3 Ways COVID-19 Has Changed Workwear Forever — and 4 Things That Haven't Changed

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Courtney Dercqu156
Current Social Media Manager/Former Recruiter
June 23, 2024 at 6:38PM UTC

Casual wear has reigned supreme during the COVID-19 pandemic, with approximately 60% of all remote workers stating that they wear some sort of casual wear during the day. These numbers come from SHRM, who found that out of this number, only 34% of respondents wear these items on video calls. So, we're all sneakily wearing sweatpants. But what happens when we have to return to the office?

According to Lisa Sun, the CEO of the clothing brand, Gravitas, versatility will become the new norm. This versatile wardrobe will combine the comfort of tank tops and t-shirt dresses with pieces that celebrate the ability to finally dress up again. 

As the virus-related restrictions begin to roll back, restrictions on what is considered appropriate in the workplace are undoubtedly being re-examined. While some rules haven’t changed, we can’t say the landscape hasn't changed completely. According to Johnny C. Taylor, Jr, CEO and President of SHRM, “the likelihood that your office will relax their dress code will depend in part on your industry and company culture.”

But what has changed? 

1. ‘Smart casual’ is in.

Long gone are the days of business casual. Now, it’s all about smart casual. Smart casual style falls somewhere in between dressy and business casual. It often includes pairing one semi-dressed down item with something a little more polished, like distress-free denim jeans and a blazer. 

The popularity of smart casual isn’t something that’s solely happening in the U.S. This movement is spreading to many areas across the world. Across the pond, 25% of UK workers believe that dressing down alleviates the pressure they feel at work. Respondents also said that a more relaxed dress code increased friendliness with one another. 

2. Even in business attire, comfort is king.

The pandemic proved that casual attire didn’t affect productivity. Approximately 61% of workers stated that they were more productive while wearing a relaxed dress code. After all, what’s more, comfortable to work in: a pair of constricting high heels or sneakers? 

Joanna Dai, founder of the clothing brand Dai, said it best: “Our customers say they could not imagine fitting back into my old black tailored pants and wearing that again.” 

3. No one is buying a uniquely ‘work’ wardrobe anymore.

While the pandemic severely affected mom and pop shops, big chain stores didn’t fare much better. Throughout 2020, more than 11,000 prominent retailers closed down stores, including Ann Taylor, Men’s Wearhouse, Brooks Brothers, and Jos. A. Bank. What do all of these brands have in common? Workwear. 

Ana Andjelic, the chief brand officer for Banana Republic, said “we are seeing hybrid dressing: workwear meets evening wear meets leisurewear.” Considering how Brooks Brothers is selling more colorful items, such as ladybug printed polo shirts, it’s safe to say Ana Andjelic is right on the money. 

Deirdre Clements, a University of Nevada professor, talked about this new fashion norm, stating that “as people return to the office, the lines between what employers deem appropriate and what individuals want to wear are going to start rubbing together more than they have in the past.” So, when it comes to workplace wardrobe, what hasn’t changed? 

1. Some industries are still stricter than others.

Some industries are going to be laxer than others. For example, a small digital marketing firm can get away with a more relaxed dress code, as they may not interface with clients regularly. Industries that employ workers that have to be easily recognizable, such as healthcare workers, law enforcement, hospitality, and retail employees will see the least amount of slack when it comes to the wardrobe. 

2. Your company’s established dress code is still in effect.

At the end of the day, your company’s dress code is still in effect. Dress codes are designed to convey professionalism in the workplace, and even though it’s been reconsidered over the past year, it hasn’t gone completely to the waste side. 

One reason for this has to do with workplace performance. While one study found that 61% of workers are more productive when wearing a relaxed wardrobe, another survey that consulted over 1,000 HR executives whose companies enforced a casual wardrobe, “reported a significant increase in tardiness, absenteeism, and flirtatious behavior.” 

Whether your company enforces a dress code due to employee behavior or because you work in an industry where you have to be a role model, such as teaching, the bottom line is that unless your employer says so, the established dress code is still in effect if you are on work calls, speaking with clients, or representing the company in any capacity. 

3. The ultra-casual is still not OK.

As mentioned above, dress codes are meant to convey professionalism so the rules regarding seductive and ultra-casual wear are still not okay. This applies to both men and women, as men should avoid wearing shirts that expose chest hair, while women should not wear mini skirts or sheer blouses that leave little to the imagination. This also extends to baggy clothes, workout wear, ripped jeans, and any garment that is either stained or dirty. 

Remember, just because you’re working in a more casual environment, it doesn’t mean you can get away with wearing anything. A helpful piece of advice - if you have to think about whether something is appropriate, it’s probably not. 

4. Confidence is key.

One thing that hasn’t changed is how empowering a smart-casual wardrobe can be. In a year that has seen more elastic waistbands than anything else, many workers are excited about the ability to dress up again as they return to work. One way you can do this is by engaging in what’s known as power dressing. Power dressing grew in popularity back in the 1980s and it can still be a valuable tool to increase your confidence in the workplace. 

According to a survey conducted in the UK, nine out of 10 women experience Imposter Syndrome in the workplace — which negatively impairs a person’s ability to recognize their strengths and instead casts doubts on their abilities. In the workplace, this can create overwhelming stress and anxiety. For Holly White, a celebrity stylist, power dressing is just one technique to increase your confidence. 

While tossing on a blazer won’t automatically increase your self-esteem, there is a direct correlation between feeling good in what you wear and your mental outlook. In a year that’s been so riddled with stress and fear of the unknown, finding pieces in your wardrobe that you feel confident in can help improve your mental health and productivity at work. After all, the more productive we are, the better we feel. 

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