Crop Tops in the Boardroom? Here’s Why Gen Z Is Challenging Traditional Work Attire

A woman in a blue suit steps high


Plus, instructions on how to handle these style changes in the office.

Ever since offices reopened after Covid had much of the workforce remote for two years, you may have noticed a drastic change in workwear. In decades past, it would have been de rigeur to step into the office wearing dress shoes — but now, young people have veered away from fancy footwear toward comfy sneakers. And if you’ve been shopping online for blazers, you’ve probably noticed that a lot of them are now…cropped. As Gen Z enters the workforce, they’re showing up wearing casual, even (to some) inappropriate work clothing. 

It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that Gen Z is ruffling feathers in the office again. We’ve previously reported on their wacky workplace trendsetting: From quiet quitting to sudden job hopping, the latest generation to come of age have had their fair share of intergenerational friction

We spoke to three experts across different fields to better understand why young people are wearing casual or unconventional fashion in professional settings. (Spoiler alert: They’re not trying to be disrespectful.) We’ve also gathered some helpful information on how you can — if you feel comfortable — gain some style inspiration from your younger colleagues. Plus, we asked a career advice expert what you should do if you notice a mentee or younger coworker dressing in a way that may hold them back.

What is Gen Z style and why are they dressing casually in the office?

You’re probably already aware that Gen Z canceled skinny jeans in favor of baggy denim and that they’ve come of age when pandemic-appropriate athleisure ruled the world. 

Emma Zack is the founder of a contemporary, size-inclusive, vintage clothing boutique called Berriez that also offers personal styling, and she’s all for bright, cheerful expression. While Zack isn’t opposed to traditional workwear, her curation of bright plus-sized and straight-sized clothing is conspicuously youthful. 

“The primary hallmark of Gen Z fashion is self-expression,” Zack says. “It’s about being yourself and being one of a kind. It’s also about sustainability. But it’s playful.”

She clarifies that the Gen Z focus on self-expression is about self-celebration, not a flippant sign of scorn: “Gen Z, fashion is not a way of disrespecting anyone. You might think they’re disrespecting you by coming into work in bright colors instead of wearing a suit. But they’re actually dressing that way because that’s how they want to be perceived.” 

Professional style consultant Melanie Lippman adds that this sentiment is relatable since traditional workwear is also a form of self-expression from a less inclusive era: “Corporate armor — the five-inch heels, the blazer — was a protective shield. Especially if you were in an environment where you may have been the only woman in the room.” Now that women are more represented in the workplace — even in high-up positions — younger colleagues feel comfortable dressing more casually.

Lippman empathizes with those who’ve spent many years in the workforce and feel insecure about relaxing dress codes. After all, giving up a shield can leave a person feeling vulnerable. She says, older women might think, “‘This is my Teflon, and now you’re taking that away from me? This is my security blanket.”

Career advice expert Kirstie Mitchell, of the TikTok account, Careers By Kirstie, says that young women are often simply catching up to a standard set by men in the workplace: “For male-dominated industries, [companies] will make the dress code really lax for the comfort of men. But now, women are jumping into that as well. That’s why you’re seeing more midriffs at the office, women wearing more sneakers or shoulders out, or maybe open-toed shoes.”

If you’re confused by these cultural changes, Lippman offers a reminder that you’re a seasoned professional and that you can trust your intuition: “As someone who’s accomplished in your career, you should know what you need to wear to feel powerful in those rooms. The right question is, ‘What do I need in this situation to feel like I’m going to achieve what I want to achieve?’ What’s your intent here? Once you think about that as a whole, it’s a lot easier to make those decisions.”

How can you take inspiration from Gen Z style?

If you feel comfortable doing so, there are simple, subtle ways to benefit from this turning tide. 

“Since Gen Z fashion is really about expressing who you are and not just wearing a black suit to work every day,” Zack says, you can integrate slightly eye-catching pieces that bring you genuine joy. She advises starting small with unique outerwear or jewelry — after all, you can always remove those pieces if you end up feeling uncomfortable.

Lippman says that if you want your wardrobe to show that you’re innovative and creative, you can also play around with a wider variety of materials: “Incorporate something like leather.” 

If you’re second-guessing yourself a lot, Zack also recommends conscripting outside help: “A lot of stores now have personal styling services that can help you try stuff that you’d normally look past.”

Lippman adds that a dress code really doesn’t matter as much as your attitude, though: “When a woman walks into the room and you think, She’s got it figured out. How do I do that for myself? what you’re really seeing is the confidence that she exudes. It’s not necessarily that she can pull off that blazer with sneakers. It’s just that she’s not second-guessing her outfit choice, and that’s ultimately what people respond to.”

How do you talk to a colleague about the issue of inappropriate clothing?

While gaining the confidence to pair a graphic tee with work trousers can be a significant accomplishment in the right context, there’s the undeniable fact that some of your Gen Z colleagues, employees, or mentees may be truly taking it too far. If someone in your workplace is making you uncomfortable or concerned, you may be tempted to let them know. The question is, should you?

Mitchell says that the answer is tricky, but that you can start a goal-based conversation. If you’re close with someone younger than you who you believe is pushing workwear boundaries, you can start by simply engaging in a judgment-free conversation with them about their fashion choices. It’s OK to be curious and ask questions — you might learn something about them and style! And if you’re not satisfied with the response and feel close enough to the person to go further, you can always ask them, “How do you want to be perceived?” and see if that opens up a conversation about how they present themselves.

“It’s a touchy subject because you don’t want anyone to take it the wrong way,” Mitchell concedes. “Just because somebody looks a certain way doesn’t give you reason to act a certain way or treat them a different kind of way, they’re still a person. They’re still human.”

Mitchell adds that — as much as it might bother you — biting your tongue is always a safe bet, too: “If I was an older professional, I would stay in my lane. If fashion isn’t my lane, then I wouldn’t extend my mentorship to clothing. If I were in marketing, networking, interviewing, or fine-tuning resumes, I would stay in that lane.”

“You can’t change anybody,” she points out. “You can only change yourself.”