As we think about the ways that sustainability and fashion touch our lives, we also recognize that everyone comes from different industries, regions and lifestyles. What works for us in the fashion industry in New York may not work for a lawyer living in the South, for example, or a VP of a large corporation in the Midwest.

Yet, for many industries, professional dress codes are the norm and expectation. Business attire often consists of a suit for men — or, at least, a collared shirt and slacks. For women, there’s a bit more room for interpretation, but the rules seem to center around appropriate coverage: no skin-tight, low-cut clothing or open-toed shoes. Casual denim or workout gear and athletic shoes are discouraged as well.

Of course, there is a range for what’s permissible according to the rules of a particular company, but generally, the foundation seems to be based on not being a distraction.

From a sustainability standpoint, we think professional dress codes can be excessive. They demand a different set of clothes for the workday that often do not get worn in a personal setting, sometimes necessitating two different wardrobes. There aren’t many sustainable designers working in professional attire, either, so it may be more difficult to find strict professional attire in the sustainable fashion community. Business attire is also often known for being bland, though that is certainly changing.

Granted, we work in a creative industry ourselves, so the dress codes are different for us. There’s room for expression and joy; in fact, those are the qualities that make the fashion industry so wonderful. But we have also been in situations that demand more traditional office attire, and have found some of our sustainable philosophies at odds with what we are being asked to wear in business settings.

Here, we’ll explore the history of professional dress codes, especially as they pertain to working women, and the ways that they shape our identities for better or worse.

Image via The New Yorker

Examining Professional Dress Codes, Past and Present

Dress codes were always an understood fact of the corporate world for men, but became even more rigid once women entered the workforce in the 1950s. At that time, the ready-to-wear professional fashion industry was booming, offering wide arrays of attire suited for the office. High heels and stockings were the norm, as well as coiffed hair and makeup. Little changed in the subsequent decades.

Image via Levi Strauss & Co

Slowly, there was a shift in what was considered professional or necessary. With the rise of Casual Friday in the 1990s, employees began to embrace the possibilities of a more comfortable dress code — at least, for the last workday of the week. Some went to outrageous lengths to display their originality, blurring work/play lines and frustrating management. Levi’s even launched an elaborate campaign in the 1990s to redefine business attire (including, of course, their signature jeans in the mix).

So why do we have a dress code at all? Some companies argue that the office dress code is about representing the company, not the individual. Many employees interact with customers or outside clients, and companies want to present a unified appearance in those cases.

In much the same way that some schools have a uniform dress code, some also believe that business attire removes unnecessary distraction from the workplace. By standardizing dress codes, everyone is more or less wearing the same sort of thing. In theory, if there are clearly articulated guidelines, Human Resource representatives don’t have to get involved with petty discussions over shoulder straps or inappropriate logos on t-shirts. The idea behind a dress code is simplification, both for the company and the individual worker.

That’s the ideal. But it doesn’t appear to actually be the case.

Human resources representatives have noticed a marked shift of productivity and positive company culture due to relaxing dress codes. The New York Times ran a story a few years ago about the end of the office dress code, highlighting instances where women in particular were forced to adhere to exacting standards, such as the obligation to wear high heels (a hugely uncomfortable choice for some women).

By allowing employees to express their individuality and care for their comfort through their attire, companies are implicitly saying that they value the personal agency and worth of the individual. There is also a greater sense of trust in the employee’s decisions, down to the smallest details of what they are wearing.

Many more offices are moving to a more casual, or at least a business casual, approach to dress codes. This power shift has led to a greater sense of investment and personal ownership over employees’ roles in their companies. People are feeling more connected to their work and more appreciated by the larger organizations.

Identity and the Professional Dress Code

Dress codes, even the most tightly outlined ones, are always open to interpretation. By restricting what a person can wear, we invite them to test the boundaries of expression, often creating confusion and tension between corporate management and individual employees.

We also see a marked gender inequity in the ways that women’s workplace attire is constrained. Office dress codes are very concerned with oversexualization of women, but also seem to require women to look pleasant and presentable in a gendered way. The emphasis on heels and form-fitting (but not too form-fitting) attire suggests a need to police women’s bodies.

There’s also a gray area when it comes to religious, cultural and gender difference in the workplace. How do we continue to respect the myriad backgrounds and beliefs in a workplace while adhering to rigid rules of what to wear?

With the influx of young, progressive Silicon Valley CEOs in the late 20th century, dress codes began to seem antiquated. T-shirts and denim were more than acceptable; in fact, in some start-up settings, anything but is seen as pretentious or overreaching. The emphasis was much more centered on results versus process, and even the highest-ranked executives recognized that innovation was more important than conformity.

Though generally we don’t love an office dress code, we recognize that it’s still a standard in many industries. Some employees may even enjoy a sense of freedom in not having to think as deeply about putting together an outfit. After all, as we have seen from brilliant thinkers like Steve Jobs, wearing the same sort of thing every day can leave room for other kinds of thoughts and ambitions.

Even if your company has a conservative dress code, you can consider ways to include your own personality in what you wear. Could you include a meaningful accessory? Perhaps you can wear a bright color that makes you feel confident.

Also ask questions about your professional fashion buying decisions. What are your values? Do you choose to only purchase from ethical designers? Or maybe you would like to keep your closet minimal by only purchasing things that can be shifted to off-work attire.

We believe that wherever you work, you are spending most of your waking hours there, and should feel a sense of energy and inspiration in whatever you are wearing. What we wear not only affects those around us, but the way we feel about ourselves and our work. By creating a confident, individualistic workforce, we can push ourselves to greater innovation and impact as a society.

Do you have a dress code at work? What are your thoughts on it? Chime in on Instagram and Facebook to continue the conversation!