- Gen Z workers are showing up to work in outfits that others sometimes deem unprofessional.
- Casual wear has filtered into the office since the pandemic, confusing standard dress codes.
- Business Insider spoke to corporate stylists about how Gen Z can look professional at work.
Like many pandemic graduates, I started my first job out of college as a reporter at Business Insider working entirely remotely, and spent the first few months meeting my manager and colleagues via video call.
At the time, I had very few work-appropriate items. My wardrobe largely consisted of crop tops, jeans, sweatpants, hoodies, and other items that represented peak college life.
I was told that the dress code at BI is smart casual and not formal, but I wasn't sure what that meant exactly. When the company moved to a hybrid working model a couple of months later, I was still at a loss about what to wear.
When I came to the office, some people opted for jeans, shirts, or dresses, and some of the younger employees even wore crop tops. It took me several months to figure out what was appropriate while still maintaining my style.
My qualms about what qualifies as workwear are shared by other Gen Zers who are expressing their frustrations on TikTok, saying they don't understand what their company's dress code means.
"If somebody's dressed kind of sloppily, we might make the inference that they're not all that conscientious," Ryan Vogel, associate professor at Fox School of Business at Temple University, recently told BI.
"If they're not going to take the time to put themselves together, they similarly won't take the time to put their report together in a similar kind of fashion," he added.
And a more sloppily dressed person might well be overlooked when it comes to promotions, he said.
We chatted to two corporate stylists to find out how the younger gens can elevate their work style:
1. You should be covered 'from nips to knees'
Casual wear like crop tops and mini skirts have no place in the office, Maree Ellard, a corporate stylist based in Australia, told BI.
Ellard helps her clients balance alternative fashion aesthetics with corporate workwear and charges around $600 AUD ($391) to create a capsule-style wardrobe of 25 mix-and-match pieces and $750 AUD ($490) to create five unique outfits for the workweek.
In a recent TikTok video, she demonstrated how, when wearing a mini skirt at work, she was unable to bend down or sit comfortably because it exposed more than was appropriate.
"From nips to knees, you are essentially making sure you are covered," she said, adding there should be no reason to have your chest, upper legs, or midriff exposed.
Ellard said that uncomfortable outfits will just add to your everyday stress because it requires a lot of mental power to maneuver around in them.
"If you can't functionally move and you're only basing your outfit on just standing straight, you need to cut that out," she added.
2. Quality over quantity
Liz Teich, a New York-based stylist, said that many Gen Zers shop at fast fashion chains like Zara and stock up on pieces that aren't good quality.
"They think that they have to buy a lot, and I think they're overlooking that they can style things in different ways," Teich explained.
It's not about spending lots of money but buying fewer quality pieces that can be styled with various outfits, she said, using a blazer as an example.
A "great blazer styled in different ways with a dress, with dress pants, with jeans, it can be the course of a wardrobe," she said.
Rather than buying five blazers that you don't love, buy one great one that will last forever, she added.
Teich advised young professionals to shop on sites like eBay, Poshmark, and The RealReal for good quality pre-owned items.
And if you can, invest in tailoring. Men's suits and pants bought off the rack can look sloppy if they don't fit well, she said — so it's worth spending a little extra to have these tailored to fit.
3. Invest in some great work shoes
It's time to put aside those casual Nike Air Force 1 sneakers and invest in more stylish work shoes, Teich says.
"People need to really step up their shoe game," she said, adding that since the pandemic workers have become more casual in their footwear choices. "Now they don't know what kind of shoes to wear."
While Teich notes that high heels might not suit every office culture, flat pumps are a good alternative.
Loafers, flats, booties, and certain types of sneakers — fashion or retro styles, for example — are also appropriate choices for women, she said.
Meanwhile, dress shoes, boots, or white court sneakers — which are based on the design of tennis sneakers — from brands such as Veja, Common Projects, and Nisolo or Adidas Stan Smiths, Gazelle, and Samba are great options for men.
It's not enough to only wear the right shoes, there's a level of upkeep to keep them looking presentable. Teich recommends taking dress shoes to the cobbler if they need a repair or a polish, and investing in a magic eraser or a shoe cleaner for sneakers.
Another way to revive tired sneakers is by switching the laces or bleaching them, she said.
4. Play around with accessories, details, and color
Following a strict dress code doesn't always mean sacrificing your sense of style.
If your workplace has a business casual or business formal dress code, Ellard says you have to "translate your style" which means incorporating elements of your aesthetic into your workwear.
She gave the example of someone whose style might be "gorpcore" — a new-age take on functional clothing — and how that can translate to businesswear.
A gorpcore enthusiast might opt for tailored structured pants with lots of pockets or a utility-style belt to cinch in their waist, she said.
Playing around with accessories and colors can also make an outfit pop.
"When in doubt, accessories are my way to do it," she said. This includes earrings, necklaces, watches, belts, bracelets, or headbands and clips to style the hair.
Ellard also suggests wearing monochromatic outfits. Bold pastels can look great, but more muted colors like navy, charcoal, or chocolate brown also work in more formal offices.
5. Keep the designer logos to a minimum
Wearing designer outfits can make you look more put together but keep the logos subtle and understated.
"I think if you wear too many showy logos, that might be inappropriate and might not send the right message to your coworkers," Teich said.
Overall, it's better to develop your own style and incorporate quality pieces into your wardrobe to show you can think independently, she said.
"You always hear dress for the job that you want, not the job that you have," she said. "You don't want to look like you're entry-level … you want to look like you are ready to get a promotion."