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Dress Codes Are Dumb…Or Are They?

Topics: Work Culture
Dress Codes
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The idea of a dress code at a place of business – staffed by adults – might seem rather antiquated and juvenile. Or it might seem like the best idea ever. It kind of depends.

Most dress codes ensure that Jimmy in sixth grade doesn’t roll up to school wearing a Joe Camel tank top with the arms ripped off, and because of that, they always smack of something you’d find in the school code of conduct, not HR materials you have to read after filling out your W-2.

But really, who is hurt and who is harmed by dress codes? Do you really need one at work? Consider this:

1. Dress codes are designed to level the playing field. A bit. 

We’re not talking uniforms here – though they create a nice even tone, don’t they? – but instead, the idea that a dress code simplifies what you wear to work. Pants and a dress shirt? Done. One long skirt and a sweater? Done. It’s not hard to get dressed in the morning. You don’t dress to impress… necessarily. You just get dressed in a few pieces from your work-appropriate wardrobe, and you’re out the door in five.

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But instead of allowing people the simplicity of a few items that truly work for work, dress codes can instead make men and women with certain body types struggle to find clothes that are “approved.” Those of us who shop the larger or taller end of the spectrum of mass-produced clothing know the challenges of having a button down shirt gape or a pair of slacks fit awkwardly because the people designing them only make clothes for a few small sizes and shapes. Does a required set of “types” of clothing make our system reward the thin and “easy to fit” people more than others?

2. Dress codes are about professionalism. Except when they’re not. 

You say short skirts aren’t professional, but the pages of Vogue say they’re on-trend. What’s right? You say hair should be cut close for men, but models strut the runway with long flowing locks, no matter their gender. Who’s more “professional”? You say “dress modestly” but aren’t you just imposing a system of arbitrary codes of conduct that could lead to someone getting fired on a whim when nothing more than an outfit “offends” someone? Or when their gender identity doesn’t conform to someone’s idea of “male” or “female” dress?

While the debate about school dress codes often focuses on the fact that the only reason a girl can’t show a little upper arm is because it “distracts” the boys from learning (eyeroll), is it any different to say that adult women – who pay bills and own homes and raise children just fine – who show a little skin are somehow impeding the work day, or even the actions of the House of Representatives?

3. Dress codes can mean something other than putting a “good foot forward” to clients. 

When you get out of an office, “work clothes” can mean a lot of things. They could mean protection from the elements, like heat or extreme cold. They could mean keeping parts of you protected from dangerous machinery so you don’t lose a toe or shin bone. Or they could just mean standing out from a crowd in a way that provides improved safety or customer service. Making a construction worker wear long jeans and thick boots in the summer can make us cringe from our air conditioned front seats as we whiz by, but really it’s about not getting a major injury from gravel kicking up into your legs or hot tar splashing around.


What do you think about dress codes? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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