A less uniform approach to workwear attire

June 7, 2021

Going ‘business casual’ for major meetings and conferences may be in vogue in 2021 but it is not for everyone.

Certainly not in the House of Commons, even the online version. When Stoke Conservative MP Jonathan Gullis was about to take part in a virtual debate in February, he tried to speak from his kitchen in a jumper.

But deputy speaker Dame Eleanor Laing was having none of it and refused to allow him to join proceedings until he put a jacket on.

“The honourable gentleman has to be dressed as if he were here in the chamber,” she said.

And he did indeed join the debate once he had done so a few minutes later.

Mr Gullis, it seems, was not among the large proportion of home workers who had a smart shirt or blouse hanging on the back of the nearest chair for those Zoom emergencies.

Although there is no precise dress code for the Palace of Westminster, rules state men must wear jackets, although ties are not needed, while jeans, T-shirts, sandals and trainers are deemed inappropriate.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the business outfit is changing dramatically for men and women. Even Goldman Sachs announced last year they had relaxed their dress code and asked staff to exercise “good judgement” in what they wore to the office.

With such shifts in mind, Colin Young examines how the pandemic has changed what we wear to work forever.

A question we could never have envisaged asking ourselves circa December 2019…

‘What’s my best Zoom outfit?’

Prior to the pandemic, Zoom was still just a Fat Larry’s Band ditty for most of us and Teams were just, well, teams. But even those in the know, could surely never have imagined that within days and weeks, if not hours, of that first lockdown being imposed last March, these online video conference chat apps would become such an integral part of our lives, at work and in play.

And with millions forced to abandon the office completely to work from home, so the need to dress properly, particularly from the waist up, has become an important part of our day.

In fact, it is estimated that, at the height of the pandemic last year, almost 80 per cent of those working remotely had a smart shirt or blouse close at hand for the online conference calls. Formally informal, smart but casual, loose and leisurely – anything but the pyjamas.

We have all faced the challenge of selecting the correct attire for our appearances in those little on-screen boxes with our work colleagues, and even with family and friends.

Even before coronavirus short circuited all our lives, increasing numbers of office-based businesses, particularly in the tech industry, and following the lead and needs of a younger generation, had started to adopt a more relaxed attitude to clothing at work – no ties, open- necked shirts, comfy shoes and non- uniform Fridays.

After a year of dressing for ourselves, rather than the boss, those relaxed pre-weekend days, which once had the feel of an end of term games day, could eventually be expanded to a whole working week.

According to research commissioned by The Office Group, just 12 per cent of adults plan to return to a traditional, formal look when they go back to the office and instead, 72 per cent will adopt a ‘smart casual’ look, while 29 per cent aim to be more experimental and ‘playful’ with their post-pandemic style.

The research also revealed 38 per cent of workers will aim for the feeling of ‘comfort’ achieved through the dressed-down approach that typified lockdown, and 22 per cent now want their workplaces to have a ‘home from home’ feel.

Newcastle charity Smart Works was set up in the city more than three years ago to provide interview advice and outfits for women.

Once their clients have a confirmed job interview, volunteer stylists help them select the ideal outfit for their interview, which is theirs to keep, before guiding them through interview techniques with coaches who have HR and senior management experience.

Successful candidates can then look forward to a second dressing appointment when they will have the opportunity to expand their works wardrobe and add four or five pieces to their personal collection.

The Smart Works stock comes from a number of different sources, relying on donations from the public to their MEA House offices in Ellison Place, and at their regular fundraising events across

the region, plus generous donations from local and national retailers and clothing companies.

Their next donation day was planned to take place in early June and the latest request for clothing was perhaps an indication of the future alternative landscape in workplace fashion with flat shoes, slim-legged trousers and plus-sizes among the main priorities.

The charity’s Helen Boyd says they had started to see a move towards less formal outfits over the last 18 months and the trend started before the first signs of coronavirus were even detected in China.

“Working from home has changed the way we dress for work,” says Helen.

“Many of us have been on Zoom calls and we tend to look smarter from the waist up, and more casual on the bottom half.

“An interview outfit is definitely more formal than something you might wear for the job, such as in a care home or the hospitality industry.

“So, you might wear a jacket and trousers for the interview, but you may be given a uniform for the job, or it is just more practical to wear everyday, machine-washable outfits to work in.

“It will be interesting to see what is perceived as the ‘normal’ work outfit and how it will change and evolve over the next few years.

“We’ve already seen a shift towards more comfortable outfits and much less demand for the work suit, shirt and blouse and rigid uniform.

“Comfort is certainly the number one priority now, I think.

“Even before COVID-19, dress codes were gradually relaxing in the workplace.

“It depends on the company, the employer, your boss of course – there are many different factors – but the attitude towards how we dress for work, and for interviews, particularly among younger people, were definitely becoming more casual.

“The lockdowns have probably sped up that process.

“And because a lot of people will still be working from home, or combining the two, dress codes will be more fluid – depending on the business and the company – and if people want to dress for work in more casual outfits.

“I think they will increasingly find the confidence to do so.

“Many people have told us they have looked forward to dressing up again after so long being at home, unable to see colleagues in the flesh and to feel smarter for work.

“On the other hand, many find the prospect genuinely daunting and dread the idea of wearing formal suits or heels again, whether for that first interview, or every day.

“Either way, comfortable shoes will definitely be the way forward!”

Sophie Milliken, chair of Smart Works Newcastle, adds: “It is great to be back offering face-to-face appointments to women and we are looking to increase the number of service days we provide.

“A key part of our growth strategy is to expand our reach across the whole of the North East and our virtual service will support this.

“Our regular donation days will provide a much-needed pipeline of clothing and we are announcing details of our new volunteer drive shortly.”

Shorts and flip flops may be stretching it but there is no doubt that office wear will be changing.

Walk into any IT department prior to March last year, and the signs that the tie was becoming an endangered species were already there.

Lockdown has helped rip up the dress code. It has reached the point where the man in the suit and tie will be the office rebel now.

Face-to-face meetings will still dictate the need for smartness but dressing for yourself, rather than the boss, will also be important, particularly among younger workers who would prefer to keep tie- wearing to weddings.

Sunderland menswear stylist Master Debonair is about to expand from its Boldon base to a new three-storey store at Mackie’s Corner in the city centre and the new layout, featuring an entire floor dedicated to casual clothing, reflects the change in demand since it was first forced to close due to coronavirus.

Lauren Robinson, head of ecommerce, says: “We are suit retailers, that is our bread and butter.

“But once lockdown hit, people started working from home, weddings were cancelled and offices shut down. “We had dabbled in casualwear before, but we hadn’t had the chance to fine tune it and during lockdown we had a chance to look at the demand and started to bring it in things like chinos, polo shirts and smart joggers.

“People wanted to be comfortable working from home and not sitting round in a tweed blazer all day.

“As long as you are still presentable it is perfectly fine to dress more casually for work.

“Demands have changed, and we have met them.

“Our highest demands are still for weddings and tailoring with a backdrop of casualwear.

“Our idea is to own a man’s suitcase here and we are adding more elements of mens’ lives in the stores. “And we see that in the way people browse in the shop and are increasingly looking at casualwear.”