Is Business Casual Okay in a Higher Ed Work Environment?


There was a time when men wore a suit and tie to work or women dressed to the nines with pencil skirts and heels. Those days are in the past for many institutions. Business casual has replaced strictly business attire across many industries.  

But how do you know if you comply with the unspoken dress code, especially in higher education, where researchers and professors rub elbows? 

The answer if business casual is okay in higher ed is: it’s complicated. No answer will apply to every department in academia. So, how do you know when business casual is acceptable?

The Origins of the Professional Outfit

Professional business attire can be traced back to the turn of the 18th century. Left behind was the opulent clothing of great wealth. Instead, career men began to prefer more subdued clothing.

At that same time, very few women worked outside the home. And when they did, they still wore the fashion at the time – petticoats with full shirts.

Fashion rules relaxed when more women joined the workforce en masse in the 1900s. Pencil skirts and sensible shoes replaced the long, full skirts of the past.

By the 1960s, women began wearing pantsuits and blouses to the office as part of their business attire.  

How Business Casual Gained Popularity

What exactly is business casual, and when did its popularity rise? Business casual attire is a more relaxed version of the traditional business garb. Rather than suits and ties, men wear polo shirts with khakis, and women replace the skirt with cotton pants and the blouses with sweaters. 

The trend began in the 1980s in Silicon Valley. As the tech industry exploded, so too did business casual. Of course, formal business attire is still the norm in some industries, such as the famed Wall Street stock market in New York City.

Walking down the streets in lower New York City transports you to another time, with men rushing by in classic suits, briefcases in hand.

However, most other industries adhere to business casual attire. If you’re not sure, ask your hiring manager or colleagues.

Professional dress codes became even more relaxed during the pandemic when many worked from home. Some opted for business on top and party on the bottom, donning dress shirts with Bermuda shorts, for example.

However, now that people are returning to the office, the business attire vs. business casual debate resumes.

Pros and Cons of Business Casual for Instructors

Instructors in higher education walk a fine line between wanting their students to relate to them and gaining their respect. Dressing down for classes can definitely put you on your students’ level. But is that where you want to be?

If you’re walking around campus between classes, do you want to visibly present as a student yourself or as an esteemed instructor with a long list of degrees and qualifications? One drawback to dressing casually is you can unintentionally lose the respect of both your colleagues and the students you’re teaching.

Higher education classes are notably more relaxed than high school. For one, many instructors prefer their students to address them by their first name rather than “Professor so-and-so.”

That kind of familiarity can be a blessing and a curse. You want your student to enjoy their classes, but too much familiarity can lead to unforeseen problems, such as accusations of favoritism.  

Wearing a suit and tie daily can also garner students’ negative reactions. Do you give off the impression that you’re stuffy? Furthermore, dressing in business attire can be uncomfortable daily. Business casual allows an air of respectability while allowing for comfort.

You’re Always Professional on Impactio

Virtual meetings aren’t the only career aspect for which people use the internet. Many industries find social media platforms imperative to their professional career. Impactio is the premier platform for scholars and researchers to network with others in their field.

And the best part is that both business attire and business casual are acceptable dress codes. Create your Impactio profile today, and you’ll find the professional connections necessary to advance your career or share your accomplishments.


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