How Millennials Are Changing What Business Casual for Women Means

© Jacob Lund | Adobe Stock

Millennial Women at Work

Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

Profile Picture
April 19, 2024 at 9:41PM UTC
Millennials aren’t just lobbying for things like healthy work-life balances and passion-driven careers. They are also changing the way we view professional attire and redefining the idea of what “business casual for women” means. Casual business attire is becoming evermore of a make or break for prospective employees.

Standard business attire has always been a much more restrictive style of dress with workplace clothing options being limited to business suits (pants or a skirt — your pick!) and the occasional dress with a blazer. Business attire used to mean a pencil skirt, blouses and a jacket for women. For men, it meant a suit, tie, collar shirt, dress pants and nice shoes. Going to work was like going to a black tie event. But today, casual wear has made its way into offices. Casual attire means women and men alike are wearing jeans and a shirt to the office. Some companies have no company dress code and allow for casual attire every day, and some other client-facing companies allow for an employee to wear a smart casual outfit to work or rock casual wear on "Casual Friday."

When the “business casual” trend originated in the male-dominated tech world of Silicon Valley of the 1980s, it generally meant khakis and a button-down or polo. As it spread, business casual dress for women came to mean wearing brighter colors, occasionally eschewing blazers in favor of sweaters or simply wearing a blouse with slacks. Over time, even those rules have loosened. Denim has worked its way into the office, along with casual wear like leggings and oversized tops or a sweater, and even more casual footwear like combat boots and sneakers. The average person probably puts a lot less thought into their work outfit, since casual business attire has become a thing.

It should probably come as no surprise that companies who want to attract more millennial talent are being encouraged to loosen up on their dress codes — and for those looking to appeal to women, allowing for woman business casual clothes is also vital. When it comes to workplace attire, millennials want less rigidity and more room for comfort and personal expression; but, to be fair, it’s not strictly the 20- and early 30-somethings vying for more freedom in what they wear to work. According to Inc.com50 percent of managers say employees dress less formal than they did five years ago, and 58 percent of employees say they would prefer to work for a company that has a business casual or casual dress code — or no dress code at all.
"The life and impending death of business casual demonstrates broader shifts in American culture and business: Life is less formal," writes Deirdre Clemente in her piece published on The Atlantic titled, "Why Do American Workers Dress So Casually?' "The concept of ‘going to the office’ has fundamentally changed; American companies are now more results-oriented than process-oriented."
Given the massive profits and wide-reaching influence of the tech world, it should probably come as no surprise that their trends influence the way things are done across industries. The idea of a more relaxed and casual workplace that is more concerned with the work being done than the clothes employees wear to the office has spread, and companies like JP Morgan, General Electric and IBM have embraced business casual dress codes, too.
The tech industry’s standards aren’t the only reason why younger workers are pushing for this change. For one thing, Gen Xers and millennials are simply more laidback than their older counterparts. Plus, American style, in general, has become increasingly less formal since World War II.
But most of all, unpacking and reexamining long-standing business practices is a hallmark of the millennial generation’s view on working. Even among myself and my social circle, we have questioned things like the eight-hour workday (more things could be accomplished in six) and higher-ups ignoring the ideas of “green” employees (why wouldn’t you want to at least hear new ideas?). When it comes to our general ideas about workwear — and you might want to sit down for this one — millennials are generally broke. I know, I know. This is all completely new information. The fact of the matter is that it’s incredibly hard to create an extensive work wardrobe when you’re both saddled with intense student loans and working an entry-level position with wages that have not kept up with the cost of inflation. A good pair of slacks can run you $30 — and that isn't bad. Most of us haven’t completely graduated from the junior’s section.
The best slacks and only blazer that I personally own are both from H&M and I felt incredibly proud of myself when I bought them. And I am certain that I am not alone among millennial women.
Lauren McEwen is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and social media manager for the web series, "Hermione Granger and the Quarter Life Crisis." 

Why women love us:

  • Daily articles on career topics
  • Jobs at companies dedicated to hiring more women
  • Advice and support from an authentic community
  • Events that help you level up in your career
  • Free membership, always