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The new office wardrobe: Stretchy pants, flowy dresses and elastic waistbands on everything

Americans are returning to work and finding that sensibilities and dress codes have changed. With hybrid dressing, ‘all bets are off.’

(Hollie Fuller for The Washington Post)
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Abbey Slattery has been back in the office for a month but still isn’t sure what to wear.

The running shorts and oversize sweatshirts of her work-from-home routine don’t cut it at her copywriting job in Raleigh, N.C. But what about light-wash jeans or high-quality sweatshirts? Sussing out the new rules of office wear has become one big guessing game for her and her colleagues.

“We’re testing the waters, trying to figure out where the cutoff line is,” the 25-year-old said. “How can we push the office to be a little bit more casual than before? Do we need to be wearing dresses and slacks, or can we get away with jeans and T-shirts?”

Many Americans are migrating back to the office after more than a year of working from home to find norms have changed. Some companies — even more traditional ones such as banks and law firms — are relaxing dress codes while others are moving to hybrid work arrangements, blurring the lines between work attire and leisure wear. Many white-collar workers are done with belts, ties and dress shoes, choosing instead to pair polo shirts with blazers, and joggers with button-downs.

That’s left retailers updating their racks with more comfortable and versatile clothing. Pants are stretchier, dresses more flowy. And elastic waistbands are making their way onto pencil skirts and tailored slacks.

As life returns, so does Spanx

Ministry of Supply, a brand that specializes in comfortable business wear, recently sent thousands of suddenly outdated items back to the factory for a post-pandemic makeover. It’s slimming down pant legs, so they look good with sneakers, and hemming dress shirts to make them more flattering untucked.

“We’re hearing a lot of customers say, ‘I’m rebuilding my wardrobe,’" said Gihan Amarasiriwardena, president and co-founder of the Cambridge, Mass.-based retailer. “They’re seeing these garments in the back of their closets and realizing they’re from a different era.”

The pandemic dealt a massive blow to apparel retailers, forcing most to temporarily shutter stores and rethink their strategies. Sales plummeted 87 percent in the first two months of the pandemic, Census Bureau data shows, with business-wear brands hit particularly hard by the sudden shift to telework as demand for suits, loafers and sheath dresses dried up. At least two dozen major retailers have filed for bankruptcy during the pandemic, including Brooks Brothers, J. Crew and the companies that own Ann Taylor, Loft, Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A. Bank.

Now, as the country reopens, demand for office wear is returning — in new ways. Brooks Brothers, the bastion of buttoned-up business wear, is investing in more casual pieces in bright colors and bold patterns such as ladybug-emblazoned polo shirts. Men’s Wearhouse is selling camouflage-print T-shirts and floral button-downs. And Banana Republic is reconfiguring dresses to make them more comfortable, with removable belts and adjustable straps.

“We are seeing hybrid dressing: workwear meets evening wear meets leisurewear,” said Ana Andjelic, chief brand officer for Banana Republic. “All bets are off.”

Yes, the office is back. It just might never be the same.

The latest shift, fashion historians say, builds on 30 years of loosening corporate dress codes. Led by Silicon Valley, workplaces across the country have steadily transitioned from suits and ties, shoulder pads and pantyhose to more relaxed styles. The pandemic, which prompted nearly 50 million Americans to work from home, at least temporarily, further accelerated that movement.

“As people return to the office, the lines between what employers deem appropriate and what individuals want to wear are going to start rubbing together more than they have in the past,” said Deirdre Clemente, a professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, who studies the casualization of American attire. “You add in people’s desire to be comfortable and to wear what they want, and that’s going to drastically redefine what people wear to work.”

Banking giant JPMorgan Chase, for example, began allowing certain essential employees, including those in call centers, to wear T-shirts and sneakers at the beginning of the pandemic. Consulting firms, retailers and even law firms are also gradually easing up.

But while the erosion of traditional dress codes offers more choice and flexibility, it can also be confusing. Employers generally agree that certain items — such as cargo shorts and flip-flops — remain off-limits in the office. But what exactly is acceptable now? Navigating that middle ground, analysts say, is creating new challenges for white-collar workers who have traditionally relied on a rotation of business suits or shift dresses to get them through the week.

A number of retailers have begun training employees how to help customers put together new outfits. Nordstrom, where online searches for “work clothes” have soared 165 percent in recent months, is offering one-on-one virtual styling appointments and tapping sales staff to create videos with outfit tips and product advice. Meanwhile, Suitsupply’s website now offers three examples of how to wear many of its items — showing, for example, the same suit paired with a dress shirt and tie, T-shirt or polo.

“It sounds great: We’re going to be more casual when we go back to work,” said Fokke de Jong, founder of Amsterdam-based Suitsupply. “But it’s complicated, actually, for a lot of people. The hoodie won’t work. But if you’re going to do something between that and a suit, it leaves a lot of options.”

Categories such as dresses, leggings and tops, including polos and tunics, are forecast to grow by double digits this year, compared with sales growth of just 8 percent for business suits, according to market research firm Euromonitor.

Love them or hate them, Crocs are back

Sarah LaFleur, founder of women’s business clothing brand M.M. LaFleur calls the latest iteration of workwear “power casual.” It’s a step down from business casual and includes space for pieces such as cashmere joggers, silk pullovers and other mash-ups of comfort and professionalism currently featured on the “Back to Work” section of the retailer’s website.

“Regardless of whether they’re going to the office five days a week or three days a week, we’re seeing a lot of anxiety about what to wear to work,” LaFleur said, adding that the company began offering virtual styling during the pandemic. “A lot of customers are saying, ‘I just want to test the waters and put together a few items that can take me through the first weeks while I figure out what to wear.’ ”

The company, she said, has been gravitating toward more natural fibers such as silk and cotton, instead of the synthetics it once favored for their resistance to wrinkles and being travel-friendly. A line of T-shirts introduced early in the pandemic now make up more than 10 percent of overall sales, while the most popular dresses are more playful and relaxed than before, in bright colors such as red and yellow. The post-pandemic shopper “does not want to be squeezed into a stiff, tailored look,” said Miyako Nakamura, the company’s chief creative officer.

In Cambridge, Ministry of Supply is creating button-downs in knit fabrics and adding more quick-drying, moisture-wicking material to reflect its consumers’ growing preference for walking or biking to work instead of using public transportation. Pants of all kinds — jeans, trousers, slacks, joggers — also are in high demand, as long as they come with elastic or drawstrings, Amarasiriwardena said.

“Having a stretch waistband is super, super critical right now,” he said. “People are changing their expectations. They’re saying, ‘I need to be able to walk into the office with this, but also come home and feel comfortable wearing the same pants.’”

Americans are starting to buy real clothes again

After a year of working at home in jeans and Hawaiian shirts, Louis Quezon went back to the office last month with an updated wardrobe. He’s still wearing button-downs, ties and dress pants, but he says he’s gone up a size and is wearing more stretchy, breathable fabrics.

“I cried a little bit when I had to put slacks on in the morning,” said Quezon, 28, a corporate trainer for Dunn-Edwards Paints in Los Angeles. “But I’ve found there is some leeway. Things aren’t as tight or as tucked-in as they used to be.”

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