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The Return to the Workplace Means New Rules for Office Dressing

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:
Kalita is co-founder and CEO of URL Media, a network of Black and Brown news and information outlets that share content, revenue, and distribution. She also is publisher of Epicenter-NYC, a community journalism initiative in Queens, and columnist for TIME and Charter. A veteran journalist, Kalita most recently worked at CNN, and is the author of two books. Follow her on Twitter @mitrakalita.

We are all experiencing “mirror anxiety.” That’s the term Stanford researchers give the negative emotions surfaced by watching ourselves all day long on Zoom and other video-conference tools.

Like so much of work and life in the pandemic, the way we see ourselves has changed. For workers returning in-person or to hybrid offices with a new sense of beauty, style, and self, it can feel daunting to re-learn how to navigate the norms of workplace dressing.

But those have completely changed, too—and workers now have more power than before to shape dress codes around the way they want to look. For example, nearly half of U.S. consumers plan to wear more comfortable clothes when they go back to working in the office, according to Klarna Bank AB, a retail bank, payments and shopping service.

“People will remain uncompromising when it comes to their comfort, and companies will have to adjust to this transition,” says Jennifer Gomez, co-founder and chief marketing officer of oneKIN, an online marketplace for retailers and entrepreneurs of color. “This focus on comfort and expressing ourselves authentically stays, even in the office. If it doesn’t feel good, then it’s not going to work.”

So that blazer thrown over a T-shirt, once perfect for video-conference, is now appropriate for an in-person meeting at headquarters. Quick casual-to-dressy transformations like chunky earrings and bright lipstick, applied in the seconds before a meeting starts, are also here to stay, Gomez predicts.

Focus on how you feel… and your pants.

Never underestimate the power of one thing to change everything, says Los Angeles-based stylist Quentin Fears. Earrings, a large print, a cardigan, a scarf, some facial hair, no facial hair—all of these are seemingly small touches that can dramatically alter your look, how you feel, and how you are coming across to colleagues.

Even before the pandemic, work clothes were trending toward “athleisure,” a hybrid clothing style that feels like the right fit for these hybrid times. Fears says it’s a go-to among his clients, who now turn to him to help them get through big life events and changes: a new job, new school, divorce, or losing or gaining weight. “We’re all in transition and we’re all trying to figure out what to do next,” he says. “There’s so much insecurity and chaos. People also want to feel comforted, cozy and warm, from their clothes.”

Case in point: the pants. The post-pandemic world divides pants into two categories, soft and hard, and the latter is losing. The parent company of Joe’s Jeans recently filed for bankruptcy. True Religion, once known for pricey jeans, now has a bigger portion of its business focused on hoodies, joggers, and t-shirts.

Soft pants, on the other hand, are everywhere. Fears says he’s seeing his clients continue to opt for khakis with elastic waistbands and other types of loose-fitting, comfortable clothing even as offices open up again.

“Let’s work with it,” he says. “Before there was a stuffy sort of, ‘We all need to dress this one way’ as a part of what it means to be a professional. You would assume someone wearing a suit has a lot of money. Now that’s been flipped on its head. The guy in the hoodie makes just as much or maybe more.”

Know the rules don’t apply equally.

One important exception to the move toward more casual office dressing is people of color. A survey by Slack’s Future Forum found an overwhelming 97% of Black respondents in the U.S. say they prefer a fully remote or hybrid workplace, which offers some relief from the microagressions and extra scrutiny that come with in-person work—and the biases built into the norms that govern “professional” appearance.

“People of color still have to prove themselves more, and it’s still present in what you wear,” says Fears, who is Black. “White skin already gets you authority… [White people] can get away with being more relaxed.”

One Black client carefully thought through his wardrobe when he started a job in a finance company, and turned to Fears for consult. “It was kind of a relaxed atmosphere and he was going to be the only Black male there, but he didn’t want to be too casual,” Fears says. “He wanted to be casual but also be taken seriously.”

Women, too, are slower to embrace the loss of formality. Klarna’s survey found that women are more likely to dress up than men, which lines up with the findings of the Stanford study: 13.8% of women, compared to 5.5% of men, reported feeling “very” to “extremely” fatigued after Zoom calls, in large part because of the strain of seeing themselves. For some women, the psychological burden is enough to spark an interest in plastic surgery—research earlier this year found that one in 10 women has become more interested in getting cosmetic work since the pandemic began.

Wear your values.

Three more trends strike Gomez as shifts in the way we now style ourselves. The first, she says, is prioritizing effortlessness over adherence to rules— looking like you tried, but not too hard. (As an example, she cites the shift to more natural-looking cosmetics such as water-based foundations and other “breathable” products.) The second is increasing emphasis on a brand’s values. Just as workers are now demanding more transparency and social responsibility from their employers, they’re extending the same sentiment to their clothing.

And the third is where Gomez is pivoting her business: a desire to buy “local,” which she expects to hasten as supply-chain backups delay goods from abroad. OneKIN plans a livestream shopping app built to couple this desire with the comfort of online shopping, so you can “still have physical interaction with customers not limited by a physical brick-and-mortar location,” she says. “We want to replicate the intimacy and personalization of in-person shopping.”

Consumers also define “local” a lot differently than they used to, she notes, with a focus on size over location. “As someone who loves fashion, you in Brooklyn can shop from a local shop in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” Gomez says.

Notably, a garment’s back story might be as important as its look. Is it something you feel good about wearing, both physically and ethically?

That feels a good lesson for the fashion trend that stylists really hope to see in the pandemic workplace, whether that’s sitting at home or in the office: to focus less on how others see you and more on how you see yourself.

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