We are surrounded by informal and formal dress codes, whether it is the unspoken fashion rules of a certain social group or the formal codes on how to dress at work. Business dress codes seem to be especially regulated, with business casual, business formal and black tie being the three most prominent terms.
During alumni week at the beginning of February, UVic held a “Dress for Success” after-hours shopping event at Mayfair Mall, offering advice for what to wear in a business environment. But some people question whether business dress codes are useful.
While there is no absolute definition of what the relatively new business casual attire actually requires, the guidelines offered in endless style guides are complex, particularly for women’s clothing.
UVic’s Gustavson School of Business created a style guide for their students with tips on how to dress appropriately in a business casual setting. The reason for creating this style guide was, according to Jennifer Gill, experiential learning manager at Gustavson, that students were insecure about what to wear at job interviews and in a work environment. In addition to the style guide, the business school offers training and workshops on the topic.
“I think it’s really unfair for a faculty to just expect students to go from wearing jeans and hoodies to suddenly knowing how to fit a suit properly on their own with no coaching,” said Gill. “So our hope is — and I think we’ve been pretty effective — just providing students with more opportunities to train and more knowledge and more education around what certain expectations would be. And not only how to dress, but how to feel comfortable in the clothes that you’re in.”
The definition of business casual provided in the UVic style guide was taken from a New York Times article, which refers to the job search engine Monster.com: “In general, business casual means dressing professionally, looking relaxed yet neat and pulled together.” This contradictory definition reflects the problem of business casual and why it is bound to put pressure on employees. It requires a style that should simultaneously appear laid back and sharp.
“I will never forget my first day in the commerce program where students were told to wear business casual. It was totally up to interpretation. I showed up wearing a pair of dark jeans, dress shoes, a shirt and cardigan, whereas most students showed up wearing formal business attire,” wrote Emily Ternullo, a third-year Business Commerce student specializing in entrepreneurship, in an email interview. “I really felt as though I didn’t get the memo on what business casual actually meant.”
Especially for women, business casual style guides such as the one provided by UVic’s business school or by Virginia Tech’s Division of Student Affairs come with numerous recommendations and vague descriptions. The Virginia Tech business casual style guide, for example, recommends that women can wear casual pants or skirts, but states that neither of them should be too tight, without giving an indicator of what too tight actually means.
“I think a better way to present a style guide would be to provide many visual options, where you can dress for any occasion — be it business casual, formal or gala,” wrote Ternullo. “Show ways for [people] to show flair and personality through details and [to be] not overly sexualized but [still wear] something that sets them apart from the other black suit beside them at these events.”
According to Gill, the situation for women is more complex due to two reasons: the much wider choice of clothing items available to women compared to men and the popular media.
“[In the popular media], you see lawyers showing cleavage, you see doctors, you see a lot of high-level professionals, and in the real world you don’t. So, I think there’s a real disconnect between what the popular media is selling as being sexy and professional . . . and what the reality on the street actually is,” said Gill.
Brittany Huddart, a social media and marketing manager and fashion blogger, hasn’t seen a lot of progressive changes in dress codes outside of retail. “Women seem to be pressed into dressing very masculine when in political or business careers. The industry seems to say that femininity isn’t powerful or capable of leadership,” wrote Huddart in an email interview. “Unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of progressive change in the business or political sector in terms of women’s dress code. It almost seems like, because women are so sexualized in our culture, that workplaces try to repress that image by having women dress in a conservative fashion or like a man.”
Though she majored in Fine Arts at UVic, Huddart took a class at UVic’s business school and says that, when she asked a question about business dress codes, the professor made a demeaning remark to her. She says that if dress codes are to be pushed, questions about them must be treated in a respectful way.
Clothes often underline individualism; dress codes such as business casual might make people feel they have to wear items that they usually wouldn’t.
“I think a business style guide is a good tool for business students to refer to as it gives individuals a place to start when considering what is appropriate attire in the workplace,” wrote Ternullo. “But that is essentially what it is: a reference. It is up to the individual to make their style their own by adding colours and flair that really show personality. But a style guide should not encourage women to specifically wear a certain item like a skirt; it should be up to the individual.”