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A career advisor's guide on how to dress for success at work

At a glance

  • The post-pandemic world has brought changes to work-life balance and even dress codes for employees working from home, in an office or both. 
  • For years, men and women had expectations for what to wear in the workplace, but a more gender-neutral approach to how we dress has provided greater freedom.
  • Employees should dress for the job they want and the job they have, but workplace success can often come from feeling comfortable and empowered in what we wear. 
  • Want more workplace and career tips? Subscribe to the weekly University of Phoenix Career with Confidence newsletter. 

How to dress for success in today’s workplace

Business casual is the new craze — unless you work in the C-suite with business professional expectations or in a tech startup where high-tops and hoodies fly. Speaking of flying, one airline is relaxing rules around tattoos for flight attendants. Back on land, office workers are enjoying remote and hybrid setups with terms like “power casual” and “workleisure” entering the vernacular. Heck, for some who are permanently remote, it’s still business on top, party below.

Dress codes vary by industry, environment, generation and gender. So, how do you dress for success in today’s post-pandemic world? University of Phoenix Career Advisor Carla Hunter, NCC, BCC, CCC, says today’s shifting professional attire expectations are best examined through multiple lenses.

All about timing

First, there’s the timeline, or chronology, lens. The advent of casual work attire began in the 1990s when “casual Fridays” or “jeans Fridays” became en vogue. “That didn’t affect work and productivity,” Hunter says, “so that soon gave way to, ‘OK, wear what you want.’ Then COVID hit and it was, ‘OK, wear sweatpants.’”

Now companies are finding a new norm to empower employees after the storm. And since the Great Resignation — a combination of baby boomers exiting the workforce and millennials and Gen Xers searching for greener pastures and better benefits — companies may be listening to their employees more than ever before.

According to the 2022 Career Optimism Index®, which surveyed more than 5,000 American adults and 500 employers about their career experiences, nearly 1 in 3 Americans would quit their job without having another one lined up.

As a result, a culture of “championing individuality” has emerged. And this is where timing converges with generational differences.

Next-gen zen

Hunter says generational perspectives on work attire are even more of a driving force than the timeline that began with jeans on Fridays.

“Your generation is how you view everything,” she says. “And the younger you are in the workforce, the [freer] you’re going to feel to be your most authentic self.” For some, this means tattoos and piercings. For others, it means statement T-shirts and jeans.

While maintaining stylistic professionalism may be more on the minds of Gen Xers and boomers, millennials and younger generations tend to think more along the lines of: “I’m going to be my best self. I’m going to wear this, and if they’re not comfortable with it, then I don’t want to work there,” Hunter says. “Younger people are saying, ‘I want to be me. This is me.’”

These first two considerations — the timeline of corporate dress norms that have relaxed over the years combined with generational perspectives — merge closely in terms of who works where.

Hunter explains: “The majority of companies are traditional, and they have traditional work attire expectations. Companies in the last 10 years are contemporary, such as startups, tech and remote-work setups, and are far more casual with dress expectations. They tend to draw younger employees.”

Problematic pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic also drove a freight train through everything in business and culture — and that includes workplace attire trends. Some companies were grateful just to keep work units together and didn’t care whether that meant they were dressed in T-shirts and joggers (well, hopefully joggers, as many a videoconference-in-no-pants memes began surfacing on social media).

Other companies began implementing telecommuter dress codes. Interestingly, according to an article published by the Society for Human Resource Management, telecommuters who dressed up (e.g., business professional, business casual or smart casual) did report higher levels of productivity than those who dressed in gym clothes and pajamas.

This may sync with recent advice from Forbes, which outlines the three most important elements of any professional dress code:

  1. Be as professional as you can be in whatever style you choose.
  2. Be yourself: Dress in colors and styles that express you.
  3. Dress in a style that befits your industry.

Gender nuances and needs

A growing trend toward gender-neutral dress guidelines also deserves to be added into the mix. For years “business casual” generally meant that jeans were acceptable for men while skirts or dress pants were the norm for women. Hunter says a “drive and a mission to be who we are” has shattered gender-specific limitations.

Additionally, workers who identify as gender nonbinary are finding freedom to dress for the workplace in ways that would not have been acceptable in years past. That might be pantsuits for transgender men in a more conservative office setting, or nail polish and earrings for transgender women in a more open environment.

“There are several ways of dressing for the workplace and different degrees of formality that do not adhere to a gender binary,” Hunter says. “More people are dressing for who they are — whoever they are.”

Putting it all together

So, throw all of these lenses into the mix and what do you get?

A kaleidoscope.

“There’s a lot of turbulence right now in the world of work,” Hunter says. It’s a “workers’ market” right now, so employers really do have to listen to employees more than in the past, she adds. More than ever, employers value relationship-building and a sense of movement toward team goals.

“Clothes become absolutely secondary,” Hunter says.

In Hunter’s view, the only downside to the work attire transformation is when employees don’t dress appropriately for important clients or stakeholders who are on-site. “If someone important is on the scene, they need to be shown a higher level of respect,” Hunter says. Elevated dress standards are one way to show that.

In the end, does it really matter how we dress for work?

“No,” Hunter says. “What matters most at work is that I’m professional. And that rules out pajamas.”

In all seriousness, Hunter says it is amazing to be in her seat watching relaxed standards of dress take hold. “It’s really cool,” she says, “and it’s way overdue.”

Looking for more content to help you succeed as a professional? Visit LinkedIn and subscribe to the University’s weekly Career with Confidence newsletter, where you’ll find articles to help you build a professional network, prepare for a successful interview and more.