Women’s workplace attire ditches pantsuit over a shifting job economy

Clothes can tell you a lot about a person – especially in the work place. And women have been grappling with what they should wear since they entered the corporate workforce. Whether it’s a Hillary Clinton-esque pantsuit or a ready-to-wear dress, work wear attire can signal your status and confidence and while sending a message about who you are. However, it appears that with the evolution of the workplace, office fashion has begun to get lax.

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According to a study by Intuit, it is predicted that “contingent workers will exceed 40 percent of the workforce by 2020.” Aside from the rising number of freelancers and contractors, Intuit says the outlook for 2020 is also a “she-conomy” – which is a term that represents the near billion women who will be new economic contributors.

“In the industrialized world, women will continue making educational, economic and political advances,” the report said. It also went on to project that the gender pay gap will become something of the past.

“The gender gap in earnings will narrow over the decease, approaching partly by 2020.”

- The Intuit 2020 Report: Twenty Trends That Will Shap The Next Decade report said.

With more women taking part in the workforce than ever before, it is almost natural to expect a shift in office dynamics. This rise coupled in with modern freelance tactics by employers and progressive attitudes about autonomy are just a few factors that are shaping how women are approaching workplace attire.

“Suits are usually a must in the legal profession, but in many other settings it seems anything goes these days,” Beatrice Purdy, president of online custom clothing retailer Measure & Made said about the state of modern day workplace fashion.

“It is possible to look polished in “dress down” attire and it’s always helpful to have a complimentary color pallet and a fun shoe to complete the look. I personally love a good blazer, but pencil skirts have taken a back seat the past few years,” she added.

Kris Ruby, the CEO of New York-based public relations and social media agency, Ruby Media Group, noted that traditional fields like finance and television require employees to dress formally in the normal day-to-day.

From her experience as a regular contributor on television news programs, Ruby said, “TV attire doesn’t change regardless of what is trending in the fashion world. You always see TV guests and anchors in dresses and hair and makeup ready. I don’t see this changing any time soon.”

Interestingly enough, professional dress in the medical field has its own set of rules. Doctor Tania Dempsey, founder of Armonk Integrative Medicine explained to FOX Business that women in academic medical centers dress conservatively and wear the signature white lab coat, which has a “certain status symbol and is encouraged” when seeing patients. In private practices, women can have more freedom in what they wear.

“While some women doctors choose to wear blazers instead of white coats or change from their blazers to their white coats, it seems that more women are opting for less conservative options, like nice blouses and sweaters,“ Dempsey said.

She added that pencil skirts tend to be uncomfortable for doctors who need to move.

For Dempsey herself, she chose to ditch the white coat after practicing for 15 years.

“It was a way of hiding myself behind my title and bringing a formality to the doctor-patient relationship. Patients would see Dr. Dempsey, the doctor, and not Tania Dempsey, the person. This not only changed what I wore, but it changed the doctor-patient relationship to some extent and made it a little more fluid, allowing patients to understand that I was human too.  Old school medicine might not respect that, but my patients do.”

- Dr. Tania Dempsey said about her decision to ditch the traditional white lab coat worn in the medicine field.

When it came to the age old question on whether jeans are considered professional, all three women agreed that they can be if the outfit as a whole is dressed up appropriately. In short, they believe dark wash jeans, elegant blouses, shoes and jewelry can maintain an appropriate level of business casual dress.

The also agreed that long, arduous commutes are likely to shape how women dress in the work place – meaning that these women will opt for a more comfortable and casual wardrobe.

Women are not alone in their quest for comfy-casual attire. A 2019 survey conducted by recruitment agency Randstad USA “revealed casual dress appears to be the new norm in most workplaces.” Astoundingly, 33 percent of its respondent said they would quit or turn down a job offer if required to follow a conservative dress code.

Other key findings include the following:

  • A combined 79 percent report their current employer has a dress code policy that is either business casual (26 percent), casual (33 percent) or non-existent/no dress code at all (20 percent).
  • Sixty-three percent of workers aged 18 to 35 say they prefer dressing up for work for a confidence and performance boost, while only 51 percent of workers aged 35 to 64 agree.
  • Seventy-four percent of men surveyed own a suit, compared to 45 percent of women.

"The nature of work — where, when and how it gets done — has changed dramatically over the past several years, and many of those changes (open offices, remote work) have ultimately contributed to a less formal workplace," said Traci Fiatte, CEO of Randstad USA said about the study.

"It's great to empower your employees to dress for their day, as well as show their personality, but it is equally important for employers to set some clear guidelines to ensure that everyone feels comfortable."

- Fiatte said regarding workplace dress trends.

When it comes down to whether the media plays a role in what women are choosing to wear, the general consensus is yes and no.

Purdy said traditional fashion shows are losing their hold, but the attire women see being advertised in TV, blogs or social media can “certainly influence our choices.”

However, I think the female consumer feels more comfortable and confident in her own skin than ever before,” she said optimistically.

Conversely, Ruby believes social media has a larger impact on what women wear. She said, “We have seen this with the rise of social shopping on Instagram and the ability to buy outfits directly through the platform. Instagram has become the modern day catalogue, and women pick what they want to wear through tagged brands.”

Ruby added that wages can play a role in what women wear in the work place as well, but technology has helped to remedy this issue with accessible online shopping or clothing rental brands like Rent the Runway.