When we return to work, will dressing up still be a thing?

words by: Natasha Marsh
Dec 31, 2020

Work life during the pandemic can be summed up into two words: video conferencing. It’s given us insight into the personal lives of our coworkers and clients. Meetings that were formally done in suits and fancy shoes – have transitioned into clean, ironed shirts and basketball shorts. It’s safe to say many employees have relaxed on dress codes in 2020: where money is scarce and work ethic and innovation have become the main – if not only – pillars of corporate success. 


Pre-pandemic, you may have found yourself spending hours ironing your outfit or glancing at every passed mirror, praying it met workplace standards. Is denim too casual? Should I shine my shoes? Should I change out my sweater for a blazer? There were specific requirements – whether communicated or implied – to getting dressed. That is before COVID-19 forced people into home offices and encouraged us into sweatpants over tailored trousers. 


Don’t get me wrong, my pandemic uniform is also more on the comfort side, often sporting a random tee and sweats. But I miss dressing up and how good it feels to look sharp! To me, first impressions still matter, whether it’s in person or virtual. But I’ve noticed many coworkers and friends are quite OK with this “new normal” of dressing. It begs the question: when we go back to work, will dressing up still be a thing? Although most sources I researched all said it’s too soon to tell, there are strong arguments for both sides. 


Stay The Course

Experts believe professional attire is an easy way to advance your career, claiming it shows authenticity, trustworthiness, innovation and credibility. Hiring managers are more confident in a candidate who has a watch on (punctual), shined shoes (attention to details) and a crisp suit (respects the industry) than a candidate in jeans and a nice top. 


Personally, back when we were in office, I’d always thrive on the days I had to be away from work at client meetings, press events and happy hours. It forced me to dress the part and each time I did, I always felt very confident in who I was and my job skills. There’s a certain energy to a well-groomed and well-styled person. It makes you feel smart, attractive and ready to take the day ahead. 


And plus, some industries require a uniform – especially the ones that are client or camera facing. Law, finance and broadcasting are surely industries that will keep up dress code policies. I remember watching CNN and being shocked at the young anchor who had on a plain blue quarter sleeve T-shirt, no makeup and hair disheveled. Instagram meme accounts trolled her saying, “Looks like Karen needs her hair and makeup team y’all. And let me not start on this outfit.”


Out With The Old, In With The New

“Everyone was pretending before,” Jerry tells me as he thinks back on office life while interning at a law firm. “No one talked about the emotional, mental and financial struggles that come with living paycheck to paycheck but wanting to make a good impression, which a lot of times was embodied in your style,” he adds. Like many employees operating on tight salaries, he hopes the current relaxed attitudes birthed while working for home will lead to less pressure to spend money on uniforms.


What Will Happen To Retailers? 

It’s hard to gauge which industries or companies will do away with dress codes – Wall Street will still be filled with suits and paralegals in pristine pencil skirts and stilettos. However, I do think people will be very aware of what they’re spending their money on – and retailers must be agile to that. “We will be more aware of the importance of investing in keepsake pieces that will last for years to come,” designer Alice McCall stated when discussing a new surge of environmental-friendly customers. 


The minimal interaction to our planet and decreased pollution has shown consumers that their purchasing decisions can positively impact the environment. When we eventually come out of hibernation, there will be a movement of considerate shoppers. Shoppers who want to support sustainable practices and second hand shopping to limit the risks on the environment. COVID brought many financial hardships – you won’t see many people buying stuff they don’t need, like a new work top or trouser. 


In fact, the Boston Consulting Group predicts fashion sales in 2020 could drop by a quarter compared to 2019 – equaling $600 billion lost for the industry. Retailers are currently sitting with unsold winter and spring merchandise. To save on cost, they’ve been forced to close multiple locations and furlough employees. They are scrambling and wondering if consumers will return to pre-lockdown shopping habits. 


Although sales have significantly dropped, experts predict they will jump when the pandemic is over, claiming we are buying less because we aren’t going anywhere. People are looking forward to going outside again – to parties, weddings and brunch. Retailers are banking on them needing new wardrobes to express their newfound personal style, birthed in quarantine. Fashion historian Medina Smith believes certain consumers’ personal expression has been, “stifled for so long that we may see a real renaissance of fashion people going over the top.” 


I’m in a group chat with a bunch of actor friends and one friend shared what his first post quarantine outfit will be, “[my] bright blue with gold chains polo and brown joggers.” He was saying it symbolizes his built up aggression for being locked inside for months. Another friend in Corporate America told me about how he got dragged by his boss over Zoom for repeating an outfit. “Apparently I wore the same red sweater three Monday’s in a row,” he says. The funny thing is when he put it one a third time he thought it was played out but didn’t realize other people would notice until his boss said, “and let me know if you guys want to theme next week’s meeting. We can wear red in honor of Tyler,” he tells me, mid laugh.


Tyler later told me how he’s excited to actually go shopping, in person. Once we get through the pandemic, retailers shouldn’t worry too much about gaining sales. Fashion professor, Raissa Bretana, wants post virus fashion to capitalize on the occasion of dressing up. “I think that the opportunity to dress up will inspire even the least fashion-forward people to make more of an effort that they did pre-pandemic.”


She believes people will crave to dress up and brands will need to be ready for that. With that, she is also urging brands to ramp up shirt designs as she believes telecommuting will be a trend even after lockdown orders are lifted and they will need to dress the consumer who’s dressing “from the waist up.”


Photo via Closet & Beyond