Styled for Success: Work Dress Codes and Personal Expression

“And the sign says, long-haired freaky people, need not apply. So, I put my hair up under my hat, and I went in to ask him why. He said, you look like a fine, outstanding young man; I think you’ll do. So, I took off my hat, and I said imagine that, huh, me working for you…” Signs (covered by: Tesla)

While the guy looking for a job in the song Signs may have been hassled for expressing his personal style, this is not necessarily the case in today’s workforce. Though corporate and municipal dress codes are often influenced by geographic location and changing social norms, appropriate attire worn in good taste is never out of style.

Gender Styles and Geographic Location

One of the most notable changes in corporate dress code policy was made in 2021 by The Walt Disney Company. In the Disney Parks Blog, Josh D’Amaro, Chairman, Disney Parks Experiences and Products, posted, “Our new approach provides greater flexibility with respect to forms of personal expression surrounding gender-inclusive hairstyles, jewelry, nail styles, and costume choices; and allowing appropriate visible tattoos. We’re updating them to not only remain relevant in today’s workplace but also enable our cast members to better express their cultures and individuality at work.”

This update could be seen as a departure from the past where jewelry, earring, and nail styles typically pertained only to female employees.

The City and County of San Francisco have a fairly relaxed dress code expecting that workers will wear appropriate clothing and accessories. In 2019, the City and County implemented a “Gender Inclusion Policy for Transgender and Gender Nonconforming City Employees,” which contained an “Appearance and Attire” section.

It states, “Transgender and gender non-conforming employees have the right to dress in a way that corresponds with their gender identity and/or gender expression. Attire must align with departmental dress codes. Dress codes should not vary based on gender.”

Corporate and municipal dress codes vary significantly across the United States, with more inclination toward “gender inclusivity” on the east and west coasts. A sampling of city employee manuals from Illinois and Missouri revealed that communities with a population of less than 150,000 typically do not address gender as part of their dress code policy. Additionally, workers in these smaller towns are encouraged to contact their immediate supervisors with dress code questions.

The 2022 employee handbook for Aurora, MO, provides its workers with relatively detailed “Dress and appearance guidelines.” The policy reads in part, “Hair should be clean, combed and neatly trimmed or arranged. Shaggy, unkempt hair is not permissible regardless of length.”

It goes on to state, “Tattoos and body piercing (other than earrings) should not be visible unless approved by the Department Head or City Manager.” The section on “Dress and Appearance” includes a summary that reads, “In general, dress and grooming which might be considered faddish, extreme, slovenly, overly casual or seductive should be avoided.”

Best Bet: Dress for Success

Brian Vogrinc, an executive recruiter and partner with the Illinois firm Vogrinc and Short, usually advises his clients to use ‘business casual’ to determine how to dress for work.

“I still think the general rule is dress to impress. I don’t think that means a suit and tie as much anymore. Most of the time, a job in the manufacturing field is business casual, but if you’re trying to land a job in the financial sector, that attire would be more business professional. Feel free to ask your boss or potential employer about the dress code; no one should discount you for inquiring.”

Vogrinc said that he hadn’t had a lot of feedback from employers on how tattoos and piercings are perceived in the job interview process. “Put your best foot forward, and dress for the role that you want, not the role that you have,” he suggested. “In our present-day culture, tattoos are more acceptable than they were 10 or 20 years ago, but there’s still a fine line between dressing for a business climate and honoring personal expression.”

College Casual vs. Young Professional

Having a distinctive and professional workforce is two of the most important goals for Randy Paulissen, director of student housing at Young America Realty (YA). “Most of my sales team is comprised of 18-24-year-old young professionals, and all of them have either graduated from or are attending Illinois State University.”

Many of Paulissen’s employees work as leasing agents for YA-managed rental properties in the area of Bloomington/Normal, IL. “About two years ago, we updated our dress code to a professional but business casual style. This allows for dress pants, collared shirts, button-up shirts, dresses or skirts with a hem at the knee and only t-shirts with the YA logo,” he said.

“Because our staff is working face to face with clients, we want a clear differentiation to exist between the style of a young working professional and the casual attire of a college student.”

Paulissen said that YA employees are not permitted to wear ripped jeans, tight or revealing clothing, sweatpants, sweatshirts, shorts, or shirts with sorority or fraternity logos while on the job.

“We ask students to err on the side of modesty in how they dress,” he said. “Hair and facial hair should be well-groomed, and tattoos should be discreet or in good taste.” In addition, the company does not allow their employees to have gage-type earrings.

“We want our employees to have their own style and personal expression, but be professional,” he said. “I see our dress code as a way to clarify what’s acceptable attire for work. Many of our young professionals will go above and beyond what we have established, and that’s what distinguishes our company.”

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Featured image: Wealth of Geeks.


Lynne Conner is a freelance photojournalist with 30+ years of experience. She has won several regional and national awards for her work and loves writing about lifestyle, business, parenting, finances, health, religion and technology.  Her blog can be found at www.lynnelovesthepast.blog and she is currently working on her first book.