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The line between what we wear at home and what we wear to work is disappearing. For women, fashion magazines such as Glamour, InStyle and even Vogue are advising women on how to wear leggings to work – black only please, upgraded by tailored blazers, button down shirts and leather boots. For men, workwear has now become heavily influenced by Silicon Valley, where T-shirts, jeans and $500 Lanvin sneakers typify normal dress at companies like Facebook and Google.

According to a 2018 survey by Robert Half staffing company Office Team, jeans, tennis shoes and leggings are more acceptable workwear now compared to five years ago.

But is it smart if you want to be taken seriously?

The same survey also reports 80 per cent of managers feel clothing choices affect your chances of being promoted. It’s no wonder people are confused.

Recent grads

Mary Barroll, president of TalentEgg Inc., a Toronto-based online career resource for students and recent graduates, says the key to getting it right is decoding “business casual.”

“Context is everything,” says Ms. Barroll. “The kind of workplace culture you’re in will always be relevant. The industry, profession, location, the people you’re dealing with inside and outside the office plus the nature of your work all impact what’s appropriate to wear.”

It’s especially confusing for young people in the interview process and who are transitioning from school to work. She advises being more conservative until you’re able to observe what other people are wearing around you.

Ms. Barroll says the biggest mistakes young people make are being too revealing or too casual, for instance wearing flip flops or halter tops.

“When someone makes a miscalculation in the office, it reflects badly on their judgment,” says Ms. Barroll. “It’s not just saying the person has bad taste in clothing; it shows a lack of awareness that they don’t know what’s appropriate.”

Erin Nadler, image consultant and president of Better Styled Inc. in Toronto, says she has seen more formal business workplaces relax their dress policies over the past five years.

“The big term right now is ‘dress for your day,’” says Ms. Nadler. “So if you have a client that’s more casual, whether you’re corporate or casual yourself, you’re being encouraged to dress accordingly. That’s the shift. It’s assuming people know how to dress for their clients or their day.”

While banks and big law and accounting firms still have dress policies in place, she says it’s more of a general guideline. That’s created a lot of grey area for people who are used to either dressing formally for work or dressing very casually. What’s in the middle is the tricky part.

What is business casual?

“When I say business casual, I don’t mean jeans and T-shirts,” says Ms. Nadler. “It’s a blazer and slacks, or a dress and a cardigan or jacket. There’s a level of sophistication required, but people can wear colour or choose patterns instead of solids. Men are loving crazy looking socks.”

It’s not just millennials driving the changes, she says, but a mix of ages, including older female professionals who are tired of wearing man-inspired suits for the past 30 years.

“There’s a lot of commuting and time spent at the office, so people want to be comfortable,” says Ms. Nadler. “They want to feel polished and put together but also want clothing that stretches and breathes. They want to be able to walk from the subway to their office without having to change their shoes.”

Ashley Savinov, a lawyer with Cox & Palmer in St. John’s, agrees most employers are taking a more relaxed approach to dress codes.

“The workplace tends to reflect society,” says Ms. Savinov. “Thirty years ago visible tattoos were less common on everyday people, but today most employers wouldn’t think twice about allowing that. People are a lot more flexible.”

Rules must not discriminate

In both unionized and non-unionized workplaces, all appearance policies must comply with human rights legislation. For example, if a dress code targets a particular sex by saying women have to wear high heels, that’s discriminatory.

In unionized workplaces, an employer’s policy must also meet specific criteria, including that it’s “reasonable” and consistent with their collective agreement. Non-unionized employers don’t have the same restrictions beyond complying with human rights legislation.

“Ultimately, it’s about having a legitimate business reason to implement a policy,” says Ms. Savinov. “‘Reasonable’ varies depending on the nature of the workplace, which is different for every situation, For example, there may be a legitimate health and safety reason to say grocery store employees must wear closed toe shoes. If an employer imposes something rigid without a valid reason, there’s likely to be friction, which can impact morale and overall productivity. If employers have an open dialogue with their employees, they can strike a good balance.”

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