Its undeniable, work fashion is changing. Long gone are the days of men wearing suits and hats, and women wearing tailored wool suits over silk blouses. Even in the past 40 years workplace fashion has changed, but in the past 5 years it has accelerated. COVID-19 induced Zoom calls has also encouraged a more relaxed attitude towards what we consider appropriate clothing in the workplace.
Fashion is a complicated process with an ever-evolving, context-specific, highly personal behaviour, influenced by culture and the environment we live in. The first step in trying to understand it is taking a step back and looking at the roots.
History of work clothes
It all started back in the 1600s where lawyers, civil servants, and other professionals began working from offices in London, Amsterdam, and Paris. Fast-forward to the 17th Century, and the birth of the suit – or a rough, distant cousin of the one we all know today. Breeches that reached to the knee, shirts frosted with lace, vests, and a cape to top the outfit off. This was primarily a way to display how wealthy you were depending on the type of fabric used.
In the 19th Century it was uncommon to see women in the workplace. This era was full of tight corsets made with Whalebone stays and horsehair which made for an incredibly uncomfortable and itchy outfit. Men wore a closer relative of the typical suit we know today. However, the Europeans were having fun with frock coats, striped trousers, and top hats.
The era around the first world war dramatically changed workplace fashion. Watch fobs were replaced with army issue watches in an effort to make the outfit more practical. Rationing also meant that to conserve fabric, suits were slimmed down. As a reaction to the restrictions on fabric, a French designer produced billowy skirts which were very popular during war times.
The 60s and 70s saw a riot of bright colours and exciting patterns. Innovative technology introduced the creation of polyester and other synthetic fabric and apparently everyone appeared to be wearing power suits.
Now of course, thanks to COVID-19, you could be in a Zoom call with your team while wearing pyjamas and no on would think twice.
COVID – zoom culture
As we all know, COVID-19 has forced many to replace their commute from the office, to the lounge in the comfort of their own home. A new culture of sifting through your emails with homemade coffee and your cat in your lap has been born. This sudden, dramatic change in lifestyle has already had a big effect on workplace fashion.
According to research conducted by NPD, only 10% of people dress formally when working remotely from home. Another interesting stat is the infamous “Zoom shirt”. A tidy shirt exclusively worn sporadically for those pesky Zoom calls which 42% of remote workers have admitted to using. Interestingly enough, most Zoom shirt users have admitted that they feel more productive and respected when wearing the shirt. This could be an ode to pre-COVID workplace culture or simply implying that working from home is not as effective as in the office.
Admittedly, the zoom shirt culture is not as predominate here in New Zealand as it is in the states. However, many businesses these days are encouraging their staff to work from home at least one day a week in an effort to ease the impact of another potential lockdown.
What to expect in the future
No one can tell the future, but we can try. COVID has shifted people’s idea of what standard workplace clothing is. It’s not uncommon now to see executives swapping out their briefcases for backpacks. Dress codes have been relaxing for a while now and Zoom culture is only going to encourage it. We see shorts and T-shirts in the future.