The Problem with Business Casual No One's Talking About

By: Leigh Sevin

I’ve always worked in start-ups, and have never been in a position to have to wear a suit every day. The biggest myth though is that somehow not having to wear a suit has made my life easier.

In order to build Arthur, I’ve spent the past year trying to better understand the relationship between what we buy and what we wear. In speaking to a number of our clients, two things became clear: we buy too much “weekend wear,” and business casual makes getting dressed 5 days a week (or more) exponentially more nuanced and complicated.

The Coastal Power Shift

The move toward business casual should have been a relief. The shift began almost as a form of rebellion in Silicon Valley, when sweatshirt-clad developers were making as much money as their investment banking, suit-clad counterparts in New York. The message was, “the clothes don’t make the man, why not be comfortable at work.”

And as these firms began to attract the top recruits from college, business casual became the default dress code across industries to stay competitive. It has far surpassed the world of media, advertising, and tech, with law firms, accounting firms, and Fortune 500 companies all making the switch.

There’s just one problem — no one knows what the hell “business casual” means!

Who’s Defining What

Some people loosely define business casual more by what it’s not than by what it is — not a suit, but not jeans. In other words, khakis and a button-down for men and trousers or a knee-length skirt and blouse for women, blazer or cardigan optional.

If the line were that clear, I wouldn’t be writing this. But start-ups will also claim to have a “business casual” atmosphere, where jeans (of all shades!) are more than welcome, and tee-shirts blend in just fine. So how should one know what to wear?

The X, Y, & Z Factors

The digital world also introduced (or magnified) how your role impacts how you should dress. Your CTO may come into work in shorts, but things are very different for the head of biz dev. In fact, As one Business Insider article notes, your outfit choice may hinge on any of the following: industry, size of the company, number of employees, amount of interaction between employees and customers, geography, climate, culture, and average age of the workforce.

Based on consultations between our stylists and clients, I know that all these factors come into play to generate unique expectations for everyone, even within the same company.

Who Is It (Really) a Pain For?

There is no dearth of articles that speak to this problem regarding the vagueness of the “business casual” blanket term. But at the end of the day, this problem puts a larger strain on women than it does on men.

There are two components of appropriate when talking about dressing for the workplace: how formal are your clothes and how revealing is your outfit. In fact, according to one survey, 79% of managers feel employees are coming to work ​dressed either too casually or bearing too much skin.

It doesn’t matter if you’re dressed in business formal or business casual, neither precludes a woman from potentially missing the mark when it comes to being too revealing, just ask Samantha Jones on Sex and The City and Elaine Vassal on Ally McBeal (or even Alana on Broad City). But men and women alike have very different ideas of what “too much skin” means, and while anyone would urge erring on the side of caution, it’s all still pretty grey.

The AM Struggle

As one Entrepreneur post recommends, “Take your clothing cues from a coworker or a friend in a similar field who looks effortlessly put together.”

I’ve spent the last year asking women about their shopping and dressing habits. I’ve inquired about how they shop (specifically online), how satisfied they are with their clothes, and what their greatest struggles are.

I can tell you that “effortless” is not a word I hear too often.

For most women, dressing for work is the first task of the day, and a challenging one at that. The largest issue is that many feel they can’t get away with wearing the same thing as much as men can. They feel pressured to maintain variety, leading to both a heavier financial burden, and more insecurity about how one is dressed at work.

Full Circle

With all our initial cheer over the move toward business casual, we seem to have found ourselves back at square one with the uniform” movement. Who can forget the image of Mark Zuckerberg’s closet or Steve Jobs’s Issey Miyake black turtlenecks?

Initially most regarded this trend as denying the best part of business casual—all that creative freedom down the drain! But in the end, a work uniform helps to limit one’s choices in order to direct your creative energy to more pressing matters—better use of “brain share,” as its called.

As one woman wrote, given all the additional expectations put on women, the reliability of a closet where all pieces match each other certainly helps.

Can We Have It All (In Our Wardrobe)?

But is there an embedded sacrifice in the uniform model? Some may say so, because really what we’ve done is reverted back to the stability of suits.

With Arthur, we want to help women achieve wardrobe success without feeling pressured into a limited number of options. Getting dressed for work should be fun and it should allow us to express our identity in a stylish and appropriate manner. Our goal as a company is to ensure that women embrace the flexibility business casual has to offer, without feeling like they want to rip out their hair.

Leigh Sevin is the founder of Arthur, a membership for women that offers a stress-free way to discover and manage your work wardrobe. 

Ellevate Network is a global women’s network: the essential resource for professional women who create, inspire and lead. Together, we #InvestInWomen.

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