Sweat pants and baggy cardigans? How Covid-19 will change office dress codes

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Covid-19 sent a wrecking ball through 2020, derailing everything from normal human interaction to daily trips to the office.

But even as things begin to return to a sense of normality, not everything should go back to how it was before. Take office attire, for example.

Now that we’ve worked from home, we’ve grown accustomed to sitting at our computers in the T-shirts we slept in, and have learnt to keep a smart jacket nearby to be hurriedly thrown on for those unexpected Zoom calls.

We are all now adept at maintaining a smart top half with a tie or lipstick, while wearing sweat pants and no shoes. Who could forget the valuable lesson learnt about video call camera angles when American journalist Will Reeves (son of late Superman actor Christopher Reeves) unwittingly appeared live on television in just a shirt, jacket and his boxer shorts?

How working from home has changed us

Perhaps refreshed by regaining the part of the day previously lost to commuting, productivity has actually gone up for many while working from home. Research by Prodoscore that evaluated close to 100 million data points discovered that in April and May, as the world struggled with containing Covid-19, productivity in the US rose by 47 per cent, because things like email activity and time spent on customer relationship management spiked so much. In a similar period, McKinsey & Company research revealed that 80 per cent of people were “happy” working from home, and 41 per cent said they were working harder.

Now, as we begin returning to offices, many do so with some anxiety, and may feel the psychological need for clothes that embrace rather than stifle. After all, in times of crisis and uncertainty, it is perfectly normal to crave comfort, which often comes in the form of sweat pants.

As the new normal begins to emerge, it may be the businesses rather than employees that have to be flexible if they wish to retain their workforce. Employers may have to allow workers to have more say in where and how they work, and maybe what they wear while working, too.

A recent Gallup poll shows that 54 per cent of Americans would consider leaving their present role for one that allowed remote working. Whether it’s extending existing rules so that smart dressing is only required for customer-facing activities, or if it’s allowing more people to choose what days they stay home, it seems at least some people are keen to retain the sartorial and spatial freedom that comes from working from home.

Perhaps we’ll find a hybrid? Heading back to the office might not mean swapping the tracksuit for a suit, but maybe combining the two will be the new norm. Thankfully, runways have been full of ideas of how to do precisely that for months.

Fashion tips for returning to the office

The fashion set has been shrugging a blazer on to shoulders for years: the effect is relaxed but stylish and pulled together. Try a smart blazer worn over a casual dress, a jumpsuit or even a simple white T-shirt with straight-legged trousers.

A new take on the tuxedo at Gucci autumn winter 2020. Courtesy Gucci
Statement blazer: a new take on the tuxedo at Gucci autumn / winter 2020. Courtesy Gucci

For a look for women that is smart but roomy, head to the menswear departments for shirts, as the bigger size immediately feels easier to wear, yet still looks considered. Best left untucked, try mixing a midi-length fitted skirt with an oversized men’s shirt, buttoned up and with neatly rolled sleeves. Still feels too relaxed? Wear a necklace over the top.

With trainers now acceptable daily wear for work (rather than allowed only when sporting a foot injury) pair them with a simple semi-fitted dress for a look that is up to date. Can’t be bothered styling your hair? Wear a scarf for some retro glam.

Also, with high heels now dropped to kitten height, wearing them for a full day at work no longer needs to be an exercise in torture. Better still, ditch heels completely and wear flats instead. So many are available these days, it is easy to pick up a pair that can double for the office.

A jacket, waistcoat and cargo pants at Lanvin autumn winter 2020. Courtesy Lanvin
Contrasts: jacket, a waistcoat and cargo pants at Lanvin autumn / winter 2020. Courtesy Lanvin

Either gender can elevate comfy tracksuit pants with a button-down shirt and a blazer, and men can smarten up cargo pants with a crisp shirt, or find a T-shirt to wear with a suit. Also key is wearing shirts open-necked, because a tie and face mask combo does not say ‘in-control’, it reads claustrophobic.

A collared shirt and jumpsuit at Off-White autumn winter 2020. Courtesy Off-White
A collared shirt and jumpsuit at Off-White autumn / winter 2020. Courtesy Off-White

For organisations that insist on a tie, however, a rethink might be necessary. Ties used to be mandatory for doctors around the world, until the British Medical Journal revealed in 2006 these pieces of silk were actually hotbeds for germs, as they were seldom (if ever) cleaned.

Today, as the world frets about viruses lingering on touch points, a tie is potentially another viral hot spot, so just as doctors did, perhaps now is the time to ditch it completely.

Or why not hit one of the biggest trends of the year, and forgo a jacket completely and use a waistcoat instead? Worn with suit trousers, cargo pants or even sweat pants, it can look super smart. However, make sure it’s a well-tailored one: the key to nailing this look is using the waistcoat from a three-piece suit.

Pinstripe shirt and shorts, with dress shoes at Daniel W Fletcher autumn winter 2020. Courtesy Daniel W Fletcher
Pinstripe shirt and shorts, with dress shoes, at Daniel W Fletcher autumn / winter 2020. Courtesy Daniel W Fletcher

Really, moving forward, there is no reason office wear cannot be completely reimagined to be whatever we want it to be. Who decided we need to wear standard suits, anyway?

Just as advertising industries and tech employees have donned a relaxed look for years, perhaps we can all look forward to wearing our most stylish sweat pants to the office? Just remember to always keep a blazer handy if needed.

Updated: July 29, 2020 06:29 PM

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