Not Just Cargo Shorts: The Slow Death of the Office Dress Code
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Not Just Cargo Shorts: The Slow Death of the Office Dress Code

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Have the great cargo shorts wars of 2016 made it to your office?

The passionate Internet debate over ‘90s-era baggy shorts is just the latest example of why summertime has long been the bane of the office fashion police. Clothes get skimpier. Hot weather makes the ties and jackets less appealing. The dreaded flip-flops threaten to emerge from the closet.

Employers across the country, including some traditionally stuffy government offices, law firms, banks and management consultancies, are changing their dress codes, often to help recruit or retain workers in a highly competitive job market — though flip-flops remain a step or three too far. J. P. Morgan Chase is allowing most workers outside its investment bank to trade their suits for business-casual clothing. Last year, Walmart loosened its dress code to allow its associates to wear denim. Accenture and PwC both recently adopted “Dress for Your Day” policies that let employees use their best judgment when it comes to clothing.

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“It depends on where you’re going and what you’re doing. If you’re in front of a CEO, you wear a suit,” says Anne Donovan, PwC’s people innovation leader, adding that the change answers the workforce’s desire to wear more comfortable clothes. “We’re competing in a market that’s a war for talent. We’re listening to people who say: `This would make it better.’”

Accenture doesn’t explicitly ban any specific clothes, but asks people to be mindful of factors like t-shirt slogans when dressing for work.

The formality of work clothes has been sliding downhill for years, with experts pointing to the rise of tech startup culture — awash in hoodies and fancy sneakers — as leading the way. Now, startup Betabrand designs yoga pants specifically for the office. A survey of more than 300 senior managers released in June by staffing firm OfficeTeam found that half said employees now wear less formal clothing than they did five years ago.

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You can see the casualization of the workplace beginning a century ago, but accelerating in recent years with the emergency of fast fashion and new clothing choices. “It’s been happening for the past 100 years with the emergence of a middle class and many social rules and social classes disappearing,” says Francois Kress, chief executive officer of fashion label Carolina Herrera. “We have taken into account that people want more comfortable clothes.”

Carolina Herrera now sees perhaps 30 percent of its ready-to-wear sales in daywear separates, versus 70 percent in occasion or evening wear. A few years ago the balance would’ve been 10-90 percent, and in the near future it’s likely to be 50-50, Kress says.

Increasing sales of activewear, which has been booming for the last three years, feed into the growing informality of work attire. Not only do people buy activewear for exercise, these same stretch fabrics are increasingly finding their way into everyday and work clothes. Customers want more versatile clothes that they can wear to work but keep on into the evening, whether for picking up kids after school or dinner out with friends.

As a result, even luxury brands are launching activewear lines, such as the collaboration between Stella McCartney and Adidas or the recently announced partnership between Givenchy and Nike. Or take Burberry’s line of lightweight stretch suiting that’s easily packable for work travel.

At Takeda Pharmaceuticals, many U.S. employees can be found in jeans on a daily basis. The company relaxed its dress code last August based on feedback in a regular survey.

“The new dress code was intended to provide an even more comfortable workplace where employees can do their best work, a high priority for Takeda,” says spokesman Jim Schwartz, adding that the company respects individual expression in appearance and dress, as well as the variety of work. On days that employees are working with vendors or external partners, they’re expected to dress more formally than if they’re primarily working alone.

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At law firm Hunton & Williams, partner Rori Malech sees an increasing variety of options for men, who often wear just dress pants and a shirt, whereas women tend to be a bit dressier, in sleeveless dresses or elegant blouses.

“The most dressed down I will see is capri pants, but they’re work capris with a dressy fabric — not Banana Republic,” says Malech. “There’s definitely a movement going more casual.”

The New York City office tends to be more formal than the Richmond, Virginia office — where the firm was founded — with Washington, D.C. and Texas offices being even more casual and California the most laid back.

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Malech appreciates the more versatile work options available from fashion lines like MM.LaFleur, with comfortable dresses, fitted pants and separates, and even has donned Betabrand “dress yoga pants” when she knew she’d be working an 18-hour day in her office.

“Only if I’m going to be under a rock,” she explains. “It’s not the norm.”

In winter, women might wear dressy boots with a cute skirt, and you could see the occasional loafer. If Malech puts on jeans for casual Friday, she’s sure to dress up the outfit with a jacket, nice heels and pearls.

“I would never not have a suit jacket, sweater or wrap in my office,” she says. “At a white shoe, Southern-founded firm, I don’t think things have changed that much.”

Indeed, the challenge of a more casual and open environment is to strike the balance between comfort and a professional look. “The benefits of more regulated way of dressing at work is that it was easy to look a certain way. There were only a few options,” Kress says. “It’s much more challenging for people to dress more casually but also look good.”

Even with all this change, companies of all stripes still draw the line at flip-flops. “Absolutely not,” Malech says.

PwC specifically asked employees not to wear flip-flops — or shorts. “We said: ‘Use your judgment, and always represent the brand,’” Donovan says.

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