What’s in a Dress Code? 14:45, August 1, 2016

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What’s in a Dress Code?

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Starbucks recently announced that they are relaxing dress code standards and allowing employees, or “partners,” to have a wider range of options regarding their appearance. Partners can now have whichever hair color they choose, provided the dye is permanent or semi-permanent for food safety reasons. The tops worn under their iconic green aprons are no longer confined to just black and white, but can include a range of subdued neutrals like gray, brown, and navy. Small, subtle patterns are now permitted, while bright or oversize ones are not. A range of hats in neutral colors are also allowed. On the “yes” list are fedoras, bowlers, baseball caps, Starbucks logo hat or visor, flat caps, newsboys, Panamas, and trilbys. On the “no” list are berets, and the puzzlingly-chic-again bucket hat.

Traditionally, dress codes have been established as markers of brand and professionalism. However, many see rigid dress codes as distractions taking up valuable mental energy that could be spent on doing work. A former Enterprise car rentals employee remembers dress codes “so strict I had it taped it to my closet door.” And as millennials are now the largest percentage of the workforce today, companies are relaxing their standards in order to attract talent.

Brandi Britton is the district president in Los Angeles for OfficeTeam, a staffing service specializing in the placement of office and administrative professionals. She chalks up the increasingly casual appearance of the American workforce to our current economic climate being employee-driven. “People wearing suits and more formal attire seem to return in tougher economic times,” she observes. “More casual dress codes seem to be the trend when economic times are good and it’s an employee-driven market. That’s my personal observation of the last 17 years of staffing.” She also mentions the somewhat unsettling cultural connotations that come with an office full of formalwear, noting that “when we visit some of our clients and show up in our suits, they think they’re being audited or the FBI is raiding them.”

It is also interesting to note that while dress codes are required to be non-discriminatory, courts have historically supported an employer’s right to impose different standards of dress for men and women based on cultural expectations. A casino was permitted to require their female employees to wear makeup and to forbid the men from doing so. Their reasoning revolved around the idea that though the grooming standards for men and women were different, the time and effort required of each gender were the same. However, as queer and transgender issues gain visibility, it is likely that companies will stop relying on technicalities and take a more proactive role in creating an equitable work environment that welcomes personal expression.

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Jayinee Basu
Jayinee Basu is an instructional writer and part of the creative development team at EverFi. Having earned her BA in Literature/Writing and Political Science at UC San Diego, she is currently finishing a post-bac program at UC Berkeley. She is the author of a book of poems entitled Asuras (Civil Coping Mechanisms 2015).

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