Heels or hoodies? How workwear is changing

Are suits being swapped for sweatpants as employees continue to work from home?

Remote working is changing employees’ dress habits. Photograph: iStock

Remote working is changing employees’ dress habits. Photograph: iStock

 

“When I returned to the office in the summer, I went straight back to my old Givenchy handbag,” says Rachael (31), a management consultant at one of the Big Four. “I hadn’t used it in so long that inside I found the boarding pass from the flight I took home from my last project. It was crazy; the US had just announced it was closing the air bridge, so I had to get out ASAP.”

On her first day back in July, with a client meeting in the diary, Rachael took a Sandro knit dress out of its dry-cleaning plastic and paired it with a smart cardigan blazer and ballet flats. “It actually felt really nice to get dressed up again,” she says. “For me, clothes are how I feel more confident and powerful.”

Rachael was one of several lawyers, bankers, civil servants and consultants I spoke to a fortnight ago about dressing to go back to the office. For many, rediscovering forgotten shirts, trousers and even ties, with all their promise of the outside world, had become a relief and an occasion.

Even if they were coming in to work just one or two days a week, the psychological shift was palpable.

Suits

But then, governments both here and in the UK decided it would be better for us to return to working from home again, where possible.

Where does that leave our workwear? Will brogues go back in their boxes? Will ties be tossed in the trash? A friend who had returned to her desk for just one day since lockdown had immediately succumbed to that time-honoured ritual: the emergency LK Bennett lunch-hour shoe purchase. “That’s £250 for some heels I won’t wear again in 2020,” she grumbles.

Workwear was already in flux before lockdowns began. Suits were becoming less popular (since 2016, suit sales in the UK have fallen by more than 24 per cent to £397 million at the start of 2020, according to Kantar), and attitudes at big banks and city law firms had relaxed even before “waist-up dressing” took hold, with Goldman Sachs announcing a “firm-wide flexible dress code” in 2019.

Lately, there has also been a disconnect between what luxury retailers are promoting as the “new workwear” and what we will really put on in the mornings. As lovely as Net-a-Porter’s suggestion of a Bottega Veneta knitted dress with Khaite red satin mules might be, is anyone really going to wear them for a day Zooming from home?

And for every person who can’t wait to inhale the crisp, chemical tang of a dry-cleaned dress, there is another who has relished the decreased formality ushered in by lockdown. As offices partially reopened this summer, many kept it casual unless they had meetings; I even heard tell of hoodies and bare arms. Why wear a suit if you’re enclosed in a cubicle, in a near-deserted space where no one can hear you scream, let alone admire your cufflinks?

A civil servant friend who swapped black trousers for black jeans when she (temporarily) returned to Whitehall pointed out that formality’s fourth wall has now been breached.

For many, the professional persona projected by heels and tailoring has been replaced by more rounded, domestic impressions of colleagues via glimpses of kids, cats and questionable interior-design choices.

Suits were already less popular, and attitudes had relaxed even before “waist-up dressing” took hold.

“It’s a cliché but the lockdown has accelerated existing trends,” says one male thirtysomething lawyer at a City law firm. “Even five years ago it would be odd for a male associate to walk around with an open collar if away from his desk. Now it looks more unusual if they are wearing a tie.”

Surrendered to sweatpants

He adds, however, that while there was a fleeting “semi-proper” return to office working, most people were at least wearing chinos and a button-up shirt.

At home, not everyone has surrendered to sweatpants. Gerald Onuorah, a technology manager at Bain & Company, isn’t letting standards slide just because he’s been out of office.

On our call he looked pretty dapper in purple braces, a purple tie and a purple-and-white striped shirt by Collarbone London, the customisable shirt brand he set up in 2018. “At home in lockdown I would dress up just to say, ‘This is work time.’ I do wear a shirt, braces and a tie every day.”

He says that with no immediate return to the office in sight, he will “continue wearing a shirt, braces and tie, but no suit because it can be quite uncomfortable”. He thinks the shirt will increasingly become the focal point of the professional wardrobe.

Laura Vandendorpe, a consultant at Bain in her 20s, thinks that, long term, “office workers, especially women, won’t be used to formal or uncomfortable clothing any more. I think the biggest impact in our industry, where business-casual will continue to be the norm due to client meetings, might be the shoe etiquette for women. I think it will become perfectly acceptable for women to wear flat shoes or even sneakers to the office.”

Others echo this reluctance to suffer the discomfort of heels.

When Vandendorpe briefly returned to her near-empty offices on the Strand in central London this summer, she relished the opportunity to wear hoodies and less make-up, and match her clothes to the weather rather than the dress code.

She expects to see more variety in how people express themselves: “Some will be more casual but others will want to find their own style of formal.” As we have more flexible working, so too more flexible wardrobes.

Rachael’s Givenchy handbag might be going back in its dust-bag, but she won’t give in to waist-up dressing just yet. It turns out that many of us have more affection for our workwear than we thought.

“I have had a lot of virtual workshops and even though they can only see half of my body, I am wearing a dress, I’ve got a headband on,” she says. “It still changes the way you act and gets you in the mindset.”

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020

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