What the new era of office fashion could look like: NPR

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As the work-from-home crowd returns to the office, she wonders what to wear.

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As the work-from-home crowd returns to the office, she wonders what to wear.

Malta Müller/Getty Images

In 1999, luxury clothing designer Tom Ford made a prediction about how technology might influence the way people dress in the not so near future.

“Life is changing. And we’re working more and more from home, more and more from our computer screens, which in the future – I mean, there are many ways it could happen,” he said in an interview with Charlie Rose. “A lot of people think fashion might die because we’re just at home. You can work in underwear and t-shirts. Who cares? Who’s going to see you?”

Did his prediction become your reality during the COVID-19 pandemic? If so, you are not alone.

As many people worked from home during the pandemic lockdown, formal corporate dress codes were dissolved and office workers no longer needed to dress up. The pants have been replaced by sweatshirts. People have given up on heels. And T-shirts began to dominate.

Now that many of these workers are returning to the office, we seem to be entering a new era of workwear. This prompted the question: what should I wear to work?

As part of NPR’s Work Life series, NPR morning edition spoken with people who sail on this issue. Among them is Jeremy Gonzalez, 27, who started working on Capitol Hill last November.

“When I first started coming, even on recess days I wore a suit and tie or even my three-piece suit,” he said. But after waves of pandemic variants and a fluctuating hybrid schedule, he is now more inclined to wear jeans and a button-up or polo shirt.

Some others in politics also dress up.

When the leaders of the Group of Seven nations took their group photo in Germany last month, something strange happened: they all abandoned their ties. It is believed to be the first time in 40 years that a portrait of the G-7 was taken without a tie and could be seen as another signal that formal dress codes are becoming more relaxed.

Leaders of the Group of Seven pose at the G-7 summit at Elmau Castle in Kruen, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, June 26. Noticeably absent from the group photo: the ties.

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Leaders of the Group of Seven pose at the G-7 summit at Elmau Castle in Kruen, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, June 26. Noticeably absent from the group photo: the ties.

Markus Schreiber/AP

Looser dress codes have found their way into another notoriously formal work culture — Wall Street — where for men, suits have traditionally been the only option.

Today, “the key word is confusion,” says Ken Giddon, whose family runs Rothman’s, a men’s store in Manhattan. “People really don’t know what to do.”

With the reopening of the offices, he noticed that people no longer knew what to wear.

“Do you wear dress pants to work? Do you wear khakis? Can you wear jeans? he said. “Nobody has really drawn the line, and nobody really knows what the right answer is.”

The pandemic has given some people the freedom to swap their heels for something more comfortable.

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His advice is to start with dress pants and a blazer, assess the vibe of the office, and go from there.

Washington Post lead reviewer Robin Givhan agrees – err on the side of dressiness.

“What I’ve noticed is that there’s definitely a return to kind of a capital F fashion,” she said. “I think people who loved him before continue to love him. And there’s something about creating boundaries again. You have the clothes that you wear in the world, and then you have the clothes that are your recreation clothes, your rest clothes.”

Still, Givhan sees one area where comfort will continue to be a priority.

“I don’t see a return to serious dress heels or constricting shoes,” Givhan said. “I see a lot more apartments both in offices and on the slopes.”

Of course, not everyone likes to dress in formal clothes. And, as Givhan says, not everyone wants the same kind of split between their personal and professional selves.

“I think for some people it’s really invigorating to be able to take their entire personality with them wherever they go,” she said. “And I think there are other people who have been frustrated that their working day never really seemed to end, that it kind of got jumbled up into a giant mush of constantly being on line.”

As Tom Ford predicted.

Jeevika Verma produced the radio version of this story and Rachel Treisman edited and produced the web version.

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