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Corporate dress codes: 6 unwritten rules for professional workwear 


Dress codes in the corporate world have transformed significantly in recent years thanks to the changing shape of our workplaces. There has been a shift away from strict formal attire like suits and ties and a clear move towards a more relaxed yet smarter dress code. 

Despite this loosening of rules, the conversation around ‘what to wear to work and how important it is’ continues. Some feel happier and more confident dressing professionally, while others place higher importance on an inclusive culture allowing more freedom of dress. Indeed, some reports suggest today’s employees (up to 30%) feel more anxious about their appearance at work than stressing about losing their job. 

From remote-work considerations and the expectation within the PA industry through to UK businesses and cultural sensitivities when your role takes you abroad, there are many unwritten rules and personal opinions that inform employees’ professional identities. This article examines the changing face of corporate dress codes, the pandemic’s impact on traditional workplace styles and the ongoing debate about what constitutes current day professional work wear rules.

1. Debating dress codes for the hybrid workplace

The pandemic was a clear accelerant to the shift in dress code expectations, for remote workers or within a hybrid working office arrangement, as flexible working patterns became the norm. 

As employees adapted to this the distinction between workwear and leisurewear became increasingly ambiguous. This prompted discussions about the importance of maintaining a sense of professionalism in virtual settings. At the same time, the pandemic sparked new conversations about inclusivity, diversity, and the need for flexible dress codes that accommodate individual preferences and comfort levels. As the boundaries between professional and personal spaces blurred, today’s employees have actively shaped their professional identity, navigating new dress codes while questioning their relevance along the way. 

2. Dressing for a successful first impression

When it comes to making a good first impression, people’s brains reportedly make their minds up about something within the first seven seconds of meeting someone or processing a situation. Your appearance and clothes are often the first thing people will notice about you, and are therefore an important factor in creating your initial impression. Whether you’re meeting a client for the first time, attending a business conference, or interviewing for a new role, dressing impeccably sends a powerful message of competence, professionalism, and attention to detail. What you wear and how you present yourself does therefore matter and, ‘dressing for the job you want, not the job you have’ might hold true in many professional settings. 

In today’s competitive business world, where image is intertwined with reputation, investing in quality workwear pays dividends. Tailored suits, crisp shirts, and polished shoes exude confidence and command respect. Moreover, dressing well not only influences external perceptions but also boosts self-assurance, allowing you to navigate professional challenges with poise and authority.

3. Navigating international business etiquette

In an increasingly globalised business landscape, PAs, EAs and other executive support professionals often find themselves traversing cultural boundaries and meeting colleagues and clients from diverse backgrounds. When conducting business abroad, while first impressions still count, you might need to navigate the cultural differences. So, what you wear to work in a business setting overseas can vary depending on where your meeting is.

It’s very important to understand that ‘business casual’ varies in different European countries. Before you leave, take the time to research the cultural expectations regarding dress codes, particularly concerning gender-specific rules and modesty requirements. In some cultures, conservative clothing may be the norm, while in others, a more relaxed approach is acceptable. If your first meeting is with clients in Dubai or during a visit to Marrakech, you will need to be mindful of covering up, dressing modestly and respecting local sensitivities. 

Understanding and respecting cultural norms around dress can be crucial to building rapport and fostering successful relationships. By adapting your wardrobe to reflect local customs and sensibilities, you demonstrate important sensitivity and respect, laying the foundation for meaningful cross-cultural exchanges and business partnerships.

4. Striking the right balance

Back home, the ‘what to wear for work’ questions rolls on within an evolving hybrid environment. With the rise of remote work culture, the boundaries between professional and casual attire were increasingly blurred, yet employees and businesses alike still maintain that there should be a high degree of presentation when it comes to dressing appropriately for work. While the comfort of working in loungewear or pyjamas may seem fun, maintaining a sense of professionalism remains paramount (even in virtual settings). According to a recent survey, 74% of employees said that their company has a formal dress code with an overwhelming 80% agreeing that employers should be allowed to enforce one.

Having commonsense and striking the right balance between comfort and professionalism is key when you’re choosing an outfit for a remote video call. Maintaining proper etiquette for an online business meeting from home allows you to maintain a professional image. When working remotely and opting for a more relaxed attire, consider the context of your interactions. While video conferences demand a polished appearance, internal team calls are ok for a more relaxed dress code. 

5. Tailoring your look for workplace cultures

If your company or organisation has a dress code or uniform in place, it’s easier to tailor the look to your industry and have a clear understanding of what you are expected to wear. Dress codes in some office environments often reflect the culture and values of the organisation, though individuals are typically not judged solely on their appearance nowadays. Certain office cultures, shaped by business norms and traditions, maintain formal dress codes with tailored suits and business attire. Others have less stricture and have embraced a more casual approach, encouraging employees to express their individuality through their attire.

Understanding the nuances of office culture is key to navigating dress codes effectively. If you are new or growing into a role, don’t be shy about seeking advice from colleagues. Likewise, as in any role, familiarise yourself with any written guidelines or policies as this will demonstrate your respect for company culture and project a level of professionalism. The rise of casual Fridays, remote work policies, and inclusive dress codes has also challenged conventional notions of what is deemed professional. 

6. Expressing your individuality 

As organisations adapt to changing norms and preferences, employees are increasingly empowered to express their individuality through their wardrobe choices. Embracing diversity, alongside professionalism, can foster a more inclusive and vibrant workplace culture, where authenticity and self-expression are celebrated.

Similarly, corporate dress codes shape professional identity, foster confidence and facilitate effective communication in the workplace. Wherever you are conducting business from, home office or working abroad, the way you dress sends a powerful message about you. You can literally ‘wear your own confidence’, influencing how you feel in a positive way to help boost your self-esteem and cultivate a winning self-image. Dressing well for yourself can have a profound impact on improving your mindset, enhancing your confidence and being the key to unlocking your full potential.

The debate surrounding corporate dress codes, therefore, has never been more relevant, and continues to evolve, reflecting broader shifts and changing values. By adhering to any formal or unwritten rules on dress codes, adapting to industry-specific standards, and embracing evolving norms, you can navigate the complexities of workplaces dress with confidence and style.

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