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Dress (down) for success

WFH

Dr Libby Sander is an Associate Professor in the Bond Business School and MBA Program Director.

The pandemic has changed the entire landscape around work and its location. And while discussion of elements like working from home, four-day work weeks, and the redesign of work continues unabated in the media, a stealth movement appears to be occurring that is drawing less attention. What we wear to work.

The pandemic-driven shift to work from home opened up a new range of freedoms for employees, including freedom over what we could wear. Comfortable, casual clothing became the norm. Even those wearing business attire on their top half soon abandoned the practice as the weeks wore on. 

The lounge suit for men, invented in around 1850, was designed to convey messages of success and power. This standard expectation in office jobs continued until around 1990, with the introduction of ‘casual Friday’. A movement ensued, with many asking why Friday was different from any other day of the week.

Women have had their own version of the power suit but have also had to contend one aspect of office attire that men haven’t - wearing heels. I’ve recently noticed a growing trend in posts on sites like LinkedIn where women are wearing sneakers to work. Not just on the commute to the office across the city, with heels stashed in a bag to put on in the office, but all the time.

It became apparent just how serious this shift toward greater comfort at work has become when I saw that Jimmy Choo, the infamous designer of killer black stilettos has too joined the trend. Choo’s white Hawaii-inspired sneaker is not much cheaper than their towering heels but is sold out in most sizes on several websites I visited.

Yet old traditions die hard. It took a global pandemic for us to acknowledge that commuting hours a day and spending five days a week in the office was not the only path to productivity. With so much of the landscape of work shifting, it’s probably time we talked more about some of our outdated expectations of what we should wear to the office. 

And while prior research has shown that people who don’t wear the expected dress code of power suits and killer heels to work were likely to be perceived more poorly and get promoted less, a study by Harvard Business School found that straying from the standard dress code can actually help your career. Stepping outside expected norms of what you should wear can help you appear more confident and competent, signifying higher levels of autonomy and control. 

Just as in office design, there is no one size fits all in terms of what we should wear to work. If wearing a suit and tie, or towering Jimmy Choo heels makes you feel great then, by all means, carry on. Just as each of us differs in how, when, and where we work most effectively, research has shown having the freedom to choose what we wear to work is similarly important. 

Studies have found what we wear influences how we feel about ourselves, and how we perform in our roles. For example, one study showed that when students wore superman t-shirts they rated themselves as stronger, more likeable, and superior to other students when sitting for an exam, indicating that we not only are what we wear but also become what we wear. 

In some industries, these changes are moving more slowly than others and much still has to do with perceptions about what we should wear. I worked for a pretty progressive law firm in my former HR career. 

They loved to try and do things differently, to not be like other law firms, and decided to extend this to dress. When staff were not seeing clients or in court, they were free to wear whatever they liked. 

In this industry, this was a big deal. As recently as 1987 in Australia, female lawyers were not allowed to wear pants to court (and often to the office).

At the law firm I was in at the time, we had a new solicitor who recently arrived from London. Roger had round spectacles, a beaming smile that lit up a room, and a pin-striped three-piece suit complete with pocket watch and handkerchief. To Roger, this change in expectation was almost incomprehensible, yet also left him giddy with excitement. 

At Roger’s London firm, someone was employed to regularly check that lawyers were wearing their jackets while working alone at their desks in their private offices. And to reprimand them if they were not. 

For the most part, Roger kept wearing his suit to the office, mainly as he was in court most days. But he also started wearing slippers in the office. Big fluffy ones. And it made him extremely happy.

We still have a way to go to overcome outdated perceptions around much of what we do and what we are expected to do in this thing called work. Many of these perceptions are false, and many of the outdated requirements have no correlation with employees being able to perform their jobs.

I’m speaking at a big conference soon. Despite fears of getting in trouble (I’m not sure from who), I’ll be following the trend and wearing sneakers. For the first time in many years of giving talks on conference stages, I won’t be worried about falling up or down the usually dodgy stairs as I enter and leave the stage. 

And, for the 40 minutes of my talk, I will be able to concentrate more on what I am saying instead of how much my feet hurt. 

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