Has office wear survived the pandemic?

Returning to the office, some of us are wearing more elastic banded clothes and more casual wear, others are celebrating finally having something to dress up for again. Nicole Barrance reports.

Calls to return to the office might be getting louder, but for some, letting go of comfy dressing and work-from-home attire doesn’t sound quite as appealing.

Brands are using terms like ‘power casual’ and ‘workleisure’, to market clothing designed to ease the transition back to the office, while disguising elasticated waistbands into trousers and making blazers from soft, stretchy fabrics.

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Retail sales data over the pandemic showed that ‘athleisure’ brands like Nike, Adidas, Lululemon and Kim Kardashian’s Skims had record profits, as more people adapted their workwear to fit a home office lifestyle.

As we collectively build up our collections of comfy loungewear, the transition back into typical office wear can seem even harder.

Deborah Jensen’s past year, like many, has been a mixture of working from home when in lockdown, then back to the office when she can.

The office manager for an Auckland based law firm says her style at home was for comfort, so jeans or trackpants and a plain top, and she would add a shirt if she needed to be in an important video call.

When they first started going back into their office part-time after Easter, she says it felt a bit like ‘casual Fridays’.

“We were doing split shifts and it was quieter around the office, so it felt OK to be wearing something like flats and a dress.”

Jensen says that though they are a professional team, the office standard of dressing generally errs on the side of stylish and well-dressed more than strictly corporate, and formal suits are mostly just reserved for days when the lawyers will be in court.

“Now that we are back full time, I have noticed that we have all started dressing up a bit more, and many of the women in the office are back to wearing heels. It’s something that has really changed and morphed on its own though, people have just perceived the shift as more clients start to come in.”

Sales data from companies like True Fit, a platform that records data from over 17,000 retail brands, showed exactly what people were buying during the pandemic.

'It felt OK to be wearing flats and a dress.'  Deborah Jensen works in a corporate office in Auckland.

DAVID WHITE/STUFF

‘It felt OK to be wearing flats and a dress.’ Deborah Jensen works in a corporate office in Auckland.

Early in 2021, True Fit data showed that women’s athleisure clothing sales had risen by 84% since the beginning of the pandemic. Sales of women’s ‘athleisure’ bottoms – leggings, track pants, and yoga pants – were five times higher in December 2020 than in April of the same year.

That doesn’t mean that everyone is turning back up to work in track pants and leggings, but traditional workwear is not the only option any more.

Alana, an accountant for an interior design firm based in Auckland, hasn’t touched her blazer since early 2020.

As she worked mostly from home during 2021, and is now working half the time in the office and half at home, she says she has noticed a change in the way she dresses for work since returning.

“With less clients coming through and a skeleton staff in the office I feel less bothered by how I’m dressing. I still dress like I’m leaving the house, but for example, I often don’t bother putting on jewelry to go into work, something I would always do previously.”

Google search trends show terms like ‘business casual’ have risen 300% in the last year as people grapple with changing dress codes.

“I’ve noticed my boss is a bit more casual as well, and when the tone gets set from the top, everyone just follows suit,” says Alana. “Everything just feels temporary. And I do think this will change, but for now it feels different.”

Murray Bevan, founder of fashion showroom, Showroom 12.

Blake Dunlop/Supplied

Murray Bevan, founder of fashion showroom, Showroom 12.

Murray Bevan is the founder of Showroom 22, a fashion showroom and PR agency. He sees coming back into the office as a reason to dress up a bit again. With a large fashion showroom and in-house content creation studio based in Auckland, they see a lot of people in the creative industry coming and going each day.

“It’s been a really interesting time, where we get to see how a lot of different people are dressing.”

Bevan points out that because his staff are all very interested in fashion and with clients coming in each day, they still want to look put together.

While they don’t often get clients and people coming through who need to fit into a corporate “suit-and-tie” style of dressing, he says on the whole things are becoming more casual in the industry.

STACY SQUIRES/STUFF

Thrive Curate is an online shop selling donated clothing and homewares, with all proceeds going to the Christchurch City Mission.

“Because of this, we have definitely seen a change in the way people want to dress because they don’t feel beholden to that kind of typical office attire. They wear what they feel comfortable in. And they wear what makes them feel good.”

In his showroom, he rents out desk spaces to other people in the creative industries, so sees what creatives who don’t deal with face-to-face clients each day are wearing.

“This has been a really big change. Everyone used to have to get suited and booted to go and win new business or pitch to a client. Now you can just chuck on a nice collared shirt and no one needs to see what you have on the bottom.”

This approach to dressing for an online meeting has garnered its own subcategory in fashion called ‘above the keyboard dressing’.

The category sees that people can still wear their leggings, track pants or even pajamas, just by pairing it with a smarter item on the top half of the body.

This isn’t quite Bevan’s style either.

“I think the most interesting thing for me is not that it has been a slow descent into ‘I don’t care any more’, but quite the opposite.”

“I like the fact that the office symbolises somewhere where you can go to feel powerful in clothes.”

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