Are Employee Uniforms Passé?

While some uniforms have always been issued (e.g., consider the sharp flight attendant uniforms that still exist to this day), other uniforms have simply been assumed (e.g., the blue suits that are still worn by most Wall Street bankers). There is no question, however, that over time, both the uniform and explicit and implied dress codes have slowly but steadily started to slip out of style.

uniformity-2016.3.3-20160225-01-375Last week, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City opened its latest exhibit–Uniformity. At the center of Uniformity is the question of the employee uniform and its future. A quick walk through FIT’s exhibit reveals that over time, employee uniforms have taken many forms and usually followed rather than led fashion trends.  Indeed, this Talent Management writer can attest to the fact that over 30 years ago (in her first job), she was required to wear a tightly fitted 100% polyester McDonald’s pantsuit (seen to the left here and also featured in FIT’s current exhibit), but at the time, fashion was dominated by oversized rather than fitted clothing. Also, by the mid 1980s, there was already widespread concerns about polyester–a fabric that is neither “breathable” nor entirely safe. Even treated polyester fabrics, which claim to be flame-resistant, can melt when exposed to a flame, making them ill-suited to open grills and as a result, not ideal for use in the service industry (notably, the OSHA does not prohibit polyester in the service industry but it does ban the fabric in several other work contexts).

While one may assume that uniforms are just for low-wage employees in service and retail jobs, in fact, professional dress codes can be just as stifling but in this case, employees must find and purchase their own “uniforms.” Consider, for example, the Swiss Bank’s especially strict dress code–parts of which were published in a 2010 Wall Street Journal article:

As if taking a cue from style manuals, which often stress the importance of well-cut basic outfits in neutral colors, the bank expects its retail banking staff to wear suits in dark grey, black or navy blue, since these colors “symbolize competence, formalism and sobriety.” Short skirts are off limits for female staff, who are told the ideal length should reach the middle of the knee. Showy accessories and trendy spectacles are a no-no.

Notably, the bank’s style code was revised shortly after the WSJ‘s exposé

What is the Purpose of Employee Uniforms and Dress Codes?uniformity-95.102.2

If employee uniforms and dress codes are neither fashionable nor necessarily protective and at times simply reinforce gender stereotypes, why have they historically dominated the workplace?

As stated on the website accompanying the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s exhibit:

Uniforms are constant reminders of the social order, so commonplace that they are often overlooked. Designed both to blend in and to stand out, uniforms play a unique role in our daily lives. In some ways, they are the antithesis of high fashion. While uniform design focuses on functionality, control, and tradition, fashion design promotes constant change, creativity, and subversion.

Yet, the FIT exhibit also acknowledges that sometimes uniforms do inform fashion trends too:

Throughout history, fashion has drawn inspiration from uniforms of all kinds. For example, fashion designers often take functional features and transform them into decorative elements.

Business dress codes can be understood along similar lines. The business suit also signifies social order and conformity. However, unlike the uniform, a business suit may be slightly modified (e.g., with a semi-eccentric tie or flashy pair of dress socks). Nevertheless, it sends out a clear message that one is working in a specific context and likely holds a specific set of values about work, money and business. In short, the business suit, especially the blue business suit, is an expression of an ideology as much as it is an outfit.

The Post-Uniform World of Work

Since the dotcom explosion, uniforms and dress codes have been slowly slipping into the past. Today, even many service workers wear only a partial uniform (e.g., black clothes of their choice). In offices, the dress code is even further eroded. Since the late 1990s, a growing number of work environments have eschewed uniforms and dress codes altogether. In short, in many workplaces, it is now always already “casual Friday” or something even more casual than “casual Friday.”  As Susan Scafidi, a professor of law at Fordham University, told the New York Times this week:

We are moving into an era where personal expression is going to trump the desire to create a corporate identity…It’s a huge power shift.

Whether or not we remain in a post-uniform world and what long-term impacts are on the workplace are yet to be seen. It is important to bear in mind, however, that while mostly young white and male high-tech workers may be free to adopt Mark Zuckerberg’s jeans, gray t-shirts and hoodies, for many women and visible minority men, the stakes of showing up at work in jeans and a gray t-shirt or some other form of casual attire are simply different. Indeed, who can and cannot do away with uniforms and dress codes remains structured by job category as well as gender and race.

May 25, 2016   Updated :May 28, 2016      

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