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Does the Future of Work Need a Dress Code?

Does the Future of Work Need a Dress Code?

By June 2020, it was clear that the COVID-19 pandemic was here to stay for a while, and thoughts of locking down for a few weeks and re-emerging in an unchanged world seemed distant and quaint. It was also clear that my wardrobe was woefully unprepared for a long stretch of working from home.

I had two kinds of clothes at that time: business casual, and pajamas. I wanted to get dressed in something other than pajamas and lounge clothes, because it helped create some much-needed separation between “I’m working” and “I’m relaxing at home” – since both were now being done in the same place.

But, button-down shirts and pencil skirts are hardly practical or enjoyable while fixing lunch for two little kids in between meetings, or providing a comforting lap to two shedding cats. There is also a stark difference between fabrics that work well during the summer in the highly air-conditioned workplaces typical in the United States, compared to my lightly air conditioned, energy-conscious home.

[Related: Why Sustainable Fashion Matters]

So I built a new wardrobe, made up of mostly pre-owned clothes that struck a balance between looking nice enough for Zoom calls and being comfortable enough to wear all day at home. I also found myself gravitating toward bright, cheerful clothes, possibly as a mood booster in the midst of dark and scary times. And for the first time, my wardrobe was not built around what I was supposed to wear: It was built around what made me happy, and what allowed me to bring my best self forward every day.

Over time, I noticed that my best self for my work life and my best self for my home life were converging onto the same person: the authentic Me. I gradually grew less concerned with how my appearance or style choices would be perceived by others. Fast forward a year, and I find myself staring quizzically at my pencil skirts and high heels, wondering if I will ever feel the need to wear them again.

As my comfort in my authentic self-expression grows, I am cognizant that this growing comfort is also influenced by my privilege. I am a 38-year old, white, heterosexual, cisgendered, able bodied, average body type woman of Eastern European ancestry. The mainstream culture’s definition of “average beauty” or “professional appearance for women” was built around someone who looks like me – aside from my tattoos, which I am not trying so hard to hide anymore.

But the idea of authentic self-expression is much scarier for almost anyone outside of the normalized definition of acceptable, professional appearance. Black teenagers have been forced to cut their natural hair. Fat shaming has become a social epidemic. The basic human rights of the transgender population are questioned every day.

Our standards for “professional appearance” are barreling towards a head-on collision with a growing desire for authentic self-expression. And before you mistake "authentic self-expression" for "wearing pajamas to the office," let me ask you this: what, exactly, makes for a professional appearance…and why?

Does black hair being worn in locs constitute professional appearance? What about men who feel their best in makeup and ballet flats? Or a traditional Indian suit? If a woman with breasts is wearing a shirt that shows her cleavage, is this automatically "unprofessional," even if she is wearing that shirt because she has limited time to pump breast milk and not having to take her shirt off saves precious minutes?

When considered through this lens, the rules of “professional appearance” seem, at their best, arbitrary; and at their worst, like yet another form of cultural gatekeeping, yet another mechanism for keeping historically minoritized populations out of positions of authentic power.

[Related: Diversity Without Power is Still Not Enough]

Consider, for a moment, the alternative of defining “professional appearance” as any appearance that maximizes our abilities to do our jobs productively, compassionately, courteously, and creatively. Would this definition make it easier for the innovators, knowledge workers, and problem solvers to focus on what value they bring to the world, rather than how their appearance is valued? Can we ever achieve true inclusion if we do not question and challenge how our judgement of another’s appearance affects our judgement of their skills and abilities?

Now, where does all this leave my high heel collection? Relegated to the back of the closet, awaiting a fancy night out that involves mostly sitting. I still think my high heels can make any outfit look amazing, but the hours of pain, cramped toes, and aching legs don’t feel worth it anymore.

They also feel incongruent with a future of heightened awareness of how our choices affect those around us. I do not want my daughter – or my son – growing up thinking flatter shoes, graying hair, and growing wrinkles make me less relevant as an accomplished and intelligent woman.

So although I still struggle with my conscious choices to live into a fully authentic self-expression – visible tattoos included – I also think it is more important for me to help pave the way toward a future that values our fellow humans in a way that goes beyond appearance. And I challenge our workplaces to do the same.

If you are interested in joining me on this mission, here is what you can do:

  1. Acknowledge the role you, and every other individual, play in your workplace culture. Your individual choices have power and you affect the world around you every day.
  2. Examine your unconscious biases. Unconscious bias is simply the lens through which we view the world, informed by our own perspectives and experiences. Everyone has unconscious biases, and they do not automatically make you racist or sexist or ageist. But, if left unexamined, they do have the potential to unintentionally harm those who do not fit into your perspective of the world. So when you meet someone new at a conference or in your workplace, or especially if you have recruiting and hiring responsibilities, take a moment to pause and ask yourself if you have made any conclusions or judgements about this person based on their appearance.
  3. If you are inclined to speak truth to power: When those around you are bringing forward judgements about others based on vague concepts such as “professionalism” or “cultural fit,” challenge them to define exactly what their criteria are and how they expect those criteria to impact this person’s ability to do their job well.

If we can embrace a broader range of physical appearances as authentic, attractive, intelligent, valuable, and powerful, we can pave the way for a more inclusive world – and perhaps even an equitable one.

[Related: Dress Codes Redefined]

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Trish Golas is passionate about diversity, inclusion, and belonging, and helping others be their best selves.


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