Clothing is a tool used to visualize and benchmark ourselves and the people around us. The way we dress provides conclusions about our persona, social status aspirations, and level of professionalism. As fashion designer, Rachel Zoe says, “Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak, dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they will remember the person.”
In the corporate domain, how we handle our clothing practice shapes the image of the company. Modern day businesses have their own mandatory uniforms or if we are lucky enough, the company we work for will let us have our freedom to wear our favorite casual clothes. Now the dilemma comes on how we can infuse style with the bland and boring corporate dress code.
Most corporate dress codes were crafted by decision makers with the ultimate goal of standardization and strict compliance. While the dress code is only one of many workplace policies, it represents the company culture and how management views its employees.
During 1960s, the standard look for women was a plain skirt with stockings or pants partnered with shoes in “thin stiletto heels.” The attempt is to still look feminine, but with a strong resemblance of competitiveness into what was then a male-dominated world.
Style in the workplace can be as difficult as our own work itself. I even ask myself, what happened to the big perms, sequin-encrusted garments, and bright colors of the 1950s when every employee was excited to go to work and felt energized? The “power dressing” trend of the 1990s has turned to ashes due to stringent standard dress code uniforms and it continues to fracture across industries, in terms of formality, as casual wear gains favor over the suits and ties.
The way we dress contributes to either success or failure in the modern workplace culture. “The problem with appearance is that it translates to performance,” says Nicole Williams, a career expert. “Even if your boss doesn’t think that they’re thinking any less of you, they will subconsciously think it.” This realization lead me to wear a sensibly fashionable outfit in the office regardless of the day. It is a form of self-medication, which in return helps me release fragments of everyday workplace stress. It is a distinguishing separation of your everyday “workplace you” vs the weekend “fashion you.”
One of the arguments for stricter dress codes is that if the dress codes relax, so will ethics and productivity. Will wearing sandals instead of two-inch heels lessen someone’s motivation to close the deal? Business consultant, Andrew Jensen, studied the trend toward more casual office attire. He found that some bosses contend that the trend toward business-casual wear can boost morale and camaraderie and even increase creativity by allowing workers to feel comfortable and happy. In others, supervisors say that business-casual can easily be abused and lead to sloppiness, laziness and a decrease in professionalism.
I think a balance can be achieved that will allow for the implementation of a dress code policy wherein a bland workplace uniform can be brought to life through the use of colors, blending neutrals and pop of color combination. Finding the true balance between dress code policy and style can be difficult for us employees due to some restrictions, but we can do both. Well-designed uniforms will immensely propagate the feeling of empowerment. Fabric choices between cotton, polyester, and nylon or the blending of the three will impact the overall comfort of the employees, giving the illusional effect of being loved.
As a stylist, I honestly admire the return of the 1980s style: strong shouldered silhouette, patterned pantsuit, and more vibrant colors. This style reflected how career women and even men made their voices heard and stood strong.
Although some companies offer the freedom of dressing casually, i.e., T-shirts, sneakers, and hoodies, this was, for some, the death knell of the formal workplace dress code policy. A good dress code policy can empower employees, boost morale, and increase the energy and fun of the workplace. This will definitely enhance creativity among teams and individuals.
Clothes are powerful. Ensuring that the company’s dress code allows employees to dress with freedom and style is one of the easiest things an organization can do to show that it values its employees.
This article was written as part of the requirements of the course, Strategic Human Resource Management.
Rosalia Hernandez is an MBA student of the De La Salle University Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business.