Business casual man in sunglasses t-shirt

Traveling on an airplane, eating out and working in a professional setting used to be significant events that we dressed deliberately for.

We witnessed the loosening of dress standards for airplanes and restaurants decades ago, but it finally appears the new consensus seems to be a wider acceptance of casual attire in the work place.

We guess it was inevitable – with relaxed social “decency” standards came relaxed dress standards to match them. The first change came in the ’90s with the adoption of business casual dress codes. Men ditched their suit and tie, and moved to khakis or trousers, topped with a collared or polo shirt. This style at first was an acceptable option for summer attire or the highly anticipated Casual Friday.

But driven by a number of factors, more companies are now moving toward casual dress codes. Jeans are no longer relegated to Casual Fridays. T-shirts and tennis shoes are also acceptable.

It’s a trend driven in part by millennials, but also by a competitive job market. Finding and retaining employees is one of the top challenges companies are currently facing. To increase competitiveness and attract key talent, organizations are evaluating all aspects of what they offer to employees from compensation and benefits to scheduling and even dress-code policy.

The option to “dress down” in the workplace is a benefit employees covet. In fact, according to data compiled by human resources service Randstad North America, given a choice between a $5,000 bump in salary or an informal office dress code, 1 in 3 would choose the informal dress code.

That same survey found casual dress the norm in the workplace. The survey found 79% of those surveyed report their current employers' dress-code policy is either business casual, casual or non-existent.

What Not to Wear

The trick, may be in not letting expectations fall farther than they need to. Still there are those who push even those limits. Interestingly, 38% of 25-to-35-year-olds admit they've been asked to dress more professionally by their manager or HR.

What exactly is pushing the limits too far? A little more than 70% of those surveyed feel ripped jeans aren't appropriate and 53% say leggings have no place in the office.

“Unless your company sells them, ripped jeans are off the table,” says clothing designer Dara Lamb.

Workout pants are a “no-no” if they’re revealing, says Patricia Brown, chair of the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising. “It depends on how you might put them together,” she says. “Stretch woven or a beefier knit might be appropriate, but never pants that are tight stretchy, shiny, or sheer.”

Another no no: flip flops. “Not only are flip-flops bad for your feet, your back, and your knees, having your bare feet and toes exposed to the elements in large cities can even lead to infections,” says Lamb. Save them for the beach.

Ladies should steer away from ultra-high heels. Half of respondents in the Randstad survey said high heels (defined as more than three inches) look unprofessional. If your heels are so high they hinder your mobility, leave them at home, says Brown.

T-shirts get mixed reviews While some individuals still feel t-shirts are best for working underneath shirts, they’re gaining acceptance in ultra-casual work environments. If you want to wear a t-shirt, by all means don’t wear one with large graphics or messaging, although a college or sports-team t-shirt might be slightly more acceptable.

Take hygiene seriously. This probably doesn’t need to be said among adults, but keep your makeup tasteful and maintain a measure of control over your stubble. Comb your hair once in a while. Use deodorant judiciously. The clothes you choose should complement an already clean and professional appearance — not apologize for your lack of one.

Tattoos & Piercings

Looking beyond clothing to overall appearance, there seems to be a softening in the acceptability of facial/tongue piercings, gauges, visible tattoos, and/or other unconventional displays, including make-up and hairstyles. The number of participants with employers not allowing unconventional displays has decreased from 37% to 20% with the balance of the companies indicating responses ranging from “allowed” to “varies by position” to “unknown.” Many indicated permissibility varies based on safety/food safety issues as well as the amount and type of customer-facing interactions on the part of the employee.

Societal changes and norms may be contributing to these relaxing appearance standards. A February 2016 Harris Poll survey found that 47% of millennials and 36% of Gen-Xers have at least one tattoo. Those figures compare to 13% of Baby Boomers and 10% of traditionalists sporting tattoos.

Some Things Will Never Change

While wardrobe expectations in the professional world have changed, some things will probably never change, so think again about what it means to “dress for the job you want.”

If you have ambitions of career advancement — or even of merely being taken seriously as a professional — you may not want to relax your personal dress code as much as you like. Image does matter, and it probably always will, to a certain extent.

What does a work outfit look like if it’s to appear both appropriately casual and abundantly competent? You don’t need to wear a suit jacket or a tie, but you probably do want to aim for a notch or two above “conventional” when you dress for work if you want to stand out.

Maybe there’s comfort in knowing we’ll always get out of life what we choose to put in — and that this sometimes means wearing clothes on the outside that mirror the ambitions, the attention to detail, the thoughtfulness and the professionalism we possess on the inside.

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