The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Returning to the office means wearing fancy clothes again. Or at least nicer leggings.

(Yifan Wu for The Washington Post)
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Tami Wells Thomas is an attorney who also serves as a part-time magistrate judge in Newton County, which is about 40 miles outside of Atlanta. While her legal practice remains entirely virtual, she has been going into the courthouse to hear cases by video conference.

She dresses up for these occasions because she sees business attire as one of the guard rails of decorum. It encourages professionalism. It reflects a seriousness of purpose. It aligns everyone on the same page.

But at the moment, workwear is a kind of split-screen aesthetic in which people such as Thomas have eagerly returned to form . . . and others most definitely have not. Which is how Thomas came to face the video screen with the young man reclining in bed.

“I’m sitting in my chair in a [judicial] robe,” Thomas says. “He was in his bed. Like, chillin’. ” “He was a defendant,” Thomas recalls. “But it wasn’t a criminal matter, so I guess he didn’t care. But it’s still court.”

What did judge Thomas say to the aggressively comfortable gentleman who appeared to be in his late 20s? Nothing. But Thomas’s silence should not be mistaken for approval.

“The computer gives people, I think, a sense of comfort: We’re coming into your home, so I guess we should accept you as you are,” Thomas says. “But it negates the process.”

The future of workwear is not pajamas — of this Thomas is certain. Nor is it loungewear or sweats. It may be, in part, defined by leggings, but even then, the leggings are likely to mimic actual pants.

That’s what Lululemon says, and Lululemon knows everything there is to know about this country’s collective obsession with personal comfort.

“We feel that consumers will require comfort going forward, but will be looking for something that’s a little more dressed up,” says Sun Choe, chief product officer at Lululemon.

To wit: “We launched a pant called the City Sleek.”

They are not typical leggings, says Choe (pronounced SHAY). They are looser. They are cut in the style of a “five pocket-like jean, but constructed more comfortably.”

These five-pocket leggings will not leave the wearer with the illusion that she is naked, which is the aim of many of the brand’s classic offerings. One does not want to go back into the office and sit in a meeting with the boss feeling naked. Instead, the City Sleek pants will offer the sensation of being gently supported in one’s return to normalcy.

“I think it’s a really cool time right now, actually, for apparel and fashion to see how this mash-up of performance and what used to be known as ‘workwear’ is going to blend so that the consumer doesn’t have to give up on function and comfort,” Choe says.

As much as people have reveled in their at-home informality, they also speak of a desire for normalcy, a condition marked by a return to the office — with all its bells and whistles. They want to wear the clothes that have gathered dust in their closet. They want to wear all those clothes that still have price tags on them because the restaurants closed, the theaters went dark and the parties were all canceled before they could be debuted. They want leggings, but a dressier version.

A stubbornly optimistic fashion industry believes professionals will emerge from their work-at-home cocoons longing for a happy medium: somewhere between dour, constricting suits and cartoon-printed PJs. They will look for ease in their trousers and a looseness in their tops. They will seek color in their fabrics and a bit of joy in their prints.

And so it was that Tom Ford, known for his strictly tailored menswear, unveiled a collection full of light and poetry during New York’s mostly digital Fashion Week. In a statement, Ford explained his thinking. “I can only hope that by the time these clothes reach the stores in spring ’21 that it will be a more optimistic time. A time when we can all perhaps breathe a sigh of relief and begin to return to our lives as we knew them,” he noted. “The global zeitgeist always effects fashion and for me this longing for a hopeful spring translates into somewhat classic, relaxed clothes but clothes that make me smile.”

Designers made New York Fashion Week happen. Sort of.

Thomas, who grew up in Decatur, Ga., and whose aesthetics are shaped by a bit of old-fashioned Southern formality, has been dressing for the courthouse with gusto because it brings her pleasure.

“It was an opportunity to put on real clothes completely, not just from the waist up where you can see me, but, like, completely. The heels that I didn’t get to wear, I want to put those on. I want to put them on for a little bit,” says Thomas, 48. “When I’ve gone into the courthouse, most of the staff continually dressed in their business attire because they wanted to feel like life was normal.”

She was also among the lucky who had been able to continue doing jobs from home, settling into a routine built on a foundation of comfort, of rolling out of bed for a five-minute commute. Even those who were once rigorous in their workday attire let down their guard. And for a while, that felt good.

In ordinary times, Bill Kocis, who works in luxury residential real estate in Manhattan, was a man who wore formal business dress every day. His socks would complement his tie. His teenage daughter was convinced that he slept in a suit.

When he was working from home, everything became virtual, including apartment tours. He didn’t have to be on camera. He took to spending his day in jeans and a baseball cap.

But then, he returned to his office. He still doesn’t see that many people in person. But the pleasures of extreme informality, the ones he’d embraced in the spring, had given way to a desire to get on with life, a life that was predicated on full suit-and-tie regalia.

And so on a weekday afternoon, he was in his office — well, technically he was in a plexiglass cube — wearing a blue Paul Smith suit and a yellow geometric patterned tie.

“When I put my suit on, I really feel like I’m a different Bill. I honestly feel like I perform differently; I think differently,” says Kocis, (pronounced KO-sis). “When I’m relaxed, sometimes I let my guard down a little bit or I’m a little more lax.”

“So much of real estate is, well, it’s being psychologically helpful to people. I often feel that I’m holding hands, not literally, but you know, emotionally. I also think that it’s a bit of a show, literally and figuratively,” says Kocis, 56. “If I’m going to show somebody my bank statements and my tax returns, they’re going to know everything about me. They have to trust you.” And Kocis believes that they are more comfortable trusting a guy in a business suit than one in a sweatsuit.

The business lunch will be back — because Zoom can’t replace it

Travis DeRamcy is also in the habit of separating people from their money, as he works in fundraising and marketing for a nonprofit based in Chicago. Before the crisis, his office’s dress protocol was business casual. Now that he’s back in the office after three months out, the protocol has shifted to what might best be described as casual business casual. Employees can wear shorts. And jeans. And sandals. And they do — especially the men.

But there are also limits, says DeRamcy, 53. Psychological ones. “Maybe last week my manager came in the office and she was dressed in a business suit. And I’m like, ‘Oh, you have a donor meeting today, do you? Are you having a lunch?’ And she was like, no, I just kind of felt like, you know, feeling normal again.”

Business attire — at least some element of it — is a marker of life-as-it-once-was that people seem to crave. There’s also the matter of a closet filled with new clothing that was purchased out of civic duty as alarms were sounded for saving small businesses. Those who responded to the call will not be denied their own personal runway show.

“I like to support minority-owned businesses and women-owned businesses,” says Thomas, 48. “If I bought it, it’s not to hang up in my closet.”

She will wear her suits and her sheaths to the courthouse, where her colleagues join her in their own business attire. Their workplace is once again a professional community. And a place where, hopefully, no defendants will arrive dressed for bed.