The pandemic has changed the way people dress. Should office wardrobes change, too?

·3 min read
Shoppers at the Metrotown mall in Burnaby, B.C., in July 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - image credit)
Shoppers at the Metrotown mall in Burnaby, B.C., in July 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - image credit)

After 18 months of working from home, some workers returning to the office this fall are re-evaluating what it means to dress for work.

Amy Robichaud, an executive director for the non-profit foundation Dress for Success Vancouver, says the pandemic has sped up the "casualization" of many workers' wardrobes.

"We've put an emphasis on not just physical comfort but psychological comfort," Robichaud said. Since the start of the pandemic, many working at home have switched to soft, comfortable clothes like leisure wear, sweat pants, leggings, sweaters and other casual items.

In some ways, Robichaud says, that's helped with work productivity.

"Studies have shown that when we dress comfortably and we feel comfortable in our own skin, our cognition is increased," she said.

"Our ability to think and process information is increased, which means for so many of us while we're sitting at home without the fear or judgment of how we look like or how we present, we've actually been better at our jobs."

Carlos G. Lopez/Shutterstock
Carlos G. Lopez/Shutterstock

But as more and more workers return back to the office, work clothing — and the expectations that come with it — can be a source of stress.

Robichaud, whose foundation helps women enter the workforce by offering professional attire and career services, says these expectations are often gendered.

"Men and women are held to a different standard," she said, noting that women are expected to keep up with fashion trends and use makeup, for example.

Robichaud says she hopes people can use the pandemic to push back on some of these standards.

"When we think about who we want to be in the future: I want to be someone who thinks clearly, so I'm going to continue to be comfortable and make sure my clothes are clean and I present well but I'm really focused on how does it make me feel versus dressing for somebody else's standard," she said.

Changing bodies

Robichaud said people are also grappling with how their bodies might have changed over the course of the pandemic.

She says fashion psychologist Shakaila Forbes-Bell has a useful way to describe what is happening. Clothing, Forbes-Bell says, allows us to imagine and reflect the person we want to be now, the person we want to be in the future and the person we fear we'll be.

"And so when we put on those hard pants or dress pants for the first time after 18 months, and they don't fit, we're confronted with the person we fear we'll be," Robichaud said.

"When we feel comfortable ... that gives us the confidence to think about the person we want to be in the future and when we look in the mirror and we feel good about how we present ourselves, that makes us feel good about who we are now."

Robichaud said our bodies have allowed us to survive the past 18 months and they should be celebrated.

"Who we are now is exactly who we needed to be right now to get here," she said.

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