When the media started printing stories about Obama taking off his suit coat in the Oval Office, loosening the dresscode of the Bush era, it got me thinking about my personal experiences with dress codes, and various reactions I’ve received when deviating from them (whether intentional or otherwise).
The word dress code alone makes me shudder and remember my grade school days of being stopped in the hall by teachers, and being asked to put my arms flat by my sides to makes sure my shorts were fingertip length; my high school days of receiving a Coca-Cola T-shirt because, while carrying my school books, it appeared my shirt showed part of my stomach…
After high school, dress codes disappear for a few years during college (assuming you, like the average college student, do not have money to go to the kind of clubs with a dress code), only to return in your professional life – business casual or business formal.
Business formal is generally a three piece suit, close toed shoes, and stockings of some kind at all times. The term business casual is more elusive , especially to women. I mean, for men and women alike, it means you don’t have to wear a suit. So men wear dress shirts, polos, etc. However, drawing this line for women is a little more difficult.
My first job out of college was at a law firm where the dress code was business casual. One day I wore khaki pants and a collared shirt. Both were loose fitting. I was told I needed to dress up more. I asked what particular article of clothing went against the dress code, and received a shoulder shrug from my boss.
It wasn’t so much that I wasn’t following the dress code, it was my overall appearance. Now, this might be jumping to conclusions, but I figured if either the pants or the shirt had been more fitted, I would have been perceived as looking more professional (I am not arguing that the lawyer wanted to see me in something tight, I do not believe that was the case). Somehow, I inadvertently slipped more into the casual side of business casual in way that could not be clearly communicated through the dress code.
And it is not just women that struggle with this.
The phrase dress code came up in an unexpected place recently – my search for a honeymoon location with my fiancee. And in this dress code, men had more rules. Resorts seem very concerned that men either won’t wear shirts, or will wear sleeveless shirts and gym shoes to the resort’s restaurants. The only concern women bear is that we will show up to dinner in our bathing suits and nothing more.
At first I was slightly put off. I have always had negative experiences with dress codes, and I wanted my honeymoon to be casual and relaxing, not full of rules and hoity toity people looking down their noses at me.
My fiancee calmed me down though. Of course I wasn’t going to show up to dinner in my bathing suit. We both prefer to wear clothes to dinner. And he doesn’t even own sleeveless shirts beyond the ones he works out in.
As much as I hate to admit it, rules do exist for a reason (and I probably deserved the Coca-Cola shirt in high school…maybe). Even within the business casual boundaries at my first job, I saw plenty of women wearing outfits more suited for the club than the office, despite not breaking any rules. At my current job, for jeans day, our human resource manager actually had to remind people that the jeans should not have any holes. So imagine if we just trusted people’s judgement and did away with dress codes altogether.
Dress codes exist because different people have different ideas about what is appropriate, and not everyone is aware of what their clothing communicates, or the way it creates an ambiance in a given environment.
The Bush administration held the oval office in high regard and communicated that message by requiring a coat and tie at all times – a business formal dress code you might say.
Obama wants to be an everyman, one of us, and most of us work in business casual environments. So off went the suit coat and tie to create a more laid back image and atmosphere.
People had varying reactions to this deviation. Some argued that his jacket removal showed a level of disrespect for the position and for long held traditions. Others argued that it was a move by Obama to bring him closer to the general public, and to separate himself more completely from Bush, both being seen as positive and cool.
I have never been a fan of being told I cannot judge for myself what is or is not appropriate to wear, or that my clothes cause a distraction to those around me (those poor high school boys). However, I am aware that my clothing choices send a message to the outside world. I would always choose to be perceived as a professional and recognized as such by the way I carry myself.
Maybe I’m just not as cool as Obama.