code, I saw lots of dress slacks, skirts, wool trousers, and several people in jeans. But they were nice jeans, paired with great shoes and fabulous little jackets. Sure, a few people looked sloppy, but those are the same people who wore crappy “I slept in these” khakis last Monday.

When I was doing my holiday party clothes shopping on Saturday I decided to try on some things that I’d normally have classified as “play clothes”. Surprise! They might not be dry-clean only fabric, but they were comfortable, look polished and can absolutely be part of my new work wardrobe. And here’s a crazy concept: My closet can be filled with things that I love and want to wear, not garments that check off an arbitrary box. My wardrobe, which I endeavour to keep small and in line with Marie Kondo’s principles, is happy.

Choice and change aren’t necessarily bad things. Now I wonder how long it will take the one who felt betrayed to figure that out.

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3 thoughts on “Generations Clash … The Office Dress Code

  1. Clothes are so expensive and for younger people I’m sure having one wardrobe is a lot more affordable as well. You’re right in that those who do sloppy dress will do so no matter what the dress code. 🙂

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  2. Change is a funny thing. I trained in the rigidly formal financial sector, where all of the women were aggressively crisp and neat. It was a lot of work, everyday. When I joined my current workplace, my boss always insisted that I dress for comfort (its a small business, and I’m not customer-facing) which threw me completely! It was a whole new world, and took me the better part of a year to adjust. Now my office wear consists of cycling leggings under a tunic, and lots of knitwear. I’m not sure what I’d do if I had to go back to enforced formalwear…

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  3. I suppose I’d view it as a betrayal if I’d invested a large percentage of my income in dressy clothes because it was expected, then was told that wasn’t necessary after all. You can often mix those dressier pieces with other things, though, and there’s no law against dressing up more than the code requires. I’m not crazy about dress codes, anyway, since the devil’s always in the details that the code doesn’t (and can’t) address; the key is good employee judgment. At a former workplace of mine, jeans were banned after the company Controller (who was very young and immature) wore ripped, faded jeans to a meeting with the company President and the company’s bank. Common sense is worth so much more than a dress code.

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