The evolution of business and office wear – Magoda – Manufacturing America
Across the workforce, major shifts are affecting how Americans view their autonomy, individuality, and employee choice. Business owners and managers are reassessing their leadership policies and expectations, especially as retaining and attracting talent is a major challenge today.
Perks like sign-on bonuses, professional development programs, and hybrid work arrangements have become common offerings that prioritize employee interests and viewpoints. However, in addition to relaxing the benefits, some companies are also relaxing policies and abandoning standards that were once long conventions.
A prime example is the office dress code. After many months of working from home in the comfort of sweatpants and slippers, many workers are not keen to return to button-downs, blazers and other more rigid workwear. Looking down the descent from the austere office attire of post-war US corporate culture, to the casual Friday allowances of the late 20th century, to the jeans and t-shirts of the digital age, office attire has changed a great deal over the decades.
Work outfits change from ironed suits to casual business sneakers
Whether embraced or loathed, work dress and appearance policies have always served a purpose for the organization or employer, and for the employees who represent themselves. Depending on the industry, this could have meant workwear or protective gear needed to get the job done. In the office world, on the other hand, smart and professional fashion was the standard.
This was usually embodied in suits, trousers, pencil skirts, blouses and cardigans, in keeping with mid-century cleanliness and predictability. In addition to clothing, many companies had policies that defined appropriate hairstyles, cosmetic use, and hygiene routines.
While there are still companies that maintain these very strict professional dress codes, with changes in corporate culture and a more diverse workplace, the guidelines have gradually been relaxed. Casual work wear on Fridays and in the summer months was slowly introduced in the late 20th century. This led to daily business-casual standards that relaxed the rules but retained many of the fashion staples that were considered “office-appropriate”.
Eventually, business casual lost its business credentials when enterprising CEOs and successful start-up owners — particularly in the tech industry — began wearing jeans, sneakers, and t-shirts as their everyday work attire. Their employees gradually followed suit. In general, the fashion industry sought to accommodate this evolution with designs that offered more comfort but retained a certain professionalism and sophistication.
However, loose workwear did not become universal. Financial, legal, government, and other more conventional sectors have adhered to stricter professional dress codes. And even within the same industry, the definitions of business-casual and office-appropriate will vary widely from one company to another. This isn’t always easy for the employees who have to comply, nor for the managers who have to establish and adhere to company-specific dress codes.
Navigating modern office dress codes
Casual or conservative, office attire remains a powerful non-verbal communication method. From the worker’s perspective, workwear can be used to indicate their commitment to a role, their desired position within an organization, and the individual identity and values they bring with them. Convenience and pragmatism are increasingly prioritized, but appearance still matters in the vast majority of professional environments.
Whether returning to the office after the Covid-19 shutdown or applying for a new job, workers need to take this into account. In the vast majority of industries, companies are still concerned with the appearance of their employees. Your employees are an extension of their own value and brand, which is why office attire guidelines are still important when employees and representatives who meet directly with customers are front-facing.
But organizations that strive to build and maintain certain impressions need to ensure their employees are adequately rewarded to realize them. Asking workers who earn moderate wages to work in designer suits that can only be dry cleaned requires a certain level of income and employers need to take this into account.
To balance all of these needs, HR professionals and people managers must also ensure that individuals’ rights are taken into account, but also that personal choices do not become disruptions or health and safety issues.
They also need to stay abreast of changing trends and demands affecting their industry and the workforce at large. If they fail to keep up with workwear trends and adjust their policies, it could become more difficult to attract talent and damage their company’s reputation.
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