Dive into the Evolution of Work Dresses
What should you wear to work today? It’s an age-old question and often one without an easy answer. At one point, there would have been very few options at all.
Work dresses – one of an ever-growing range of choices available to women in the modern workplace – have changed a lot over the last century or so. To fully appreciate today’s trends and the options available, we must look back into history.
The Dawn of Professional Attire
To some degree, work-related attire has always existed. People chose to wear garments that were better suited to the environments in which they worked. Shepherds donned coats in the fall and early spring. Farmhands wore light, breathable clothing to help them stay cooler. Soldiers donned armor to protect themselves.
However, there was really nothing that you would consider “professional” attire. Citizens of ancient Rome wore largely the same clothing whether they were tax collectors or scribes. The trend remained mostly the same for many centuries, but it began to change in the modern era.
The 1800s and 1900s
The 1800s and early 1900s were characterized by a “more is more” aesthetic. More what? Layers. While few women served in professional roles during these years, those who did were required to wear heavy skirts and multiple layers in an attempt to ensure that modesty was the rule everywhere. That trend alleviated to some extent as the 1900s moved on, and by the 1920s, skirts had shortened, tall boots were no longer the norm, and women were able to wear fewer layers. Straight skirts entered the market, as did “tailored suits” for women.
In the 30s, the curve-less work dresses and suits of the 20s softened up a little bit. Hemlines lengthened once more, and dresses and skirts became both more ornate and more feminine, although they did not reach the degree of formality commonly seen before 1920. Hemlines remained at or just below the knee, while necks were generally high.
Professional fashion took a step back toward more formality during the 1940s with the advent of WWII. Women looked to “utilitarian” clothing for their roles in the workplace. This was also the time when many women (those working in newly opened factory jobs, for instance) were introduced to garments like the jumpsuit and the boiler suit (both of which were originally workwear and as far from high fashion as you could get).
During the 1950s, the austerity of the previous decade began to fade away. Work dresses were softer and more feminine, with sloping shoulders replacing the squared shoulders (and shoulder pads) of the 40s. Pencil skirts also made their debut during this time, and separates (blouses and skirts) were also very popular. Overall, fewer women wore work dresses and opted for the mix-and-match capabilities afforded by separates.
Work dresses made their comeback in the 1960s, where mod fashion became the rule. Minimalism, lots of colors, three-quarter sleeves – these were just some of the hallmarks of this decade.
The 70s once more saw work dresses decline in popularity. Pantsuits and jumpsuits were all the rage, and bright, bold colors and contrasting patterns dominated. Pants took on overtones of rebellion and feminism, particularly with upwardly mobile women in the corporate world.
The pantsuits of the 70s morphed into the power suits of the 1980s, complete with shoulder pads. Work dresses were not unknown, but suits certainly owned the scene. This was also the period where business casual began to emerge, less formal work attire (slowly) started to gain traction for both women and men.
Work dresses vied with pants and blazers in the 1990s and the business casual aesthetic gained more steam. Work dresses could be paired with blazers or worn on their own. Color and pattern trends ranged from geometric shapes and bold colors to muted earth-tones, and everything in between.
The 2000s through Today
The growth of business casual attire threw workplace dress codes into chaos in the early 2000s. From that confusion emerged what we know today. Many workplaces allow casual wear throughout the week. It is increasingly rare to see anyone in a full suit. With that being said, women are often free to dress up or dress down – smart work dresses are as prevalent as blouses and skirts or anything else today.
In an article for Fast Company, Lydia Dishman points out, “Now, of course, almost anything goes, thanks to the rise of young founders commandeering successful tech companies, an increase in both remote work and flexible hours, and the freelance economy. Hoodies, soccer slides, and graphic t-shirts that were once only seen on evenings or weekends are now de rigueur for those spending long hours in front of a computer screen. Flip-flops are more frequently spotted on the feet of office denizens in the summer as employers encourage their staff to ‘come as they are’.
Business Casual vs. Business Formal
Very quickly, we should address the question of business casual vs. business formal. What do they mean? Business formal is more easily defined than business casual – suits, work dresses, pantsuits, and the like are the rule. Ties may be optional. Typically, business formal attire is more commonly found within certain professions and types of workplaces, such as law offices, or when giving a client presentation. Business formal is polished and sophisticated but skews toward rigid and uncomfortable.
Business casual is less easily defined. In one workplace, “casual” might mean a button-up shirt and slacks for men and nice work dresses for women. In another, it could mean khakis and golf shirts for everyone, or even t-shirts and shorts. The trend, though, is toward more and more casual, as Lydia Dishman pointed out previously. Business dresses can fit into both categories with the right accessories.
The Difference in Use Cases
While general work attire has relaxed an incredible amount from what it was at the beginning of the 1900s, most workplaces are not a “free-for-all”. Sure, tech firms like Facebook and Google might be fine allowing employees to come to work in shorts and hoodies, but most business offices require a bit more formality. With that being said, employees should understand that their right outfits should be chosen for different use cases.
Fitted to Your Office and Your Department
Today, fashion rules are fluid, to say the least. What one business considers casual might be far too formal for another workplace. For employees, this can create some confusion. Should you be shopping for formal work dresses? Is that hemline too high? Is the print on your new dress just too loud?
The best option is to take a cue from HR – they can usually clue you in on what the company considers acceptable in terms of hemline height, necklines, sleeves, and more. If HR doesn’t have any firm guidelines to offer, take a look at what other employees are wearing. Do you see lots of maxis? Are your coworkers primarily wearing mid-length hemlines? Let that be your guide when building your professional wardrobe.
Another important consideration here is your role in the business. Different departments often have varying wardrobe requirements. For instance, if you’re an executive, you’ll probably need to dress differently than someone working in shipping and receiving, where work dresses are likely impractical.
In addition to the department and business-role-related considerations, business dresses (and other attire) can and do vary based on the specific situation. For instance, you might go the business casual route every day, but if you have a meeting with an executive, or you’re making a pitch to the board of directors, it is important to dress for the occasion. Thankfully, there are business dresses that can accommodate both ends of the spectrum (as well as everything in the middle).
Today’s Business Dresses: Exploring the Many Options
Looking to build a work wardrobe? Perhaps you’re just expanding your existing range of options. Whatever the case, and whatever industry you might work in, there are plenty of choices when it comes to modern business dresses.
The Most Important Considerations
Business dresses are by default at least a touch more formal than casual dresses. However, they lack the rigidity found with true formalwear, and they do not generally have the elegance found with evening wear. This leaves them in an interesting middle ground that manages to combine personality and style with business-savvy design.
Hemline – One of the most important considerations when choosing business dresses in today’s world is the height of the hemline. While hemline standards have definitely changed over time, not all organizations will accept hemlines that land mid-thigh (midis). If HR does not provide formal guidance, it might be wisest to opt for knee-length or just-above-the-knee-length dresses. These provide you with comfort and style but don’t really show an amount of skin that some would consider excessive.
Sleeves – Sleeve length has less to do with modesty today than it does with comfort and the aesthetic you want to create. For instance, a long sleeved-dress that lands just above the knee can be quite the statement when paired with the right footwear even in a professional setting. You also want to consider comfort – short-sleeved and sleeveless dresses are cooler and therefore better suited to warmer temperatures. However, if the thermostat in your office seems to be continually set to “arctic”, you might want to go with sleeves, or at least have a cardigan handy!
Color and Pattern – The sky’s the limit when it comes to colors and patterns in our daily lives. Love neon yellow? There’s a dress out there for you. What about your professional life, though? It’s best to err on the side of conservatism rather than being too boisterous. What does that mean for your selection of business dresses? Actually, you’ll find lots of options out there, including monochrome dresses, polka dots, plaid, abstract designs, stripes, solid colors, knit materials, floral prints, and more. For the most part, these colors tend toward the sedate side of the spectrum, but there are options available if you want to evoke your inner Amal Clooney and go bright and bold.
Flatter Your Form – Whether you’re curvy or petite, it is important to choose work dresses that flatter your form. It can be tempting to choose clothing that hides what we consider to be flaws, but that ultimately ends up looking unprofessional. Tailored clothing designed to fit your body type is the best option. Of course, that does require that you know your body type – apple, pear, triangular, rectangular, etc.
Comfort – Let’s face it, style is important, but you’ll be wearing that dress and those shoes for at least eight hours if not longer. That means you need to shop with comfort in mind. You need something easy to move in, that doesn’t bunch or bind, and that will help you regulate your temperature. Finding a dress that can do all that sounds like a tall order, and if you’re shopping with big-box stores, it is. However, when you buy business dresses from the right manufacturer, comfort is guaranteed.
Measuring for Business Dresses
When shopping for business dresses, you should know your measurements. That means more than just your bust, though. Four points should be measured – your shoulders, your bust, your waist, and your hips. Based on these four measurements, you can ensure that you buy dresses that fit properly and are both comfortable and empowering.
The Selection of Business Dresses at Connected Apparel
If you’re shopping for business dresses, we invite you to explore the many options available at Connected Apparel. With over 70 years of clothing design experience, we’re intimately familiar with what it takes to design women’s clothing that not only looks amazing but is comfortable to wear even in an office environment.
From knee-length wraps to tasteful sleeveless floral prints, polished midi dresses to fun polka dots and stripes, our selection has something for every woman. Whether you’re part of the C-suite or you’re bootstrapping your own business from the ground up, we have the dresses you need for confidence, poise, and comfort.
Browse the latest collection of work dresses and jumpsuits on Connected Apparel’s website today!