Why we dress the way we do at work

The modern office wardrobe is the result of centuries of surprising social, political, and technological revolution.

Why we dress the way we do at work
[Photos: littleny/iStock; George Marks/Getty Images]

The sound of shoes is unavoidable in a workplace. Whether they’re stilettos ringing a staccato beat on polished concrete floors, or the slap of flip-flops on an industrial carpet, the footsteps of workers are a constant soundtrack to the workday. But the sheer variety of styles causing those sounds speaks volumes to how office attire has evolved since the early days of dedicated workspaces (which, we know, dates as far back as Ancient Rome).


Elegant couple in an Interior, 1678, Eglon van der Neer [Image: Wikimedia Commons]
Changes in working attire in the European world really began back in the 1600s. That’s when lawyers, civil servants, and other professionals in London, Amsterdam, and Paris first started working from offices.

Alongside this trend, menswear morphed into a version of the modern suit. Of course, this was a loose approximation of what we know today. In the 17th century, trousers were breeches that reached to the knee, a shirt frosted with lace at the cuffs and throat (the latter to serve as a tie), the vest was a doublet that showed off the shirt, and a cape served to top off the entire ensemble. The overall design allowed for ease of movement regardless of the task at hand, while wealth and position were easily conveyed by fine fabrics and ornamentation.

While highly specific fashion trends dictated the cuts and colors of the suit, the basic elements remained unchanged for centuries. The biggest revolution in workwear coincided with the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. When the cotton gin went into wider use in the late 1700s, the sheer availability of cloth skyrocketed. And in the 1820s, tailors were beginning to offer menswear that was “ready-made” rather than custom. Other inventions spurred production and availability of patterned and dyed fabric.


[Illustration: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, LC-DIG-pga-03142]
Although clothing for work purposes was abundant, the prevailing wisdom for menswear reflected the proper mores of the Victorian era. A rejection of physical pleasure and individuality and a celebration of restraint and rational use of resources dictated the somber colors and austere cuts of coats and trousers.

English Corset,1890-1900, whalebone and cotton, with steel busk and back supports [Photo: Valerie McGlinchey/Wikimedia Commons]
Working women were few and far between in the workplaces of the 19th century, as a woman’s place was widely regarded as being in the home. The era’s tight corsets and oodles of crinoline (which were made of itchy horsehair) for the sake of a graceful silhouette, made sitting uncomfortable. Whalebone stays pressing into the ribs made it difficult to breathe (no wonder women often suffered from “the vapors”), while steel cage hoops made skirts so wide they could barely fit through a door.

The end of the Victorian era came with the death of it’s eponymous monarch in 1901. The dramatic changes to social customs that occurred over the next few decades were reflected in the quickly evolving fashion of the time in Europe and the U.S.


Men still generally dressed somberly to suit the formality and gravitas that came with aspiring to be a captain of industry. The European predilection for frock coats worn over a vest with a watch fob, striped trousers, and a top hat also contained subtle cues as to the wearer’s position in society. Fabrics’ stripes and weaves signified their means and contrasted sharply to the “leisure suit.” Originally meant to be worn at home, these garments became popular in the workplace because, at less than $30 per suit, they were a more affordable option for office dressing.

Double ripple suit of tricotrine or serge (by Russek), Mar. 22, 1918. [Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, LC-USZ62-76298]
As women began to enter the workforce in greater numbers, they were given strict guidelines about what was appropriate. A feminine version of the suit, with hats, gloves, bags, and shoes that coordinated became popular. Fashion magazines recommended dark colors, in order to not show stains.

Necessity also became the mother of inventive workwear over the next 50 years. Army-issued wristwatches from World War I eliminated the need of a watch fob (or a vest pocket for the fob to be placed in). Under World War II’s rationing, men’s jackets slimmed down from double-breasted to single-breasted, with narrow trousers to conserve fabric.


Reactionary fashion to the restraint of war times saw the rise of full billowy skirts popularized by French designer Christian Dior. Although some wanted to emulate this ultrafeminine silhouette, feminist critics protested. In Louisville, 1,265 women believed that the New Look was not only impractical but also anti-feminist and signed an anti-Dior petition as members of the Little Below the Knee Club.

Women picket at Christian Dior’s hotel, protesting his designs for long skirts [Photo: Bettmann/ Contributor/Getty Images]
Meanwhile, suits got slimmer and less colorful. Businessmen favored the natural-shoulder “Ivy League” look by Brooks Brothers. John F. Kennedy took that a step further when he wore a two-button suit in a televised debate with Richard Nixon rendering three-button suits old-fashioned. He further cemented a lack of formality when he didn’t wear a hat to his inauguration. First lady Jackie Kennedy’s Oleg Cassini suits were also widely adopted.

The offices of the ’60s and ’70s were a riot of bright patterns, ethnic influences, and acres of polyester and other synthetics, as the norms shifted again. Approximately 80% of shirts sold by Arrow—then the largest shirtmaker—were every color except white. Diane von Furstenberg’s patterned wrap dresses became famous for their ability to take a working woman from office to after-hours events.


Commuters on a street corner in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, 1974 [Phot: Environmental Protection Agency/Wikimedia Commons]
This gave way to the yuppification of the office where conspicuous consumption ruled. Everyone from CEOs to working girls from the suburbs sported massive power suits. (It’s no coincidence that this is when author Tim Sullivan coined the term “suits” in his novel Glitter Street to describe sharky businessmen.

“Power Suit” [Photo:
Marcus Kaiser
/Wikimedia Commons]
The ebb and flow practically dictated a backlash when Donna Karan and Giorgio Armani both broke the armor of the ’80s with their softer sartorial approaches to office attire. That cracked open the door for business casual, the ultimate alternative to suits. Some insist that The Gap and Levi’s clever marketing schemes made it acceptable to wear khakis and jeans to work, at least on Fridays.

In 1994, Bing Gordon, the cofounder of Electronic Arts, told Fortune, “If you don’t have anything to say, wear a suit.” And the “suits” themselves, once moguls and mavens, were now thought to be Luddites.


Now, of course, almost anything goes, thanks to the rise of young founders commandeering successful tech companies, an increase in both remote work and flexible hours, and the freelance economy. Hoodies, soccer slides, and graphic t-shirts that were once only seen on evenings or weekends are now de rigueur for those spending long hours in front of a computer screen. Flip-flops are more frequently spotted on the feet of office denizens in the summer as employers encourage their staff to “come as they are.”

[Photo: Helena Lopes/Unsplash]
Even Goldman Sachs announced earlier this year that it was revamping its dress code to be more casual. “Part of the rationale for the change might have been that Goldman was trying to attract a younger and more diverse workforce, and suits may send unintended messages about hierarchy and inclusiveness,” says Scott Young, managing director of Client Delivery at CultureIQ.

There are, however, limits to these wardrobe freedoms. A recent study found that nearly half of managers said they were concerned employees dressed too casually, while 32% of supervisors named “too much skin” as one of their biggest issues with the way employees dressed—perhaps indicating that we’re in for another seismic shift in the way we dress at work.


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a staff editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.