Aug 01, 2018 09:29 AM

‘Dressing for Success’ Comes in Many Colors in China

As summer reaches its peak with the crossover from July to August and Beijing bakes in the latest heat wave, I’m turning this week to the subject of dress codes in the modern Chinese workplace. This is a subject that could easily fill volumes, and I’m sure everyone out there has his or her story to tell about the wide array of standards one is likely to encounter in the Chinese offices of today.

That’s in no small part due to the wide array of workplaces that have emerged in China’s current corporate landscape, where vibrant internet and high-tech firms thrive alongside a stodgier state-owned sector. The result is big, overstaffed state-owned banks full of people in their 40s and 50s co-existing with internet giants like Alibaba, where the average age is often in the late 20s or early 30s at best.

These newer companies often seem to have a certain “Lord of the Flies” mentality, where there is no real dress code and people just wear whatever they want. For those unfamiliar with that reference, it’s to the 1954 William Golding novel where a group of school boys becomes stranded on a deserted island, leaving them to create a society without any adult supervision. As one might expect, the results are very ad hoc, with people’s most basic instincts calling many of the shots.

The older state-run companies are far more conservative, since many of the older generation that form the core of their workforces are conservative dressers by nature. Two of my friends who work in such companies won’t wear shorts even in the hottest weather, preferring instead to bake in their trousers. You can imagine what offices filled with such employees would look like.

All that said, there are certainly some basic principles that seem to govern the Chinese workplaces of today, which I’ll detail shortly. But before I do that, including my own views that show a certain surprise at how lax things can sometimes get, it’s a good exercise to talk about my own experience when I first came into the workforce in my native U.S. in the 1980s.

Back then things were still quite formal among the older generation. At one summer internship I remember an older man, Mr. Turpin, who was somewhat taken aback by my own dressing habits, which would roughly translate to today’s business casual. “Doug, you’ve gotta dress for success,” he liked to tell me regularly, voicing his gentle disapproval of my failure to embrace the regular jacket-and-tie that many people still wore back then.

Changing times

Fast forward to the present, where I feel just a bit like Mr. Turpin in my own modern-day Chinese workplace where shorts, flip-flops and T-shirts are regular fare among the male staff, and miniskirts aren’t unheard of among the women. I decided to get to the bottom of things by asking HR about our dress code, and was both surprised and also not surprised to find out we don’t have one.

I did a bit of asking around to friends, former students and business contacts, and learned my company is a bit extreme but not all that unusual for the local media industry. A former colleague who worked for several years at one of China’s top internet companies said standards were similar there, and that he wore T-shirts and jeans most of the time. But he was quick to point out that anyone client-facing would dress more formally, as would people in more button-down departments like marketing and sales.

That was one common theme I encountered, namely that people who spent most of their time in the office had a little more slack when choosing their daily attire. Another theme is that Western companies mostly bring their overseas standards with them when it comes to dressing in their China offices. The two people from major multinationals I polled said the usual business casual is largely the rule in their China operations, including casual Fridays that allow people to dress down in jeans. “No shorts, flip-flops or miniskirts — ever” remarked one, who heads the China operations for a major machinery-maker.

Another interesting rule that emerged was the greater degree of freedom given to women. One contact who works at a state-run insurer said the men mostly stuck to business casual, but that women could be more creative with things like sleeveless shirts and even the occasional short skirt. Apparently it was all a question of fashion, since, at least according to him, when women dress like that in the workplace it can be written off as “fashion sense.”

To get a little perspective, I asked my 20-something niece in the U.S., who has worked at a major internet company and also a more button-down consultant, what the rules were there. She remarked the internet company had no specific dress code beyond that people should dress to “express themselves.” But she was quick to add that people also seemed to exercise a certain level of discretion on their own, and things like shorts and flip-flops were rarely part of that expression.

Another contact told me a major Silicon Valley internet company tried to use the “express yourself” approach in its China operation after opening its offices here more than a decade ago. But it had to quickly backtrack and lay down some basic rules after people started expressing themselves with some of the super-casual dressing habits I’ve described above.

At the end of the day I’ve pretty much adopted a “dress appropriately” attitude when it comes to my expectation from local Chinese workplaces, at least for the more progressive-minded media industry where I work. But any Westerners who come here and try to take a similar approach should be prepared for liberal interpretation of such a policy, including quite a wide range of self-expression.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to

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