The End of the Office Dress Code

The End of the Office Dress Code

Over the weekend an exhibition opened at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Entitled “Uniformity,” it displays 71 pieces from the museum’s collection of (surprise) uniforms, divided into four categories — military, work, school, sports — as well as a select group of the fashion looks they influenced, like Geoffrey Beene’s 1967 sequined football jersey gown and Rei Kawakubo’s 1998 military vest and pleated skirt for Comme des Garçons.

“I was interested in the inherent dichotomy between uniforms and fashion,” said Emma McClendon, assistant curator of costume, and the organizer of the exhibition, “because while they should be antithetical to one another — the first is about conformity, the second about creativity — they are also deeply interrelated. It’s ironic.”

But not as ironic as the fact that the show opens just as a number of recent disputes have underscored a somewhat different, and disruptive, reality. We live in a moment in which the notion of a uniform is increasingly out of fashion, at least when it comes to the implicit codes of professional and public life. Indeed, the museum may be the only place they now make sense.

If once upon a time Melanie Griffith’s character in “Working Girl” could manipulate viewers’ assumptions about her job and background simply by swapping leather jackets and minidresses for greige suits, today it would be impossible. “We are in a very murky period,” Ms. McClendon said.

Just before the museum’s show opened, for example, Britain was momentarily distracted from discussions over Brexit (leaving the European Union) by the news that Nicola Thorp, a temp worker, had been sent home from her receptionist job at PricewaterhouseCoopers for refusing to wear heels, as dictated by the dress code of her agency, Portico.

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