Decoding Dress Codes

annaliza at kununu

whiteboard-849809_640You might think Casual Fridays got kickstarted by tech startup culture and their millennial CEOs sporting jeans and T-shirts. But the idea of casual dress codes at the office arrived long before the dot com boom. As far back as the mid 1960s, the Hawaiian Fashion Guild popularized “Aloha Fridays” to give employees some freedom over fashion at the office. (Because what says footloose and fancy free more than a Hawaiian shirt?) The bright idea also gave them a way to sell more of the colorful shirts. For employees, it helped them lighten up under the blazing Hawaiian sun. For employers, it was an inexpensive way to boost morale. The fit was found.


Flash forward to now. Casual Fridays are here to stay. So much so at some companies it’s casual every day. Yet, the definition of dressing down varies greatly depending on the industry. For professional services like law and corporate business, employees dress for the decorum of the office and the kind of work they do. Legal offices might define casual as khakis and polos as opposed to an ad agency’s anything-goes wear. After all, imagine trying to cross-examine a criminal suspect dressed in sweat pants and sneakers—and every objection underlined by the sheen of those polyester pants. What would be the effect on the jury? How would the closing arguments sound?

At some workplaces, like kununu, a casual dress code does fit with how business is done every day. For us, it’s part of our values—to dress as who we really are—reflecting  the culture of transparency that is our raison d’etre. The only rule? “No hot pants. No tank tops.” as summarized by our CEO. But what classifies as “hot pants” and does the tank top rule really only apply to men? I asked my coworkers to dig deeper into the topic and got some mixed responses. Hot pants on men could be spandex bicycle shorts. On women? That’s a whole other story. Thankfully, no one in our 14-person office struggles with the interpretation…yet. But the bigger question here is how do our clothes influence our culture?

There are studies that find casual dress boosts productivity. When people are comfortable in their environment, they tend to perform better. By the same token, other studies suggest clothes do make the man (and woman). How you dress invariably changes how you’re perceived. Can you be taken seriously delivering a presentation in flip flops and shorts? The answer could be ‘yes’ in some cases. And ‘no’ in others. But who makes that call?

At some companies, that call comes right from HR. So we took a look around to see exactly what’s hiding in handbooks these days. Here’s a peek at a few we found:

Abercrombie and Fitch 

At this retailer, outfits are meant to exude attitude. Jeans cuffs may be no thicker than 1.25 inches. The collars of denim shirts must be popped along with your top three buttons. Shirts should get an “easy side-tuck” or an “easy front-tuck”. And flip-flops are always a welcome fashion statement. Does that say Abercrombie and Fitch or what?


When the publication became a part of the International Business Times, journalists used to a relaxed style complete with that coffee-stained all-nighter look, were suddenly forbidden to wear a laundry list of items. No jeans, sneakers, sandals, flip-flops, t-shirts, halter tops, camisoles, baseball caps, shorts or “anything else that is deemed unprofessional or excessively distracting.” Only a thorough reporter could cover all these bases.


To help drive teamwork, Walmart’s HR executive essentially instituted a uniform: white or navy blue collared shirts with black bottoms and closed-toe shoes. Sound a little like Catholic school? As the largest private employer in the world, maybe there’s a point to driving uniformity. Does projecting sameness feel safer to a greater mass of people?


This Swiss financial institution takes dress code very seriously as evidenced by a 43-page policy on what to wear. They took the time to explain what “approved” garments symbolize in the world of money transactions. Employees must wear suits in dark grey, black or navy to exude “competence, formalism and sobriety”. And that’s not all. Underwear should “be of good quality and easily washable, but still remain detectable.” There you have it. The highest in dress code from the best reputed of global bankers.

How are dress codes handled at your company? And does what you wear reflect what you do? Tell us what you think in the comments or share even more on your company culture by leaving a review.