You’re going back to the office. What do you wear?

The pandemic accelerated the relaxation of dress codes and the casualization of office attire

Megan Cerullo – CBS MoneyWatch

As the COVID-19 pandemic comes under control and employers start to call workers back to the office, people who’ve been working from home in shorts and sweatpants are wondering what the heck to wear to the office this summer and fall. 

The pandemic accelerated the relaxation of dress codes and the casualization of office attire — trends that have been in motion for some time.

Still, most work-from-home attire is hardly acceptable out-of-doors, let alone in any kind of professional environment, and some employers are having to redefine their policies around workwear. 

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“One thing that’s been defined is not wearing yoga pants and T-shirts, it’s more nice pants and shirts. But it’s not the way it was in the workplace five-to-10 years ago when it was a suit and tie, dresses and pantyhose,” said Robyn Hopper, an adviser for the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM). 

Some of the organizations that rely on SHRM for guidance have had to remind their staff how to dress for work, according to Hopper. 

Um, no flip-flops 

“They’re having to remind employees not to come into the office in yoga pants and flip-flops. It’s also summertime and people sometimes forget what a business-casual environment looks like,” she said.

At the same time, business attire is becoming more casual. Even some of the most conventional employers have relaxed their attire policies in recent years. 

Investment bank Goldman Sachs for the past two years has enforced what it calls a “flexible” dress code which it says “encourages our people to use their best judgment on what is appropriate to wear for their workday.”

“That hasn’t changed during the pandemic, whether in the office or remote,” a Goldman spokesperson told CBS MoneyWatch. 

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Investment bank Morgan Stanley has not made any changes to its dress code, either. The company requires different levels of formality depending on the job role and level of client contact involved, according to a spokesperson for the bank. 

Suit suppliers and other makers of formal wear started to sweat at the height of the pandemic, as sales of tailored apparel shrank, but demand has since returned for these kinds of styles, albeit with more flexibility. 

“Smart casual”

Joanna Dai, founder and CEO of womenswear brand Dai, found after surveying her own customers that they started to favour more casual styles during the pandemic.

“Our subsequent collections were pivoting toward casual and ‘smart casual’ earlier within the product pipeline than I would have anticipated if COVID hadn’t happened,” Dai said. “We’re launching more essential everyday styles and those have continued to do incredibly well.”

For the era of hybrid work, Dai launched a new collection called “FLOW,” which stands for “For Life or Work.” 

“There is an expectation when you go into the office that the dress code will be more casual,” Dai said. 

The kind of hybrid clothing Dai designs suits this transitional era in which professionals have to revamp their wardrobe but aren’t keen on squeezing back into their old office uniforms. 

“We were always trying to crack the comfort code because traditional tailoring is so uncomfortable. Now the expectation is comfort. Our customers say they could not imagine fitting back into my old black tailored pants and wearing that again,” Dai said. 

Dai’s stretchy trousers with elastic waistbands accommodate body shapes and waistlines that might have fluctuated over the past 15 to 18 months, as many working from home rediscovered their appetite for snacks.

Death of suits greatly exaggerated

Fokke de Jong, founder and CEO of men’s fashion brand Suitsupply, said customers are gravitating toward styles that are “elegant but with a touch of relaxedness.”

“I don’t think there have been formal changes in dress codes, but there is this ‘hybridness’ going on right now where you see people playing around with it a little bit more. We are seeing suits come back big time and people are using a different layer underneath here to dress the suit down a little bit. We call it elevated casual,” de Jong said. “It’s not jeans and hoodies; it’s well-made knitwear with a nice jacket.”

Rather than ditching suits, clients are dressing them down, he says, by swapping traditional dress shirts under their suits for a nice white T-shirt, for example. 

“I’ve been reading about the death of the suit during COVID for months, but we’re not seeing that happen. It’s very much alive,” de Jong said. 

“The perfect post-pandemic outfit”

Chris Riccobono, founder of men’s shirt company Untuckit, rode the wave of relaxed dress codes at workplaces and restaurants with button-down shirts designed to be worn tails out — until the pandemic hit and boosted Americans’ love of comfort wear

“When COVID hit, everyone was going toward ‘athleisure’ but we never panicked because we knew that if we could just hold on, we were going to be the perfect post-pandemic outfit,” Riccobono said. 

Today, as more folks return to the office, he’s seeing a pickup in sales. 

“There’s only a certain way a man can dress. He’s not going to wear sweats and joggers to work, and he’s not going to wear suits to work,” Riccobono explained. “There are certain guys who just always want to wear their suits to work, but they can’t because they’ll stick out. So they’re now wearing Untuckit shirts” 

Sales of button-downs have been improving since April, and have grown every month since, according to Riccobono. “Each month is getting better and better, and it’s clearly because people are going back to their lives. They didn’t buy for a while, and now they’re ready to go.”

Calling workers off of their couches and back to the office is one thing — asking them to be suited and booted is another. 

“If you’re wearing a tucked-in shirt after you haven’t worn one in 12 months, it doesn’t feel comfortable,” Riccobono said. “So, telling workers you have to come back and, oh, by the way, you have to dress up — that’s too big of a shift because employees have a lot of say these days in how the future looks.”

feature image: Ekaterina Bolotvtsova/ Pexels