Office wear becomes casual as employees seek comfort

Business professionals are going back to the office, but formal wear in the workplace is not following.

After two years of doing everything from home, workers are defying archaic dress codes and seeking casual and versatile outfits when they return to the office, fashion pros say.

Menswear, in particular, is seeing a seismic shift in trends, with elevated sportswear, casual jackets and other hybrid apparel entering the office as ties, suits and dress shoes are clocking out, said Adam Percival, national tailoring and sales training leader at luxury menswear retailer Harry Rosen.

“One thing COVID has taught everyone is that comfort is king,” Percival said.

A survey of more than 500 office workers in Canada and the US by digital media company Captivate seems to confirm this. As it turned out, more than half of those who responded said every day is starting to feel like Casual Friday.

About 43 percent of employees who work in the office or in a hybrid environment say they see more jeans in the office; 28 percent said more colleagues are wearing T-shirts; and seven percent noticed more pajamas in the workplace compared to before the pandemic. Five percent of respondents said people dress more formally than before.

Customers are looking for clothes that are versatile and can be worn for more than one occasion, Percival said, noting that casual wear — such as safari coats and sports jackets — is making a comeback among working professionals. Jean-style pants made of gray or brown cotton instead of denim are also gaining traction, he said.

Percival believes the changes in how and where we work, especially with the rise of hybrid work models, are impacting how white-collar workers dress for their day.

“Your day is not what it was before the pandemic – structured from nine to five. Working days are less predictable now’, he says.

“When I look at the evolution of my own way of dressing, I was basically a suit man and now I’m starting to dress more casually,” says Percival, who now works all day in different locations and prefers more comfortable and versatile clothing.

“Maybe I’ll go to the office in the morning and have a meeting. In the afternoon I might go to a shop or some outside suppliers. Maybe I work in the car.”

Michael Starr, owner of Jerome’s Menswear in downtown Toronto, said comfort and stretch have become more important to his customers in recent months. While many men still like to wear a full suit, some unbutton the top button of their collars and unbutton their ties.

Others are migrating to swackets — a cross between a sweater and a jacket — or prefer more breathable materials like a jersey cotton, Starr said.

While the pandemic has spurred the shift from formal wear to more casual wear in the office, the trend toward casual wear had already started before the shift to work from home.

Sportswear, streetwear and casual wear became increasingly common in the office in late 2010, said Henry Navarro Delgado, a fashion graduate program director of the Creative School at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University).

“The pandemic was just the final nail in the coffin for formal wear,” he said.

Before the pandemic, many workplaces were considering issues of diversity, equality and inclusion, Navarro Delgado said. This leads to greater acceptance of clothing that allows employees to express their individuality.

“We may think of comfort in terms of the functionality of a garment, but there is also comfort in terms of the identity of the person wearing that garment,” said Navarro Delgado.

So there’s already an erosion of the preppy look that comes with working in an office, or a bank, or any of these formal settings, he said.

For some business professionals, the shift to more casual attire in the workplace is simply to save money, said Catherine Connelly, a Canada Research Chair and human resources and management professor at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business.

With the cost of living soaring and inflation not seen since the 1980s, “the idea of ​​having a completely separate wardrobe for work can be very expensive,” especially if employees don’t work full-time in the office, Connelly said.

Tailored suits often require dry cleaning, which is an added expense, Connelly said, while casual clothes can be washed at home.

What was considered appropriate attire for the office has changed over the decades.

In the 1990s, the so-called “dotcom boom” brought in a new generation of tech professionals “who pioneered jeans, T-shirts and sometimes shorts in office settings,” said Navarro Delgado.

The Casual Friday movement also became more accepted during that time, Connelly said. “Initially, the idea was that you would pay $1 for the right to wear jeans on Friday, and that dollar would go to charity or to the company party,” she said.

The early 2010s marked a return to more traditional styles, including traditional suits, Navarro Delgado said.

While casual wear is regaining popularity in the workplace, sales of tailored clothing, such as suits and tuxedos, are still growing.

At Harry Rosen, this is very opportunity-driven, according to Percival.

“Men definitely buy suits to go to events, but they don’t really wear them to the office anymore,” Percival said. “So we’re still in business with costumes, but we’re doing it for a different purpose.”

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