What will we wear when we return to the office?

Many women wore less makeup (or none) while working from home. Will that change with the return to the office?
Many women wore less makeup (or none) while working from home. Will that change with the return to the office?
Image: Reuters/Jiraporn Kuhakan
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I haven’t worn proper pants in over a year. My hair dryer is coated in dust. Ballet flats and boots and kitten-heeled pumps topple over one another in a basket in my closet, abandoned early in the pandemic in favor of practical Birkenstocks and sneakers. The only clothing items I’ve purchased since the dawn of the work-from-home era are leggings, bike shorts, and t-shirt merch from my favorite podcasts.

Everything from news reports to retail sales trends and New Yorker cover illustrations show that I’m far from alone in adopting an extremely low-maintenance lifestyle during the shift to remote work prompted by Covid-19. But vaccine rollouts in the US, the UK, and other wealthy countries mean that a new era is upon us. This summer and fall, offices will reopen their doors to employees who’ve grown accustomed to less-frequent showers and pairing laptops with loungewear.

The buttoned-downed norms of yore may not seem so appealing now that many workers have gotten used to the joys of elasticized waistbands. The relief of not having to conform to previous standards for work attire has been especially palpable for women, people of color, trans people, and others who used to regularly navigate a minefield of expectations when it comes to workplace grooming and dress codes.

The return to the office, then, is a chance to rethink what constitutes a professional appearance—perhaps making work attire both more comfortable and more equitable in the process. We just need to embrace the opportunity.

Comfort is king

In my highly informal Twitter poll inquiring about people’s fashion and grooming plans for the return to the office, the main thing respondents seemed keen to avoid was a return to shoes that pinch, zippers that bite, and pants that gnaw angry red lines into innocent stomachs.

“Loungewear & leggings is for keeps,” health-tech investor Christina Farr tweeted in response, while several others mentioned that they were loathe to go back to heels. But fashion sense, it seems, won’t be forsaken entirely. The overall sentiment was summarized by Kaitlin Fund: “ I’d like to prioritize comfort without giving up my personal ‘office style.’”

Sarah LaFleur, founder and CEO of the womenswear company MM LaFleur, says her company has been hearing the same thing from customers.

“They’re saying, ‘I don’t know what the dress code is going to be, because I haven’t heard back yet, but I think they’re going to relax it a little bit more.’ Or, ‘I’ve gotten so used to being in comfortable clothing, and I just can’t imagine myself going into wearing a pencil skirt again. Can you give me other options that make me feel more comfortable?’” LaFleur says. (This may be more representative of the private sector than government; interestingly, at LaFleur’s brick-and-mortar store in Washington DC, sales of suits never really slowed down.)

Are constricting clothes and shoes a productivity drain?

There are plenty of advantages to relaxing dress codes at the office. As a 2017 report (pdf) on workplace dress codes commissioned by the UK House of Commons explains, high heels can actively hurt women’s on-the-job performance in a number of ways:

[F]irstly, high heels can leave the wearer in significant pain which, as with other conditions causing chronic pain, makes it difficult to focus; secondly, high heels are ill-suited to the duties required to be performed; and thirdly, high heels affect breathing patterns and concentration and may thus reduce executive presence

To a less dramatic extent, items like a stifling necktie or snug dress also may cause discomfort, getting in the way of employees’ productivity. And it’s easy to see how employees can get distracted as they anxiously wonder whether a bra strap is showing or break into a sweat in an office where short sleeves are considered gauche.

But switching to a more casual dress code isn’t a straightforward proposition. To understand why, it’s helpful to consider the history of the business suit.

A brief history of the business suit

Business suits date back to Europe in the 1700s, as male aristocrats began to shift away from opulent clothing to more practical attire, representative of a new era that valued reason and industriousness. “It reflects, on the one hand, the rejection of the ideals of the old regime and a new political ideology which eventually matures into what we would now describe as the Enlightenment,” says Richard Ford, a Stanford law professor and the author of the recent book Dress Code: How the Laws of Fashion Made History.

The business suit also represented a new kind of egalitarianism, in that similar designs were worn both by commoners and the elite. “For the first time, the head of state is wearing clothing that’s quite similar to the clothing worn by a common merchant or banker or clerk,” Ford says.

Clothing as a sign of social status didn’t go away—it just got more subtle, “communicated through details that are harder to copy,” Ford explains. “It’s all about refined fabrics. It’s about the cut of the suit. It’s about wearing the right thing at the right time. And that’s a lot harder for someone who’s not moving in the right social circles to understand.”

Ford draws a parallel between the rise of the business suit and the hoodie-and-jeans look that became Silicon Valley’s trademark look centuries later. Both looks express similar values: “We’re innovative, we’re not hung up on old social statuses, we’re not stuffy and uptight.”

But as with the business suit, Ford says, there are still distinctions that communicate people’s status and sophistication. “It may be hoodies and T-shirts, but Mark Zuckerberg reportedly wears T-shirts made by Brunello Cucinelli,” an Italian luxury designer.

The casual workwear trend, in other words, hasn’t been nearly as inclusive as it seems.

Dress code double standards for women

Casual office attire is particularly tricky for women, who aren’t able to easily adopt Silicon Valley’s hoodies or finance bros’ so-called “midtown uniform” of fleece vests worn over button-down shirts and slacks.

“We still live in a society, tragically, where women in professional settings are unusual and their competence is questioned,” Stanford’s Ford says. If a man goes to work wearing an outfit he might also wear on the weekend, he still looks like a man going to work, Ford notes. But “a woman wearing what she would wear on the weekend looks like a housewife or a soccer mom.”

This has put women in a bind: They’re expected to look put-together on the job, and are judged harshly if they don’t seem to be putting in enough effort. As just one illustration, a 2016 study by sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner, published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, found that women who are deemed to be physically attractive get paid more than their supposedly less-attractive counterparts—but that investing in grooming (via their clothes, makeup, and hairstyles) closes the income gap.

“When workplaces reward grooming in women, they are reproducing what it means to be a woman in our society: objects that are nice to look at,” Wong tells Quartz. Eyes brightened by a few coats of mascara or a frizz-free mane “signals individual women’s participation in this system of domination—please reward me for playing by your gender rules.”

At the same time, women in the workplace are also expected to be modest. Women who wear heavy makeup, for example, are seen as less capable leaders. “So if the woman is too dolled up or too fashionable, then she’s frivolous or she’s flighty or it’s not appropriate,” Ford explains.

The subtle racism of office dress codes

Standards of professional appearance in the workplace can also be informed by racism. Research by Tina Opie, an associate professor of management at Babson College and founder of the diversity and inclusion-focused Opie Consulting Group, shows that in the US, job candidates with Afrocentric hairstyles are consistently rated as less professional than those with Eurocentric hairstyles.

Furthermore, words like “neat” or “well-kempt,” which traditionally appear in guidance on workplace dress codes, can contain racially coded expectations, Opie says.

“The word ‘neat’ might seem completely objective, but if your expectation is for hair to hang down, then what is your assessment of hair that grows toward the sun?” she says.

Working from home provided many people with a much-needed respite from being scrutinized and judged over their appearance. (Though it’s also worth noting that there was still pressure to look camera-ready on Zoom calls.) But as employees get ready to head back to the office, whether full-time or part-time, the reality of discriminatory expectations and double standards is unlikely to go away.

“I probably sound like I don’t want any norms of professionalism,” Opie says. “I just say we have to seriously interrogate them before we impress them upon people.”

The era of elevated athleisure

For those who want a more comfortable office wardrobe without worrying they’ll get dinged for looking unprofessional, an alternative may lie in what Ford refers to “stylized, high-status athleisure,” such as cashmere hoodies or unstructured blazers made of sweatshirt material. This kind of outfit became popular during the pandemic as workers negotiated two somewhat contradictory sets of expectations, says Ford.

“I think that we’ve got an ethos in our society that people should be real and authentic and practical,” he says. “And so wearing a suit while you’re on Zoom, and everyone knows you’re in your living room, seems contrived, and that’s not good. But at the same time, you need to look professional.” Elevated athleisure, then, is a way to signal one’s status as a grownup, as opposed to a kid who stayed up too late playing Fortnite.

Ford predicts that stylized athleisure will migrate with workers back to the office. It’s a versatile look, befitting schedules that may involve working from home a few days a week and commuting into the office the rest of the time. “It’ll just get associated with professionalism because it seems natural on Zoom,” he says.

“Clothing is armor”

The future of office wear for women also might look a lot like the “Power Casual” line from MM LaFleur: stretchy pants, loose jacket-cardigan mashups known as “jardigans,” cotton tops, and T-shirt dresses. The category, launched in 2018 to cater to women in tech who wanted an alternative to the male-dominated Silicon Valley uniform of hoodies and jeans, made up about 30% of MM LaFleur’s sales pre-pandemic, says LaFleur. During the pandemic, that figure rose to 60%.

Inspired by the upcoming wave of office reopenings, the company is also releasing a new collection in June called “Rewrite the Rules,” which will feature base layers designed for flexibility as women navigate between work and home life.

LaFleur shows off one option she happens to be wearing at the moment: a pair of pale-blue joggers with an elastic waistband and zip pockets, paired with a white tank top and easily dressed up with a jacket that looks like the laid-back cousin of the classic Chanel tweed suit.

“Initially when the pandemic happened, there were all these articles about, ‘Oh, people are going to live in sweatpants forever, long live the sweatpants,’” LaFleur says. That may be an appealing option for people who know that they can walk into a meeting without anyone questioning their competence. But, LaFleur says, “for a lot of people, clothing is armor. And clothing is a way of signifying that they’re professional and they’re ready to show up and that they’re dependable and reliable.”

Will employers change their dress codes?

Many employees have discovered over the past year that they enjoy working from home, and polls show that a majority report that they’d like to have the option to do so even after the pandemic. As employers consider ways to incentivize workers to come to the office at least some of the time in the months ahead, a less rigid dress code may be one way to give employees the flexibility to which they have become accustomed.

That said, women who happily gave up makeup or hair dye during the pandemic may (fairly) worry that they’ll be penalized for continuing such habits at the office. “The issue is that if we all don’t agree that grooming may be unnecessary for doing good work, the ‘safest’ way for women to act if they want to access rewards at work is to keep playing by long-standing gender rules,” Wong says.

And so employers should start thinking now about how they can encourage people to feel comfortable coming into work as their authentic selves, whether that involves dressing up or dressing down, wearing a natural hairstyle, or choosing gender nonconforming outfits.

“As we transition to a new normal, what’s crucial is for managers and organizations to be thoughtful and not expect things will work out naturally to the point that everyone feels included and good about being back in the office,” says Colleen Ammerman, director of the gender initiative at Harvard Business School and co-author of the book Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work. “They need to be thoughtful about things like norms, expectations, and how to message around that.”

And while those who wish to do so should feel free to return to their pre-Covid fashion and grooming habits, there’s a lot that might be gained from expanding our ideas about what constitutes a professional look.