I stumbled across an interesting news article in BusinessWeek discussing the Return of the Dress Code at the University of Illinois. As of the beginning of this year’s school term, students in the marketing department are now required to follow a “business casual” dress code during class or risk getting kicked out of class and earning a zero for the day. The article highlights both positive reactions (mostly from professors and managers claiming the policy will better prepare students for the “real world”) and negative ones (mostly from students who claim they can’t afford new clothes or are loathe to give up comfort).
I’m going to have to take an opposing view from most other members of my generation (as I usually do when it comes to work) and agree that formality of dress is important whether in the classroom or in the office.
As a student of a private, college-prep high school in my native Honolulu, I was required to follow a very strict, very conservative dress code. There were no t-shirts, no sleeveless tops of any kind, sandals had to have a strap across the back, no baring of stomachs, shorts and skirts couldn’t be shorter than fingertip length from your knees—and these are just some of the outfits banned in the page-long policy. All students from 7th grade on up, as well as the faculty and administrators, had to follow the policy or got sent to detention. The principal used to even keep code-compliant spare clothes in his office and would sometimes make students change out of their inappropriate outfits before they could attend class.
While a little extreme (I’ll never be able to look at polo-shirts the same way again) and something I absolutely loathed, I am thankful to the administration for mandating a dress code because it instilled upon me the importance of dressing well and its connection to performing well.
Even after being freed from a required dress code (and the threat of detention) the feeling of being underdressed in certain situations still haunts me. Crew-neck, cotton t-shirts are reserved only for sleeping and exercising and I’d never be caught dead wearing one to work even if it does have my company logo on it. In college, I looked with disdain at my fellow classmates who rolled out of bed in their pajamas and made the short walk from their dorm to an early morning class. Is it too much to ask to put on a pair of jeans and brush your teeth? And although working in the dotcom industry affords me the luxury of not having to wear a suit and heels to work everyday (I once worked in an office where shoes seemed to be optional) I still put in the effort to look polished and professional.
I’m not advocating instituting strict dress codes in the workplace, different companies have different cultures and sometimes it’s not necessary for everyone to wear three-piece suits to the office everyday but I do think that flip-flops, sweat pants and Birkenstocks (especially Birkenstocks over socks, which are horrifying common here in Seattle) should be banned from any office environment. As much as we try to play down the amount of judgment we pass based on appearance, it is inevitable that people are watching, are paying attention and will form conclusions based on their observations.
After all, who would you rather trust to get your important project done? The person with the great hair and coordinating accessories (shoes, necklace and purse) who was thoughtful enough to detail to make it all match or the person who shows up to work in sweatpants and their college sweatshirt who couldn’t get it together long enough to put on a decent pair of pants before leaving the house?