NEW YORK — Blazers in knit fabrics, pants with drawstrings or elastic waistbands, and polo shirts like the new button-up shirt.
Welcome to the post-pandemic dress code for the office.
After working remotely in sweats and yoga pants for two years, many Americans are rethinking their wardrobes to balance comfort and professionalism as offices reopen. They’re giving the structured suits, zip-front pants and pencil skirts they wore before the COVID-19 pandemic a boost and experimenting with new looks. That has retailers and brands scrambling to meet workers’ fashion needs for the future of work.
“Being comfortable is more important than being super structured,” said Kay Martin-Pence, 58, who returned to her Indianapolis office last month in sleek jeans and flowy tops after working remotely in leggings and slippers for two years. years. “Why feel buttoned up and stiff when I don’t have to?”
Before COVID-19, Martin-Pence used to wear dress pants with blazers to the pharmaceutical company where he works. He’s back in heels, but they’re lower, and he says he’ll never wear dress pants to the office again.
Even before the pandemic, Americans dressed more casually at work. Time spent in sweats accelerated the shift from “business casual” to “business comfort.”
Still, getting dressed to go back to the office remains a social experiment, said Adam Galinsky, a social psychologist at Columbia Business School who coined the term “wrapped cognition,” or how the clothes people wear affect how they behave. to think.
“I guess it will be more informal, but maybe not,” Galinsky said. “People will consciously think, ‘Am I wearing the right clothes to be in the office?’ They’re going to be thinking about what they’re doing, the context they’re in, and the social comparisons of what others will be doing.”
Steve Smith, CEO of outdoor sportswear brand LL Bean, said people are shedding their “typical uniform,” whatever form it takes.
“They are going to expect more flexible hours, being able to work in a hybrid model and be comfortable, as comfortable as at home,” he said. “Some of the office uniforms, the office wardrobes, are changing and changing. There’s no reason it can’t be permanent.”
Data from market research firm NPD Group and retailers reflect changing trends.
Non-wired bras now make up more than 50% of the total non-sports bra market in the US, reversing a long-term trend, according to NPD. Smart shoe sales have rebounded since 2021 but are still 34% below 2019 levels and are more likely to be driven by the return of social occasions, not the office, NPD said. Instead, casual sneakers are now the most common shoes for work.
Clothing rental company Rent the Runway said jacket rentals nearly doubled in February from a year ago, reflecting a return to offices. But her customers choose colorful versions like pastel and fabrics like light tweed, linen and twill. He said “business formal” rentals — traditional workwear like basic slipcovers, pencil skirts and blazers — are about half what they were in 2019, said Anushka Salinas, president and chief operating officer.
Stitch Fix, a personal shopping and styling service, noted that men are increasingly choosing options like hiking pants and golf pants for the office. For the first three months of the year, revenue from such clothing nearly tripled a year ago.
Polo shirts have replaced button-down collars for men, and there is strong demand for pull-on pants, the company said. The ratio of elastic-waist work pants to pants with buttons or zippers at Stitch Fix was one to one in 2019; now it’s three to one.
Other workers, however, are excited to get dressed again.
Emily Kirchner, 42, of Stevensville, Michigan, who works in communications for a major appliance maker, said she’s investing more in her wardrobe when she returns to the office. She used to wear tunics and leggings from Stitch Fix in the pre-pandemic days. Now, she turns to the high-end jeans, blouses and blazers service.
“It’s fun to dress up,” said Kirchner, who had a baby at the start of the pandemic and wants to wear clothes that don’t make her look like what she calls a “scruffy mom.” “It’s like that back-to-school feeling.”
Retailers have had to adapt to the changing demands of Americans during the pandemic and now many are returning to the office again. Luxury department store Nordstrom, for example, has opened women’s denim stores to highlight its expanded selection as it sees more women wear jeans to work.
Even Ministry of Supply, a company looking to make workwear as comfortable as sportswear, had to make big changes. When the pandemic hit, he was left with mounds of tailored pants and jackets in performance fabrics that were considered irrelevant to a remote workforce.
The Boston-based company founded by graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology quickly redesigned the items, adding elastic waistbands and removing zippers. He also thinned the hems of the pantsuits to give them “sneaker” cuts.
As workers return to the office, Ministry of Supply maintains that relaxed look and sporty cuts and has permanently eliminated zippers: all of its pants have elastic waistbands or drawstrings. He is also reinventing his tailored suit.
“The new challenge is: How do I look presentable when I’m in person without sacrificing comfort?” said Gihan Amarasiriwardena, co-founder and president.
The 200-year-old Brooks Brothers haberdashery faced a bigger challenge: It never followed the casual office-wear trend several years ago like its rivals. Under new owner and CEO Ken Ohashi, the company has succeeded in offering laid-back styles in a post-bankruptcy reinvention.
Now 45% of their offerings are casual sportswear like sweaters and polo shirts. Before the pandemic, that figure was 25%, Ohashi said.
He said dress shirts are making a comeback as workers return to the office. But Brooks Brothers is adding a twist: a stretchy version of its cotton knit shirts with the comfort of a polo. It also offers colorful jackets.
“The guy is attracted to novelty right now, novelty color, novelty print, novelty pattern,” Ohashi said. “Historically, that guy walked in and was buying a navy, charcoal, and black suit. He definitely wants to mix and I think he’s here to stay.”
Associated Press writer David Sharp contributed from Freeport, Maine.
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