Is this the end of business-casual?

It’s hard to believe that at the beginning of this year we were putting on our business-appropriate attire everyday. Now when we have to leave the house for an appointment or outing it feels weird, special, and dress-uppy to put on a pair of jeans. Who would have imagined jeans being considered dress-up attire?

A lot has changed in short order and much of it has to do with how we dress. Since the 1980’s the workplace has slowly become more casual. The “business casual” look sprung up in Silicon Valley in the ‘80’s and by the ‘90’s it was accepted as normal workplace fashion. Workers traded in their suit and tie for khakis and a polo. Towards the end of the 20th century, many workplaces were adopting “casual Friday’s” to embrace the changing workplace. They used casual Friday as an employee perk, a way for employees to feel like they were straddling work and the weekend. It’s funny how back then everyone looked forward to the day they could wear jeans — it just felt different, better, like we were cheating with permission. Some organizations even leveraged this day as a fundraising opportunity — if you gave a few dollars to this or that charity you could wear jeans on a designated day.

From the late ‘90’s into the 2000’s there has been a lot of debate over what is appropriate or allowed on normal workdays. We all longed for an “everyday-is-jean-day” policy. Once it snuck into our week and we got a taste, there was no turning back. This was our workplace prohibition! And the transition was hard on all of us. Are jeans okay everyday? What shoes? Are heels too dressy? And what about leggings? By the early 2000’s business casual was fully formed and most of the confusion was gone. Or was it?

Enter millennials: a generation known for constantly pushing the norms of traditions and of the workplace. Led by Mark Zuckerberg wearing sweatshirts and sneakers to important business meetings with global executives, the quizzical thinking fired up again, ”What can I get away with wearing now?”. And now in 2020 it feels like everyone works from home in literally whatever they feel like, their only care being what they look like from the neck up (full transparency I’ve worn my PJ bottoms on numerous zoom calls this year). It’s no surprise that we’re not really sure what kind of work-wear we’ll come back to when we come back to work… dare I say “if” we come back to a place called the workplace.

What do clothes have to do with work?
In this COVID climate “work clothes” don’t exist. For many this is their first time working from home, which can feel like you’re a fish out of water. Let’s be real, people seeing you in the bowl of the workplace afforded you some built-in accountability that you never believed you needed but now you may realize you do! Afterall, there are so many temptations pulling you away from work and who would know? And the question of “are PJ’s okay, everyday?”

Get up, get active, get clean, and start your day right — this is what the “experts” are advising. Yet, most people, given the choice, would rather wear loungewear or activewear than tailored pants and a collared shirt at home. It’s totally fine to put on clothes that make you feel comfortable and confident. However, the shift is key — changing up what you wear actually makes a difference, as it will signal a shift in your brain that it is time to work!

What happened to “dress for success”?
Some studies have stated that 61% of employees are more productive when the dress code is relaxed and nearly 80% find that their dress code isn’t useful. But clothing isn’t all about comfort, it can also help with confidence and perception. If we work in a place where everyone wears a suit, and you come to work in a suit, studies suggest you will feel the same as if you were wearing khakis in a business casual work environment. Now, if you wore that same suit to a Starbucks to start your shift as a barista, you might have a sense of confidence and power that would not only be felt by you, but seen by others around you.

“Power, by its nature, is relative,” — Abraham Rutchick, California State University psychology professor

Does our perception of people and their perception of us really change with different clothes?
Yale published a study in 2014 where they observed a group of men in suits, and a group of men in sweatpants and sandals. They were paired up to negotiate mock real estate sales. The men in suits were able to negotiate 10% more profit than their sweatpant-wearing competitors. The sweatpant group also had higher heart rate variability (an indicator of nervousness). The dominance was felt both ways — the men in suits felt more confident, and the men without them felt the negative perceptions of dressing in sweatpants. The way we dress is felt by ourselves and those around us.

The term “workleisure” was rolled out a few years ago but it didn’t stick, however the New York Times believes it will now. Workleisure purports to be the perfect balance of comfort and productivity; time will tell if it will find its way into the workplace, or stay at home. It’s telling that Ralph Lauren, Ann Taylor, and J Crew filed for bankruptcy in 2020, while Nike and Adidas are having record sales along with second-hand clothing stores like The RealReal, Poshmark or ThredUp. With extremely casual style now trending and tons of expensive threads sitting in closets, many specialists are also anticipating the decline of luxury clothes to continue to fall for the next 18 to 36 months. No one really knows where this will end up, but don’t be surprised if you see an executive walking to work in leisure-wear strolling by a homeless man in a really nice suit, yes, that’s ”wear” we might be heading!

Of course there will come a day where we put our heels and suits back on, it may not be in the workplace, but there will always be a worthy event to dress up for, presuming we haven’t donated all our dress-up clothes and a few high-end apparel stores are still in business.

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