Decode the Tech Industry’s Casual Dress Code

    We’ve seen and heard about Silicon Valley’s casual hoodies, the jeans, the snowboards, and seen the ripple effect as first tech companies, then all start-ups, and now nearly every company brags about a “casual dress code”. If you’ve never worked in one before, it sounds heavenly. Just throw on what you wore this weekend, right? Isn’t that what Mark Zuckerberg does? That’s because you haven’t seen the trap lying in wait.

This is about dressing with sprezzatura. For those who didn’t study Italian, that’s a “certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or say appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” Does it still sound easy now? Here’s your cheat sheet to the “casual” uniform.

It’s Not Your Everyday Jeans

This isn’t about shopping at your local big-box store. You know that the staff at Google don’t show up in just anything, nor would their management want to see them that way. Sure, it’s hoodies and jeans – but is it? Look closer. Those are crisp, slim or straight cut, well-built, slick, usually all black or extremely dark blue jeans, without holes, cuts, decorations, or any trendiness beyond the silhouette. This is for both men and women. These are well fitting, on both men and women. While some venture out of the dark palette, this is still the go-to.


What if a woman works in the tech industry? Can she wear a dress or skirt?

Women should wear whatever they feel like. If in the mood for it, it’s comfortable, and fits the situation, there isn’t a single reason not to do so. There’s also no reason why any workplace should insist that women must. It goes both ways. The only thing to be aware of is the stigma that comes with being “too dressed up”, as there is a tendency to dress so you don’t stick out. Make sure that skirts/dresses aren’t too short, as . Length: at least to the knee area.


Depending on the Company, There’s Still a Button-Down Shirt

Plenty of this is the “traditional” part, signaling that we are, despite the ping-pong tables, still at work. Variety of prints, fits, solid colors, patterns, what have you. Those in more sales or business sides tend towards the more “old-school” standards, in variations of blue, black, white, or gray. These are to be worn untucked over jeans, occasionally a sweater over it. Collar is folded down (the ‘80s are over) and worn inside the sweater, resulting in an effortlessly cool effect. T-shirts are still very much in, but while ironic has been around awhile, we recommend solid colors for interviews. Make sure they’re good quality and in good condition. T-shirts have that “Oh, I just threw this on” sort of appeal, because who has time to bother with such details. Not you. You’re busy doing big things.

Plenty of women argue against the button-down, partially because they rarely fit women’s body shapes well. Excellent point! Alternative besides t-shirts: Blouses with beautiful material, tailored silhouette, but nothing flashy. Try well-fitting solid color sweaters. Blazers are too formal, but cardigans could work. Keep it simple and keep any sequins for the weekend. Extra credit: the Emmanuelle Alt twist (on blouses, t-shirts, etc.) on taking a bit of the shirt’s bottom in front, twisting, and then tucking inside the waistband,  leaving the rest out.



No flip flops. No matter how casual any environment is, absolutely no one wants to hear you walking around all day. This is just basic consideration for everyone else. You’ll just look like you’re trying too hard to be Zuckerberg, since that’s his thing.

Men: Choose more formal sneakers, or simple tie shoes. Some go with suede, but you see how anyone near water, rain, or temperamental weather would think twice. Leather works. The more flexible your company’s dress code, the more you can show off your financial success with your bad boy shoes. Sneakers can be truly wild colors and combos, but keep them clean.

Women: flats (open toed for warmer weather, flat boots for cooler weather, leather or imitation in bold colors), more formal sneakers. Wedges or small heels for those who prefer some height. High heels are considered more formal, so don’t fit with a casual dress code. Choose colors you enjoy, as it’s the silhouette that ultimately matters.



Obviously, your outerwear is based on both your climate and your culture. Seattle and Silicon Valley are both known for their obsession with Patagonia fleece vests. Check out Business Insider’s Why Silicon Valley Loves Fleece Vests for how this happened.

New Yorkers love a slim-lined black coat, that’s tailored with an ease of casual wear, like a classic overcoat or trench coat. Black dresses down traditional piece without losing the overall effect of being sophisticated and chic while still “casually thrown on”.

Whatever you choose, make sure it fits where you are, the aesthetic you’re going for and makes a point of not drawing attention to itself. When in doubt, choose a classic style over anything trendy. All trends definitely look like you’re trying too hard.



Makeup, Perfume, Cologne: No. Some people are allergic to those, so wear either with great restraint or not at all. Consider how close people are going to get to you before applying.


Men: Messenger bag.

Women: Cross body purse.

Both are efficient and free your hands for texting last minute details.


Men: not much, if any.

Women: The style can be either bold or minimal, just keep the amount of accessories to a few.

Wrist wear: Timex, Pebble, Fitbit, or Apple watches are all acceptable. Knockoffs will be noticed. Better to go without than with a knockoff.

Glasses: Warby Parker. Excellent imitations acceptable.

Wear the free company t-shirts? Sure, if you’re a newbie or maybe its laundry day. Otherwise, no.


In the End

Allison Kluger, a former New York City TV executive, who teaches reputation management at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, tells her students:

“If what you’re wearing is going to garner more than a moment’s notice, you’re probably wearing something inappropriate. You don’t want something to distract people from why you’re there, which is to do the job. You don’t need that extra battle.”