Has office attire survived the pandemic?
Back to the office, some of us are wearing clothes with elastic bands and more casual clothes, others are celebrating finally having something to wear again. Nicole Barrance reports.
Calls to get back to the office may be growing louder, but for some, forgoing comfortable clothing and workwear doesn’t sound so tempting.
Brands use terms like “power casual” and “workleisure” to market clothing designed to ease the transition back to the office, while hiding elasticated cuffs in pants and making blazers from soft, stretchy fabrics.
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Retail sales data during the pandemic showed that “athlete” brands like Nike, Adidas, Lululemon and Kim Kardashian’s Skims posted record profits as more people adapted their workwear to a work-from-home lifestyle.
As we build our collections of comfortable loungewear together, the transition back to typical office attire can seem even more difficult.
Deborah Jensen’s past year, like many others, has been a mix of working from home when she’s on lockdown and then back to the office when she can.
The office manager at an Auckland-based law firm says her style at home is comfortable, meaning jeans or sweatpants and a plain top, and she would add a shirt if she had to attend an important video call.
When she returned to her office part-time for the first time after Easter, it felt a bit like “lazy Fridays,” she says.
“We were in split shifts and it was quieter in the office, so wearing something like flats and a dress felt okay.”
Jensen says that although they are a professional team, the office standard of attire is generally more on the side of stylish and well-dressed than strictly corporate, and formal suits are mostly reserved only for days when the attorneys are in court.
“Now that we’re back full-time, I’ve noticed we’ve all started dressing a little bit more and a lot of the women in the office are wearing heels again. It’s something that’s really changed and morphed on its own, people just noticed the change as more customers came in.”
Sales data from companies like True Fit, a platform that tracks data from over 17,000 retail brands, showed exactly what people were buying during the pandemic.
In early 2021, data from True Fit showed that sales of women’s athletic apparel had increased by 84% since the pandemic began. Sales of women’s “training pants” – leggings, sweatpants and yoga pants – were five times higher in December 2020 than in April of the same year.
That doesn’t mean everyone is turning up to work in sweatpants and leggings again, but traditional workwear is no longer the only option.
Alana, an accountant for an Auckland-based interior design firm, hasn’t touched her blazer since early 2020.
Having worked mostly from home in 2021 and now working half in the office and half at home, she says she’s noticed a change in the way she dresses for work since returning.
“With fewer customers dropping by and minimal staff in the office, I worry less about how to dress. I still dress as if I’m leaving the house, but I often don’t bother putting jewelry on to go to work, for example, which I used to do.”
Google search trends show that terms like “business casual” are up 300% in the last year as people grapple with changing dress codes.
“I’ve also noticed that my boss is a little more relaxed and when the tone is set from above, everyone just goes along with it,” says Alana. “Everything just feels temporary. And I think that will change, but right now it feels different.”
Murray Bevan is the founder of Showroom 22, a fashion showroom and PR agency. He sees coming back to the office as a reason to dress up a bit again. With a large fashion showroom and in-house content creation studio in Auckland, they see many people in the creative industries come and go every day.
“It was a really interesting time where we got to see how a lot of different people dress.”
Bevan points out that since his employees are all very interested in fashion and customers come every day, they still want to look good.
While they don’t often let in clients and people who need to fit into a corporate suit-and-tie style of dress, he says things are getting more casual in the industry overall.
Thrive Curate is an online store that sells donated clothing and homeware, with all proceeds going to the Christchurch City Mission.
“Because of that, we’ve definitely seen a shift in the way people want to dress because they’re no longer committed to that typical office attire. They wear what they feel comfortable in. And they wear what makes them feel good.”
In his showroom, he rents out desks to other people in the creative industry to see what creatives wear who don’t deal with face-to-face clients every day.
“It was a really big change. In the past, everyone had to dress and boot in order to win new business or approach a client. Now you can just put on a nice collared shirt and nobody has to see what you have underneath.”
This approach to dressing for an online meeting has received its own subcategory in fashion called “over-the-keyboard clothing.”
The category envisages that people can still wear their leggings, sweatpants or even pajamas simply by pairing them with a smarter item on the upper half of the body.
That’s not quite Bevan’s style either.
“I think what’s most interesting to me isn’t that it was a slow descent into ‘I don’t care’, quite the opposite.”
“I like the fact that the office symbolizes a place where you can feel empowered in clothes.”