Fashion Bytes — “Generation stupidly casual”

After a discussion about interview clothing and my recent Fashion Byte on “dressing up”, one of my very good friends forwarded an article to me from the Australian newspaper, The Age, from which I have stolen this week’s title. The article is a commentary on the inappropriateness of many of Generation Y’s choices regarding work attire. It is, of course, an Australian writing about young, Australian members of “Gen Y”, but the descriptions wouldn’t be out of place in many places in the United States, and, I suspect, other places as well.

The author thinks it is all about attitude. She demonstrates this by contrasting the complaints of one young friend  (“I don’t want to be called ‘a suit’, and I don’t want to wear one. But they treat me like I’m delivering sandwiches if I don’t wear a tie — I have two degrees!”) with the set of strict rules regarding what was appropriate clothing and what wasn’t that she herself was given at her first magazine job. She sites Mark Zuckerberg’s casual clothing as one of the possible reasons why this generation is so resistant to traditional work clothing, but I think a better analysis was made by Sonia when she commented on Fashion Bytes — Dressing up. She stated that it was all about the erosion of public space: since there is no longer much distinction between public and private, no one understands the appropriate dress etiquette.

What are your opinions regarding the intrusion of casual clothing into the workplace? Is it really only Generation Y, or are there others who dress inappropriately? What are the origins of this erosion of public space? Is it due to sites such as Facebook, or was it a problem before the advent of  social media? Is the dismay felt and expressed by older generations proof that fashion has more importance than society generally gives it credit for? What consequences can an antagonistic attitude towards formal work clothing have in the current job market? Why, even when they know the negative consequences, are some people so adverse to dressing as they are “expected to”? Is this the result of focusing too much on individual expression, or is it a corruption by entitlement culture? Have you noticed tendencies to dress down in other countries? What is the result or response?

Please share your thoughts.

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  • Shannon July 10, 2012 09.40 am

    My parents’ views: people in suits are successful businessmen. Those who dress well dress for the job they have (or at least, the job they want). People who wear jeans to work don’t care. I would trust a doctor less if she wasn’t wearing a white coat. I would never hire a lawyer who wears khakis and a polo to the office.

    My views: anybody can buy a nice suit — they didn’t audit Bernie Madoff before selling him expensive suits — so they don’t necessarily signify expertise or reliability. Nice suits signify wealth(/debt), and it shows that the person is trying to present a respectable front, though that doesn’t mean that they ARE respectable. Less-nice, average suits signify the same, plus aspiration (not necessarily a bad thing). Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are by all measures successful people who accomplished great things without wearing ties. I feel better if a doctor wears a white coat, but I know that quacks wear them, too. And that a doctor is just as excellent in no coat. Someone who dresses comfortably and in a way that expresses their personal style seems more in control and capable than someone who dresses stiffly and traditionally (and often, uncomfortably, not practically). Emphasizing the former signifies to me that a company is more focused on looking good than actually BEING and DOING good, important work.

  • Marliese Thomas July 10, 2012 09.41 am

    At the recent American Library Association Annual Conference, there was a quite passionate panel and group discussion about librarians’ styles and perceptions thus taken. Some felt that they needed to “dress down” to make students feel more comfortable, while others sometimes felt like they were fulfilling a role or stereotype just with their personal choices – the spinster, the hipster, the naughty librarian, the programmer. I have, at times, chosen to dress more formally to be taken seriously by faculty outside my library (I work at a university and look younger than my actual age). Though, in reality, it is attitude and competence that carries the day with that one.

    At the same time, I think our field self-censors, especially academic librarians. The reasoning might be to keep a semblance of dignity and self-effacement, but the end result is it reinforces us as bland, out-of-touch, and forgettable. Because we are trying to maintain legitimacy as faculty on campus, we sometimes can sublimate our personal style to that greater goal. Some might try to make it into an ageist argument, but I don’t think that’s it at all. If there’s any truth to that, it’s possibly because fashion trends are cycling more quickly now than in the previous century, so those who are Gen Y or even later Gen X may be more accustomed to being more experimental with their styles.

    I do not advocate that anyone should wear a style with which they are uncomfortable – I myself am a fairly traditional and conservative dresser. However, when we spend so much time as a profession debating what our “look” should be, we lose that time actually doing things. If you would like to see the conversation from this ALA session search Twitter for hashtag #lwconvo. It was sponsored by the creators of

    I would love to hear how others, especially in this field, feel about the issue. Do you think about what your librarians wear? Do you care?

  • Sharon Martin July 10, 2012 10.06 am

    I started teaching ninth graders at a large, Midwestern public school in 1989, and I saw teachers dress very casually; so I believe casual dress entered the work environment before Generation Y and social media. I noticed on days when I wore casual clothing more discipline issues surfaced. On days when I dressed professionally, I felt students respected me more and classes ran more smoothly. Needless to say, I tried to dress up every day.

  • Brenna July 10, 2012 02.21 pm


    This is a fascinating topic, as it deals with self-expression, identity, stereotypes, labelling and many other topics that are at the center of a lot of fashion research. I think I may have just found one of my next Fashion Bytes topics. Thank you!

  • Jacqueline July 10, 2012 09.14 pm

    Gen X are notorious for being skeptical of authority, independent, and rule breakers. I would argue that their introduction to the workplace accelerated casual business attire far more than Millennials have. Their rule breaking and mistrust of institutions resulted in a dislike for formal business attire and a breakdown of dressing up.

    Millennials are just now entering the workplace and haven’t had enough time to make a major impact on dress habits. They are only reacting to an already lax policy on dress. In fact, it’s been said that Millennials actually like supportive structure, and conform more to “the man” than Gen X did before them.

  • Suzanne Lieban July 11, 2012 04.59 pm

    If Gen Y and Millenials can easily conform to the dress code of their own generations- there should be no problem getting them- sheeplike- to conform to dress codes of the office or the workplace. As a Gen X-er who wholly rejects hose in any form, including taking any job in which I may be called upon to place hose upon my legs, I fully understand the rebellion. However- Propriety is the watchword. If it is inappropriate, it should not fly. (and if you worked for me you’d be out on your inappropriate attire- read: torn jeans, unclad bosom, tank tops, obvious tattoos, pierced face, pajamas, etc.) Time and Place. And Work Isn’t It.

    I don’t think it is an erosion of public versus private space- I think it is an erosion of discipline. Baby Boomers raised their children to be Precious Flowers- what I call the Precious Flower Syndrome. Their children’s creativity was not to be stifled- they were allowed to behave in any way it befit them in order not to crush their tiny self esteems. And today we have young adults with no empathy, no discipline- self or otherwise- and no idea how to dress for any occasion- let alone work. The real problem comes in when you mix one of these discipline-less young people with a rebellious Gen-X boss- you get an adrift employee with no guidance from anywhere who assumes that, “well, now, Mom was right! Everything goes!”

    If the clothing is a distraction from the business at hand- then it is inappropriate. It is up to HR to teach that simple principle to its young workers. Each business can decide itself what its boundaries are. I know mine.

  • Sonia August 06, 2012 10.55 pm

    Hi, thanks for referencing me 🙂 am flattered.

    By erosion of public space, I meant more than a misunderstanding of appropriateness – it is actually that public space is now imposed upon so strongly by the private that the context of “public” actually no longer (or very minimally) exists. And I think this is growing. Dress is merely reflecting our social reality – formality is reserved for situations where we consciously enter an event that carries explicit public interaction – eg weddings, gala events. The places and times in between are now no longer seen as public, more as “private hallways and passages” between private spaces. The easiest example is the car – in reality driving a car is a social and public act, but in common behavioural action the car is an extension of private space (drivers can pick your nose, put makeup on, get annoyed at others for being in YOUR space etc). Essentially I am arguing that increasingly we are seeing all activities as private, except at events where interactivity is the primary action. In this view, work is also beginning to be seen as an extension of our private space.


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