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Do Dress Codes Still Matter for Start-ups?

Whether it’s business attire or casual, dress codes serve a purpose

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BY Jared Carl Millan - 10 Jul 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

According to a popular maxim, one mustn’t judge a book by its cover. Although this is a sound advice, the concept of workplace dress codes runs counter to this very idiom; you want to be judged precisely by how you present yourself.

In the corporate world, a strict dress code is a way for companies to establish a specific image that they want to project not only to their clients but also in the workplace—an image of polish and professionalism. Further, business attire is particularly useful for companies whose employees often leave the office to meet with clients a moment’s notice.

But how does this apply when it comes to start-ups? When you’re in a relaxed environment where comfort is chosen over uniformity, do dress codes still matter?

Mark Zuckerberg may not be running a start-up company, at least not anymore, but what he wears to work is arguably start-up chic. Cotton T-shirt, jeans, and the occasional hoodie. This no-nonsense approach to dressing up allows employees to work longer hours—a given in the start-up culture—and be more productive.

“Wearing casual attire daily makes me feel most like myself,” says Biancareese Mendoza, a content producer for The Asian Parent. “It’s all a matter of self-expression. I’ve never worked at a place with a strict dress code. I’m also most productive when I’m wearing comfy clothes.”

Meanwhile, for Dazzle Ng, PR and communications lead for Singaporean start-up Tickled Media, it’s all a matter of being pragmatic. “Since becoming a parent, my prep time has decreased significantly,” she says. “Not having to look super polished helps loads with getting through the morning rush. I also don’t have to worry about my toddler wrinkling my clothes when she wants a hug or smearing my lipstick when it’s time for a goodbye kiss.”

With the culture of most SMEs, which is hip, young, and energetic, giving employees an autonomy over their sartorial decisions can boost workplace morale—something the corporate world strives to do with Casual Fridays. Unlike big businesses, SMEs know that they’re different, and that the rules that apply to established companies don’t necessarily benefit them.

In Southeast Asia, where it can be hot even when it’s raining, a rigid dress code for SMEs especially may not be the most beneficial for employees’ wellbeing.

In a Telegraph article, Liz Walker, a commercial director for PR company Distinctly, says that they want to encourage their employees’ identity by letting them dress as they wish, which can then enhance the workplace creativity, positivity, and motivation.

However, casual attire doesn’t mean you’re allowed to dress sloppily. Even in a lot of start-ups, going to work in pajamas or gym clothes is still unacceptable. Clothes that are too revealing and show too much skin like crop tops and micro mini skirts are also a no-no.

When it comes to casual clothes, looking smart is the name of the game. Be careful of wearing clothing with holes in them—even if they’re considered stylish. Wear shirts that fit and are pressed. Never turn up to work wearing flip flops.

At the end of the day what we wear is still a representation of ourselves, and that is an important image to project even in a relaxed environment. It's important to remember that your workplace is still a place to respect and build a career, and you won't be able to do that wearing a white wife beater—unless you work in construction, in which case, that's a different story altogether.

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