Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging in Business Dress Codes

by Kenya Smith, Mativ, previously SWM and Mark Trepanier, CartierWilson, LLC

Article five in the DEI+B series by the IAPD Diversity Equity Inclusion and Belonging Task Force


started in the plastics industry in 2000. At that time, women were expected to wear a business suit or skirt with a white blouse. Men were expected to wear a gray, navy or black suit and tie at all times, whether in the office or on the road. Back then, this business attire was called business professional. Your attire aided in identifying what position you held in the workplace, it matched professional stance and/or educational level. Throughout the years dress codes have evolved and four different types of business attire have emerged:

  • Business formal – Ultra-stylish attire for formal occasions.
  • Business professional – Traditional business attire.
  • Smart casual – Professional and casual wear.
  • Business casual – Professional attire that is comfortable.

As time has gone on professionals’ attire has changed from business formal to very casual. When COVID-19 became an issue and employees were allowed to work remotely from home, business attire became even more casual. Now, business casual is what most people wear to work1. It is considered non dressy attire, which allows individuals to dress comfortable and express their unique style. For example, Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook, wears a gray t-shirt and blue jeans to work every day.

As society changes, the standard business attire will reflect those changes. The existence of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEI+B) requires that individual dress style is accepted. Allowing individual expression through dress is important in establishing a strong and diverse workplace.

One of the main focuses of DEI+B is to encourage the feeling of belonging and provide an equitable environment to all employees, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. A less rigid dress code can allow people to embrace their culture and find comfort in their workplace. Can you imagine how it would feel to be required to conform to attire that is outside your culture, traditions or identity? This has been a reality for many professionals.

If you look at companies throughout the world, you will see a wonderfully diverse melting pot of all different cultures and identities. Requiring these individuals to abide by the standard Western business dress code may make diverse employees feel isolated or cause them to feel they are misrepresenting their culture or identity.

Fostering inclusion and a sense of belonging through dress codes
Inclusion extends beyond mere diversity; it encompasses the creation of a workplace where every individual feels respected and is free to express their authentic selves. Diverse dress codes are instrumental in achieving this goal. Allowing employees to dress in a way that aligns with their identity sends a compelling message that their unique perspectives and experiences are not just tolerated but genuinely valued.

In 1982, ZZ Top released the song “Sharp Dressed Men,” but what about other genders? There are strict requirements regarding the attire of men and women in numerous standard dress code policies, but what about non-binary or transgender individuals? Those who are not cis gender are often not considered in dress code policies and may feel uncomfortable because they are required to adhere to male or female dress codes. Inclusive dress codes should describe gender neutral standards, by eliminating gendered policies your workplace can better accommodate all genders and identities3.

Flexible dress codes or casual dress options can be an important part of inclusion. They acknowledge that employees’ professional competence is not defined by their attire, thus diminishing the barriers between work and personal identity. Furthermore, a sense of belonging is the result of nurturing diversity, equity and inclusion. It means that employees consider themselves an integral part of the organization, and their presence is not merely acknowledged but genuinely celebrated.

Business Formal
people wearing business formal attire
Business Professional
people wearing business professional attire in an office setting
The role of dress codes in advancing DEI+B:
Embracing Flexibility: More companies are embracing flexible dress codes, enabling employees to make choices that align with their cultural, religious or gender identities. This significantly contributes to DEI+B. Examples of embracing flexibility to create a more inclusive work environment include offering casual dress days, welcoming religious head coverings or accepting nontraditional clothing.

Education and Training: Promoting DEI+B through dress codes necessitates educating and training all employees. It’s crucial to raise awareness about the importance of attire diversity and address potential biases that may arise. Training programs can help uncover and rectify implicit biases and prejudices associated with clothing choices.

Encouraging Open Dialogue: Organizations should establish accessible channels for employees to voice their concerns or suggestions regarding dress codes. Regular feedback sessions ensure that dress code policies remain responsive to the evolving needs and expectations of the workforce.

Leading by Example: Leaders within organizations play a pivotal role in setting the tone for dress code inclusivity. When leaders embrace diverse attire and encourage it among their teams, it sends a powerful message about the organization’s unwavering commitment to DEI+B.

As we create a dress code which includes everyone, we must think about the following:
  • There are people who will question whether a more diverse attire may cause a decline in the business dress code or perceived professionalism. It is imperative to recognize that inclusivity in dress and a professional business representation are not mutually exclusive. Providing education on inclusive dress codes as policies are updated can help address these concerns.
  • Does your company dress code include what is not appropriate? Many companies learned through “Casual Fridays”, that a policy on what is not acceptable is needed. Neil Diamond sang “Forever in Blue Jeans”. Run DMC sang “My Adidas”. Foo Fighters sang “T Shirt”. Justin Timberlake sang “Flannel”2. All these items fall under the business casual umbrella, but do they work for your company? Your dress code policy should allow your employees to be authentic to themselves, while enforcing professional and appropriate requirements. HR can effectively and appropriately provide educational training to ensure that all employees abide by the established dress code.
  • To make sure your dress code policy includes everyone and does not leave out anyone, it is important to research what is appropriate and inclusive. Getting feedback from a variety of employees can also help you get a sense of the current dress code equality and inclusivity issues3.
  • Different regions may require different legal considerations. Please make sure your dress code policy is in compliance with anti-discrimination laws and regulations in your local area.

Workforce dress code requirements are more than just employee’s attire, it is also a means for cultivating diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in the workplace. This promotes the acceptance of all cultures. A successful business dress code policy can influence and encourages cohesiveness. This can lead to employees feeling more confident and committed to the company success.

We are all unique. As we celebrate our differences, we must also realize that a policy that was once traditional or standard may not include everyone. A change in policy is a signal that acceptance is a priority. This demonstrates a powerful step toward increasing DEI+B, an essential part of today’s business growth. Welcoming updated policies not only helps the company culture but allows the business to promote, retain and attract advanced, diverse employees.

As I sit in front of my Dell computer, I see my light blue Ralph Lauren shirt in the camera during the Zoom meetings, and then I look down and see my orange Old Navy sweatpants. I smile as I think about what I wore to work just four years ago and the change that has occurred in the workplace to welcome unique employees.

Smart Casual
people dressed in smart casual attire
Business Casual
people dressed in business casual attire
  1. Zane, Matthew. “What Are the Four Types of Business Attire? (With Examples for Men + Women).” Zippia, 20 Aug. 2023,
  2. Pereira, Ansel. “100 Best Songs with Clothing Items in the Title.” Spinditty, The Arena Group, 4 June 2023,
  3. Indeed. “Inclusive Dress Code Policy: A Guide for Employers.” Indeed,
Kenya Smith is a Marketing Communications Specialist for Mativ, previously SWM. For more information, contact Tom Niziolek at 53 Silvio O. Conte Drive, Greenfield, MA 01301-1382, USA, or by phone at (413) 772-2564, email at or

Mark Trepanier is a Manufacturers’ Representative for CartierWilson LLC. For more information, contact CartierWilson LLC at 34194 Aurora Road, Suite 231, Solon, OH 44139-3801, USA, or by phone at (770) 644-0000, email at or