Just like technology, workplace fashion has rapidly evolved through the decades. In the past, style has been more formal – dressing for the office in the 1940s and 50s was very much a hierarchical statement, echoing the sentiment of the workplace itself.
Nowadays, much of the modern workforce is more casually dressed, with many businesses embracing ‘dress down Friday’ policies alongside more flexible working styles, as Professor Karen Pine, Psychologist at Hertfordshire University says:
“Over the last three decades, we have experienced a big movement in the workplace, where traditions and protocols have fallen enormously. The biggest changes have included the decline of the hierarchy, the boss being less of an authoritarian figure and more of a coach, all colleagues being called by their first name and the biggest change, the transition from a formal dress code to a casual one.”
Does the workplace dress code directly affect working culture? More importantly, does it impact upon the productivity of the workforce?
“61% of employees are more productive when the dress code is relaxed”
Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project, tested the theory of casual vs. suited style to discover what attire worked best in his office. He rotated his wardrobe between a traditional suit, business casual wear and, believe it or not, pyjamas. During this three-week social experiment, he charted his energy levels, motivation and workplace focus relating to each outfit.
The results? Clothing didn’t affect focus or energy, but it did “have an incredibly strong influence over how confident or relaxed I felt.”
Although this is just one social experiment, larger studies have found that up to 61% of employees are more productive when the dress code is relaxed.
From Casual Fridays to Business Casual
We tend to think of Casual Friday as a modern development, but there are historical references dating back far further than we might have imagined, with one newspaper stating “Dressing down began in Britain when old school ties and sports jackets were worn into the city on Fridays, so that bankers could head off smartly at 4pm for their country estates.”
Dress-down Fridays were even part of a marketing campaign in 1960s America, with the Hawaiian Fashion Guild using the term ‘Aloha Fridays’ to promote wearing Hawaiian style shirts to work.
Indeed, it seems the Hawaiian Fashion Guild weren’t the only ones to turn to the workplace to help boost casual clothing sales – Levi’s introduced a new range of chinos, called Dockers, in the 1990s, marketing them via a ‘Guide to Casual Business Wear’ booklet.
But what is casual business wear, anyway? The term seems ubiquitous now, but is largely considered to have made its way to the mainstream from Silicon Valley in the early 1980s, where it described the uniform style of khaki pants, sensible shoes and collared shirts – a staple look, now common the world over.
Around the Globe
In recent years, fashion trends have become more accessible, diffusing into more comfortable styles and enabling workplace fashion to become an extension of an individual’s environment and personality.
As workspaces become increasingly agile, our personal style is evolving to match.
Any business based in a hot and humid climate adds another level of difficulty in dressing appropriately for the office – to combat this, PWC Singapore recently introduced the ‘FlexDress Everyday’ policy; a revised dress code in which employees can exercise their own judgement when it comes to what they wear, leaving room to dress in outfits they might feel more comfortable in.
“our new dress code will give the flexibility to our people to dress more comfortably and I’m happy to see a lot more employees – especially working mothers and fathers – take advantage of our flex initiatives. We are excited to go against the grain and enable our people to ‘be themselves’ unlocking the diversity each of us brings to the workplace.”
PWC’s Australian branch also recently updated their dress code, replacing the list of acceptable clothing for their 6,000 employees with a simple message: “staff should dress in a way that makes them feel great, is respectful to clients and colleagues, and safe and appropriate for the environment they are in.”
In the UK however, the majority of workers say they would feel more productive and put more effort into their appearance if there wasn't a dress code, according to a study by Stormline:
“Businesses in the UK seem keen on making their talent dress in specific, often very restrictive ways. Our research suggests that this sort of attitude could actually be harming businesses and their ability to attract the top talent, while creating some low-level disgruntlement among their teams.” – Regan McMillan, director of Stormline.
Perhaps we need to look to other countries and follow their example: at Roche Pharma AG in Germany, a more relaxed dress code is key, with “dress appropriately” being the official guidance for employees. Put simply, Roche Pharma AG encourages everyone to dress for comfort when at their desks all day, while still sometimes donning a suit for more formal business settings. General Motors CEO Mary Barra recently introduced a similar dress code for her US-based workforce, too. Clearly, a flexible approach to workplace fashion is the future.
“Telling adults what to wear to work is completely out of step with a 21st century economy, in which employees should be trusted knowledge workers” Anthony Mitchell, co-founder and chairman of Australian strategic leadership firm Bendelta.