When Arielle Patrick, the chief communications officer at Ariel Investments, began working from home in early 2020 she discovered an appreciation for basic staples.
“Before the pandemic, I aimed to wear a different outfit every day,” she says. “Now, I don’t have the time for outfit decision-making because work is ten times more demanding than it ever was. I guess you could call that ‘decision fatigue.”’
With the ongoing complications of the pandemic and its attending variants, the return to work looks different for everyone. Some are back to their offices, others are settling in for the latest era of working from home, and others are juggling some combination of the two. Like Patrick, many agree 2022 is time for a professional wardrobe reset.
“The pandemic took away the pressure of always looking a certain way, all the time,” says the digital art strategist JiaJia Fei, who splits her time between her New York City apartment and a Dumbo co-working space. “Now, dressing up is fun again because we’re doing it more selectively. As a result, I’ve taken so many occasions to purge my closet of the things I no longer wear or bring me joy to really edit down and distill my clothing to the essentials. I still appreciate the ritual of getting ready for work on the few occasions I have in-person meetings, and will make every effort to dress up as if I were going to an event in my pre-pandemic life.”
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On those days of non-virtual obligations, Fei opts for colorful suits, and she’s not alone. There’s a pent-up appetite for embellishment, bold shapes and striking motifs that’s resonating with shoppers writ large. Retailers ended the holiday season with “gains of between 8 and 10 percent,” according to trade newspaper Women’s Wear Daily.
“People have become more confident about dressing themselves in a more comfortable, self-expressive way,” says Katherine Greenberg, vice president of women’s apparel at Neiman Marcus.
The concept of workwear hasn’t been challenged nearly as much as other types of fashion throughout history. The last time professional wardrobes saw a major shakeup was during the 1850s, when women started adopting tailored elements inspired by men’s traditional suiting on a more mainstream level.
“When those first American women went into offices in the middle of the 19th century wearing their versions of a tailored suit, that was kind of a revolutionary statement because they were adopting the uniform of male power and authority,” says historian Valerie Steele, the Director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
The pandemic brought about another re-evaluation of what constitutes appropriate office attire, and, to a certain extent, accelerated changes that were already underway.
“Before this pandemic, we saw people wanting more comfortable clothes and people saying, ‘Well, we should really be allowed to wear jeans to work. We should be allowed to wear flat shoes to some offices,’” adds Steele. “So with the pandemic, people were increasingly wearing comfortable sweatshirts, t-shirts, sneakers, into the office once a week and they weren’t running into very many people. Now, some people are really happy because it’s a chance to dress up again.”
Steele is among them. While she traded her structured black trousers and blouses for clothes that don’t have to go to the dry cleaners during most of the pandemic, she’s eager to return to what she calls “high-maintenance clothes.”
At Neiman Marcus, Greenberg saw a spike in demand for brands like Gabriela Hearst, Punto, Lafayette 148, and Veronica Beard as well as little casual day dresses from Trina Turk, Milly, Misa Los Angeles and Cinq à Sept.
“Our customers are looking for a more relaxed, relevant, and versatile wardrobe for now,” Greenberg adds. “Separates have become more popular because they give women more choice, either to coordinate a matching set or to dress pieces up or down. Knitwear continues to be an elegant way to dress up more casual looks with denim or leather. And we expect office attire to be more casual than pre-pandemic. The collections we like offer more options than ever before.”
For Fei, that means reclaiming her visual identity in a business setting. If dressing down makes you feel more you, then why not? Being comfortable is intrinsically linked with confidence. “Who am I impressing on Zoom these days?” Quips Fei. While others are celebrating dressing up and taking special care to make sure there is a clear divide between office and home life.
“I do occasionally go into the physical office when I have an important meeting,” says Patrick. “It almost feels like costume dressing to put on a suit. Sometimes I feel like I am pretending to be my former self.”
In 2022, putting on a suit to work may no longer feel like playing dress-up. At a time of uncertainty around the workplace, a more grown-up wardrobe for days may be one approach to feeling more comfortable and, well, at home, there. It may be hopeful thinking, but isn’t that the point of fashion, anyway? Auntie Mame thought so, and today’s more adventurous dressers do, too. They’re the ones trading slouch for structure, sweats for sequins, and swapping Zoom tops for head-to-toe outfits ripped from Emily in Paris. It may be time for the rest of us to follow their lead.
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