Johan Almenberg, a loyal MR reader, asks about:
A world in which the difference between office clothing and athletic clothing has been eroded because people work better when they are comfortable.
Under one hypothesis, signaling would break down an all-pajamas equilibrium [TC: oddly I don’t find athletic clothing all that comfortable]. Jamie Cutthroat could look just a little better than his workplace competitor by putting on his tie.
But if wasteful signaling is the operative force, employers can internalize those externalities in many cases. A workplace with few outside visitors or external appointments should seek to minimize signaling costs by imposing a maximum dress code (e.g, no ties), not a minimum dress code. I have heard that Google enforces casual wear on everyone, but maximum dress codes are rare in the corporate world. Furthermore even minimum dress codes should be subject to "cheating": OK, you can’t wear a tie but the market will provide super nice (and uncomfortable) T-shirts and the signal-constrained employees will wear them to send a new and hitherto unregulated signal. How much does this happen?
Alternatively, dressing up actually might make people more productive, but then would not at least a few of us blog in suit and tie?
In short, I don’t have a theory of corporate dress that fits the major data points. My best guess is that signaling by dress is often an efficient means of sorting — Jamie Cutthroat really does want the promotion more than I do — and thus the employer does not want to ban it.