The End of the Office Dress Code

Below are excerpts from an article first published on May 25, 2016 in the New York Times.
working girl
Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver in a publicity still for the film “Working Girl.”CreditHerbert Dorfman/Corbis, via Getty Images via the New York Times
We live in a moment in which the notion of a uniform is increasingly out of fashion, at least when it comes to the implicit codes of professional and public life. If once upon a time Melanie Griffith’s character in “Working Girl” could manipulate viewers’ assumptions about her job and background simply by swapping leather jackets and minidresses for greige suits, today it would be impossible. “We are in a very murky period,” Ms. McClendon, assistant curator of costume at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, said.
The slippery slope may have started as a gentle incline way back in the 1970’s, and become a bit steeper during the Casual Friday movement of the 1990’s and the success of the Facebook I.P.O. in 2012 with its hoodie-wearing billionaires. But today, we are speeding down it at breakneck pace, partly thanks to the hot-button conversation around gender equality, and fluidity.
“There has been a dramatic change very recently,” said Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University and founder of the Fashion Law Institute. She noted that last December the New York City Commission on Human Rights announced new guidelines for the municipal human rights law that expressly prohibited “enforcing dress codes, uniforms, and grooming standards that impose different requirements based on sex or gender.”
As a result, no employer may require men to wear ties unless they also require women to wear ties, or ask that heels be worn unless both sexes have to wear them. And though this applies only to “official” dress codes, the trickle-down effect is inevitable.
“Dress is now open to the interpretation of the individual, rather than an institution,” Professor Scafidi said.
This has created an even greater tension in the more ambiguous areas of office dress, especially as the boundaries between home and work become ever blurrier. And that has led to all sorts of complications. One person’s “appropriate” can easily be another’s “disgraceful,” and words like “professional,” when used to describe dress requirements, can seem so vague as to be almost meaningless. Kanye West wearing ripped jeans and a jeweled Balmain jacket at the Met Gala: cool or rude? Julia Roberts at the premiere of “Money Monster” at Cannes this year in bare feet: red carpet pioneer or a step too far?
These issues are only going to get more complicated. “We are moving into an era where personal expression is going to trump the desire to create a corporate identity,” Professor Scafidi said. “It’s a huge power shift.” And it has already begun.
**** Editor’s Note:  This article was written two years ago.  It seems particularly timely given that our current President has been reported to want women who work in the White house to “dress like women.” ****
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