Would sneakers and T-shirts lure workers back to the office?
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After three years of working from home, most industries have resumed in-person meetings and events. But there’s a twist: in many cases, the dress code has significantly changed.
Take a hedge fund event I attended recently in New York. Advertised as an industry outlook followed by cocktails, the early-evening gathering featured a panel of four in which the three men were not wearing ties, and the senior woman wore sneakers. The audience was even more casually dressed. High heels were few and far between and suits were almost nonexistent.
Style experts say that this is not an anomaly. Consultancy McKinsey identified a shift to more “casual” styles — for both office wear and work events — as a key trend in its report on the state of fashion for 2023. And terms such as “power casual” and “workleisure” have gained traction on fashion websites.
There is also growing interest in gender-fluid clothing that blurs the line between menswear and womenswear, by eschewing exaggerated silhouettes in favour of comfort and simple lines.
Office workers have spent three years discovering the joys of working in slippers, T-shirts and sweatpants, and it seems they are balking at giving them up. Why, many ask, should constricting pencil skirts, little black dresses, and 3-inch heels be synonymous with “professional” at banks, ad agencies and law firms — when clothes that feel a lot more comfortable are not?
The dichotomy has been underscored by the slow return to in-person work. Many companies are still having to coax staff to come in as many as three or four days a week.
On any given day, some workers will be donning relaxed clothing and logging in from home, even as others dress up to make the trip to work. Meanwhile, bosses are doing all they can to foster the idea that coming together in real life is a treat.
Some offices are merely tolerant of deviation from pre-pandemic norms, while others positively encourage workers to use clothing and jewellery to express their personality.
“It has taken a lot of pressure off over having the perfect outfit,” says Nancy Mahon, chief sustainability officer at Estée Lauder, the US-based cosmetics group. “We’re less ‘judgy’ than we were before the pandemic . . . There’s a lot more leeway on what is professional.”
For her, that means “having an outfit that more represents who I am as a person”. She wears a knit jacket with a subtle red, orange and cream design when we speak, and adds: “I’ve leaned a lot more into colour; into comfort.”
In many ways, this is all to the good. Fewer days in the office means workers need fewer work outfits. They can recycle the ones they like best more often, perhaps with new accessories. That is a blessing to anyone squeezed by inflation or trying cut their carbon footprint by buying fewer items.
A recent survey for a cotton industry group found that 41 per cent of consumers plan to be more purposeful about clothing purchases, and almost half will pay more for better quality.
But there are risks for employees who opt to push the boundaries. It can be a fine line between comfortable and slobby, and between expressing yourself and looking out of place. Even worse, if managers are already inclined to favour people who make them feel comfortable, unconventional office wear can reinforce that bias. There have already been several lawsuits alleging that dress codes can be racially discriminatory, and more are likely to arise if employers change their minds on what is work-appropriate clothing.
There are practical issues, too. UK stylist Anna Berkeley says she is frustrated by how many high-end designers are failing to keep pace with the changes in consumer sentiment.
“Brands don’t think enough about what women want and need,” she explains. Her clients have cut back on new purchases and those they do buy tend to be made of flowing, forgiving fabrics, such as crepe or viscose.
Berkeley is convinced this change will last longer than the “casual Friday” policies that some financial services companies adopted when they needed to woo younger workers from tech companies — and then scrapped. “It is a permanent shift. It’s not just the people in the office, it is the clients coming in to see them. [The pandemic] has changed the way people think about dressing,” she says.
Mahon agrees: “The days of everybody wearing a specific suit with a tie or a dress are over.”
Given that I am typing this while wearing black yoga pants and hiking shoes, I sincerely hope they are right.
The writer is the FT’s US financial editor