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Fedoras? Yes. Bright plaids? No. The meaning of Starbucks’ new employee dress code

An image from Starbucks’ new lookbook of appropriate outfits under its new dress code. (Starbucks)

Fedoras are a do, but bucket hats are a don’t. Colors such as charcoal, navy, brown and black are in — bright ones like red and yellow are out. Patterns are cool, as long as they are small and subtle, and denim works as long as it’s not light-wash.

These may sound like decrees from the glossy pages of a fashion magazine, but in fact, they are missives from Starbucks’ new employee dress code. The coffee giant had announced earlier this month that it was going to loosen up its requirements for what baristas should wear in its restaurants, promising that the new rules would allow for more “self-expression.” Now, the restaurant chain released a 15-page lookbook to show employees (and the rest of us) what that actually means.

It’s a fascinating document, and not just because of the somewhat mind-boggling level of precision and detail about what’s okay to wear. It also reveals something about the kind of workplace Starbucks is trying to be and the kind of vibe it is trying to create for its customers.

Starbucks employees will continue to wear the green or black aprons that you’re used to seeing when you hit up their stores. But lots of subtle changes are coming to what workers can wear underneath. Previously, they could only wear black, white and khaki clothing; now, the palette is more varied and includes other subdued colors such as blue, gray and brown. And they are now permitted to wear patterned shirts, though there are lots of particulars about what makes for an acceptable pattern. Here’s a screenshot from the lookbook:

They might be sporting some hipster-chic hats now, too:

And while you might think of a server wearing a tie as something you only see in a fancy restaurant, Starbucks is inviting employees to wear them, so long as they are not in “neon, white, loud or distracting patterns.”

So why does any of this matter? As The Washington Post pointed out earlier when Starbucks first announced the dress code shake-up, the labor market is getting tighter, and retailers have to work harder to attract and retain talent. By giving employees more flexibility in how they dress, Starbucks is trying to distinguish itself from other employers with comparable schedules and wages.

This reporter has seen firsthand how tiny tweaks like this can make a difference in keeping workers happy. I once attended an all-staff meeting at a Virginia Best Buy store in which the team was getting marching orders for an upcoming Black Friday sale. Their boss told them about a tiny, temporary change to the dress code — they could wear “comfortable shoes” for the long holiday weekend, a change from the usual policy that required black, closed-toed shoes that are not slip-ons. This drew actual cheers from the staff. Back in 2015, I remember watching as Walmart executives told an arena packed with store employees that they were relaxing the dress code to include black and khaki-colored denim. The applause and shouts of approval were thunderous.

But the dress code for any retailer is not just a talent strategy: It’s also about telegraphing a certain feeling to customers. And by allowing more personalized attire, Starbucks seems to be doing something that is in keeping with a broader strategic trend in retail these days. Mega-chains across a variety of shopping categories are trying to make individual stores reflect their local neighborhoods. This is why you see West Elm selling goods from local artisans in its stores, and why Whole Foods Market is teaming with local sellers and giving them space in some of its stores. It’s also why Nike is decking out its stores with banners of nearby high school football teams or artwork by local photographers.

Starbucks workers in Brooklyn will probably embrace the dress code differently than those in Miami or in a small, Midwestern college town. And perhaps that can give each of the chain’s outposts a more varied, localized feel.

An Illinois woman filed a suit against Starbucks, claiming that the coffee chain is “underfilling” its cold beverages, duping customers and serving drinks that contain less coffee than advertised. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)