9 Feb 2023

Disappearing dress codes

Society is changing at a rapid pace and formalities and traditions are being discarded as we all seek the holy grail of tolerance and inclusivity.

These 21st-century attitudes are beginning to have a noticeable impact on 20th-century dress codes. While there’s still a time and place for dressing up – many of us still adhere to dress codes for weddings, smart parties or formal events – this change in attitudes is most apparent in the workplace.

The absolute uniformity of the City of London, where hordes of bowler-hatted, suited and umbrella-wielding workers appeared like clockwork during the rush hour, is long gone. In March 2019, Goldman Sachs, one of the biggest banks in the world, relaxed its dress codes, and formal business attire was no longer de rigueur. Other financial and legal companies followed suit and increasingly smart casual clothes, for example chinos, a jacket and open-necked shirt, were visible on the streets of the City of London.

Changing perspectives on workplace attire have been rapidly escalated by the impact of the Covid lockdown and the increased popularity of hybrid and flexible working. Once a workforce has become used to wearing casual clothing when they are working from home, it is harder to reinstate rigid adherence to formal dress clothes when they return to the office.

A flexible attitude to how employees dress brings many benefits. It advertises that the workplace environment is open and accommodating. It encourages employees to feel relaxed and comfortable when they are at work. Above all, it allows employees to assert and express their individuality, rather than making them feel like conventional corporate drones. The freedom to choose how to dress has long been recognised by the creative, media and new technology sectors, where it is associated with free-thinking inventiveness and innovative ideas.

Relaxed dress codes are also more inclusive, allowing minority groups to dress as they please, and to reject enforced adherence to conventional codes, which are not compatible with their background or beliefs.

Nevertheless, many companies – especially those that involve client or customer interactions – are still reluctant to dispense with dress codes. They feel that their employees are required to represent the corporate brand, not undermine it. They may also assert that smart business attire is associated in many people’s minds with maturity, experience and authority. Customers who are seeking important financial or legal advice, for example, may feel more trusting of a smart suited adviser than someone wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Eventually, perhaps, these attitudes will erode further, and customers and clients will find the non-threatening accessibility of casual clothes more attractive and engaging than the authoritative carapace of the business suit.

The new relaxed attitudes are now beginning to extend beyond the workplace, into areas of British life that have conventionally been bastions of formality and tradition. On 2 February 2023 the Jockey Club announced that formal dress codes would no longer be in place at any of its fourteen racecourses, in a drive to make horseracing ‘accessible and inclusive’.

Up to now racing dress codes have been complex and proscriptive. Racegoers have had to interpret a range of instructions relating to hats, jackets, ties, dress lengths, and footwear. Jackets have been required even during steamy summer heatwaves, shorts and trainers have been completely repudiated and racegoers have been denied entrance because their dress is considered ‘unsuitable’.

All this has now changed and, apart from the Queen Elizabeth II stand on Derby Day at Epsom where formal daywear is still required, racegoers can now wear what they want. The Jockey Club has stated that people will enjoy a day’s racing more if they feel comfortable and relaxed, and hope that their new policy will encourage more people to attend their horseracing events. Racecourses not run by the Jockey Club, most notably Ascot where formal dress codes rule supreme, will continue to make their own rules.

The Jockey Club has listed an exception to its new informal rules: ‘offensive’ clothing. Clearly, whether you are working in an office in the city or enjoying a day’s racing, you will need to make certain judgements about what you wear. It is extremely challenging to find a universally accepted notion of what is offensive, but it is reasonable to expect employees – especially in more conventional workplaces – to opt for smart casual clothes, rather than exploiting the new freedom and turning up for work in sportswear, beachwear, jeans, flipflops and trainers. Employees should certainly default to smarter clothing choices and be sensitive to the workplace culture and their colleagues before going too far down the road to casual comfort.

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