So, who really cares about what people wear when they work and why am I writing about it? In the last year, my own decisions about what I wear ‘to work’ have evolved along with my outlook on the limitations and opportunities of our circumstances. I have historically worn a classic shirt, trousers, shoes combination to work, whether that be at our own office or to visit clients. I would occasionally wear a suit for what I considered to be more formal meetings but didn’t spend a great deal of time thinking about how my clothes might impact what I am doing.
For me, this continued through the first few weeks of lockdown because I didn’t consider anything different. What I noticed was that most people that I would ordinarily see in similar attire started turning up for work (virtually, of course) in t-shirts, hoodies, jeans and maybe shorts, and certainly as the warmer weather kicked in, summer wear became ubiquitous. Nothing unprofessional, just a very different style of physical appearance than I would have ever expected to be the norm amongst working professionals. I noticed this but I didn’t notice any obvious change in the style, tone or content of these meetings, despite looking for it. There was certainly no detriment caused due to a wardrobe change, but neither did there appear to be any upside … so who really cares about what people wear when they work?
Keeping up appearances
One school of thought is that your appearance says a lot about who you are, so in a working environment where there are less substantive measures of ability or contribution, how you look becomes a proxy for how seriously you are taken or it says something about your work ethic. These are terms I have heard countless times over the years, typically but not universally by older colleagues, and usually by someone who dresses in traditional business attire, the equivalent of a suit and tie. The need for social acceptance has meant that hoards of people joining the workforce have become accustomed to wearing clothes that they have never felt comfortable in, for the purposes of making a first or continued impression and in the hope of being accepted by people who have influence over their future.
When in Rome…
There is a certain logic to the power of cultural norms – if everyone in your place of work wears a yellow badge on their jumper, you start to feel like an outsider if you don’t. At the very least you are likely to enquire about it and understand why people wear it to clarify if you should be in that group. You start to develop mental maps of what is and isn’t the norm of your workplace and visual appearance is an easy one to identify, understand and comply with. But if we use the same logic, then when everyone is working in their home, is it work norms that apply or home norms? Is there a difference and if so, why? In my limited experience, the impression I have is that people have normalised to their home environment as the basis for deciding what to wear, not what they have traditionally considered to be work-appropriate. In cases where people have returned to their traditional place of work, I have seen the revised, more informal dress code become the norm in the same way that we used to dress for work even when we were working from home.
The role of comfort
The primary determiner, as far as I can tell, for what we now wear at work – regardless of where that is – is comfort rather than conformity. I don’t mean the comfort that I might get from staying in my pyjamas, but a combination of practicality, style and appropriateness as I see it rather than in a way that my company, manager or client would assess it. To be at my best, I need to not be second guessing the cultural norms or what kind of impression my clothes are making, but instead be in complete ambivalence of what I and others choose to wear and be able to focus entirely on the task at hand … and importantly, being suitably dressed for the interchange between work tasks and non-work tasks as the lines between the two get increasingly blurred.
Has the emphasis on appearance been replaced by the need for practicality and comfort? No, I don’t think so. I think the emphasis on appearance has been replaced by the need for substance and the sway towards comfort is a reaction to working from home, but one that I hope we accept as being meaningful for how people feel at work and how they show up being their best.