man wearing business casual clothing

The Current Generation’s Attitude Toward Business Casual Wear

It's such a nebulous category, and has a host of problems — including how it can often reinforce the gender binary.

Business casual: A term that induces headaches upon its mere mention. The dress code that has caused so many people to pull their hair out in despair and frustration. Business casual. Where so many agree and disagree on what makes it what it is. Almost as if it is designed to make you fail. And the only way to succeed is to make yourself something you are not.

Perhaps this confusing aspect of business casual clothing is the most popular to hate on by those who need to adhere to it for work. One can easily find a dozen articles trying to help those entering the workforce to figure out what business casual means. The common phrase “not a suit, but not jeans” can be found everywhere, with many scrambling to try and capture its meaning. Some try to give examples, but the list is always short, and always loosely defined. Those who are already entering their senior years in the workforce complain about the lack of professionalism in their younger colleagues, shown by their inability to understand professional clothing. As if it was as easy to navigate as throwing on a sweatshirt and jeans.

But the problems faced by these young people are endless — business casual doesn’t fit one’s personal tastes, it is too uncomfortable (especially the more feminine pieces of clothing), it is not flexible enough to fit different social situations. The list goes on. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Business casual wear was developed in Silicon Valley as a way of breaking the norm and creating a more efficient and comfortable work environment. But the rapid casualization of business clothing was focused mostly on male clothing. The first thing that comes to mind when one says business casual is khakis and a button-down shirt — a staple worn by those who identify as men. It makes sense, since Silicon Valley was (and still is) dominated by men.

And as business casual became more mainstream, it started to evolve to include more items of clothing — including feminine clothing. But the evolution of feminine business wear was slow and changed very little as it transitioned into the norm of business casual. The feminine side of business casual allowed its wearers to drop the pantyhose and shoulder pads. Less emphasis was given to the requirement for heels. But not much more. The immense sexism that is reflected in feminine business clothing remained. The idea that looks defined professionalism for women is still rampant. And women have to go through the trouble of maintaining their professional wardrobe, of spending huge amounts of time and energy just to get ready in the morning to gain approval of the eyes that watch them in the workplace.

It doesn’t help that many pieces of feminine business wear were designed to be sexist. High heels are a perfect example of this. The uncomfortable shoes cause health issues that range from short-term to long-term, and women are pressured into wearing them for long hours. The fact that they made the female body look more desirable for men just made it seem like a tool to put women down. Of course, things are changing and there are those out there trying to change the meaning of high heels, such as by trying to make them more comfortable. But the short skirts, the issue of how much skin to reveal, accessories and all the things their masculine counterparts do not have to deal with just adds to the issue. It is a just another form of subtle sexism. But the problem doesn’t stop there.

What happens when someone who doesn’t fit the gender binary tries to find professional attire to fit their identity? What happens when they want a mix between masculine and feminine? What happens when they want something beyond gender?

That is when the realization hits that business clothing as a whole has always catered to the binary. And since business casual is just an evolution of business clothing as a whole, the binary-ness has been passed down as well.

And in this generation of young people entering the world, where moving beyond the binary is more acceptable (a blessing for the queer community), the rules of business casual just don’t work out. There is no space for someone to express their gender identity through binary business casual wear. It fits only two human sexes rather than catering to the range of genders that exist in the world.

It isn’t just that much of the younger generations find business casual wear incomprehensible, it’s that all groups in this generation do not fit into the norms it creates — norms that seem outdated and cater to a world that doesn’t match the one they live in.

Changes are happening in business casual wear. Many are adapting other fashion items to fit into what is deemed business casual. But the changes are slow and do not reach all that need it.

Business casual is at odds with those entering the workforce today. For those who work from home and only need a clean shirt for the few Skype meetings they have in a day, it is nearly obsolete. But for the majority that commute to work every day, and for those whose jobs require the business casual style to cater to the idea of “looks = professionalism,” the reality is not just grim — it’s kind of annoying.

The saying goes that when you look good, you feel good. But to be honest, when you look and feel comfortable, you feel great. Perhaps a new form of evolution will come to the world of business wear. One that smooths over the bumps and bruises in business casual clothing. It is certainly needed, since those that will own the future cannot take business casual so casually.

Janani Mangai Srinivasan, Wake Forest University

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Janani Mangai Srinivasan

Wake Forest University
Creative Writing

I am passionate about creative writing and making stories. I enjoy all mediums in which stories are spread around the world — be they fiction novels, animation or movies.

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