There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has had major impacts on our society, and everyday fashion hasn’t escaped its effects. Spending significantly more time at home has moved daily wear towards more comfortable, practical looks—but not necessarily in all the ways you might expect.
In this article, we’ll look at why and how COVID-19 is changing fashion, particularly workwear. Then, we’ll compare and update the top workwear pieces from our previous Work Wardrobe Essentials article with the new work wardrobe essentials we’re seeing in a post-lockdown world.
Why is COVID-19 impacting fashion?
Major events, like war or plagues, always alter the course of ideologies, customs, and emotions of society. These shifts, in turn, change the way people dress and make purchases. For example, the glitz and glamor of the roaring 1920s came in the wake of World War I and the Spanish flu in an effort to bring more fun and life back into society. World War II brought with it less formalwear and pants for women after women were working in factories for the first time.
With the coronavirus lockdowns and work from home mandates, we saw an almost instantaneous shift towards more leisurely and comfortable clothing. If you weren’t wearing pajamas every day, you were probably at least wearing sweatpants with a Zoom-ready blouse for a waist-up professional appearance. (Learn more about the COVID-19 fashion impact on consumers and brands with our breakdown here.)
It’s not just the ease of wearing more comfortable clothes at home, though. People didn’t necessarily lose their desire to dress up or get “lazy” with their fashion sense. In fact, there’s strong evidence that the opposite is true. People became even more purposeful with the clothing they chose to wear. We started prioritizing personal comfort and style over what we’re told we “need” to wear to fit in. We finally had the opportunity to wear clothes that actually make us feel good.
Moreover, studies show that what you wear impacts your psychology, so a lot of people leaned towards more comfortable clothing to instill a sense of mental and emotional comfort during such stressful and uncertain times. That’s because fashion is self-care: what you put on your body is just as important as other health and wellness self-care practices.
A lot of people also took the lockdown as a time to clean out their closets and minimize their belongings. Individuals started taking a deeper look at who they are and who they want to be, curating their closets and lifestyle to better fit their unique sense of self. Researchers at Xavier University discovered that during COVID, people were and are more likely to make spending decisions when they feel continuity between their present and future selves. They’re willing to spend money on higher-quality items that will become a longstanding part of their identity. Coronavirus gave us the time and space to glow up on the inside and out, and we don’t want to go back to conforming. That’s why the new workwear essentials reduce fashion rigidity and open the closet door to more flexible professional styles.
(Psst… find YOUR personal style with this fun quiz).
Heading back to the office
What happens as people start heading back into the workplace? How do we balance comfy clothes with a professional space? Although there have been major changes in daily fashion, there are still basic rules for the offices. Most workplaces, for example, still don’t want flip-flops or short shorts, even on casual days.
Some people are resistant to get back into uncomfortable clothes that don’t fit their identity. On the flip side, a lot of people are also excited to have a reason to dress up again after over a year of comfort-only clothes. (There was even a movement during the lockdown for voluntary dressing up at home, like the cottagecore trend.) It’s like a grown-up version of back to school, where you get to remake your wardrobe and identity with even more freedom of expression.
Altogether, individuals are looking for ways to blend workwear with leisurewear by introducing a new definition of “casual” to the office space. What does this middle ground of work fashion look like? Let’s take a look at some new work wardrobe essentials, as compared to our work wardrobe essentials article from pre-COVID times.
Psst… Looking to update your wardrobe? Shopping secondhand is a low-cost way to find timeless designer pieces that will be your new favorite essentials!
New Work Wardrobe Essentials
1. The white button-down is now the white tee
White button-downs will always be a classic staple, but tucked-in, fitted button-downs are now feeling too constraining for a lot of people. Many workplaces are thus moving towards a more hybrid wardrobe, with suits layered atop tees or knitwear instead of traditional button-downs. This allows for a more comfortable look and feel while still having an air of professionalism.
Quality white or black tees have become the go-to underneath suit jackets and blazers, both for men and women. (Good news is you probably already have a white tee in your closet. Just remember that quality matters, especially when it comes to dressed down pieces like t-shirts.)
That doesn’t mean button-downs are “out,” though. We’re still seeing a lot of button-downs, but they’re popping up in more comfortable fabrics. There’s a particularly strong movement towards moisture-wicking work shirts, as a lot more individuals are walking or biking to work as opposed to taking public transportation.
2. The black blazer is still in, but make it unstructured
People expected that working from home would kill the traditional suit, but that hasn’t happened. We’re still seeing suit jackets in the office, but tailored suits have made way for stretchy and unstructured jackets. Unstructured, looser blazers have less padding and are less form-fitting. This keeps the look comfortable while dressing up more relaxed clothes underneath, like tees and jeans. (But don’t pair blazers with sweats!)
Black blazers will always be a staple of the workplace. They’re easy to mix and match, they’re a neutral and timeless color, and they hide stains well. When in doubt, black is usually a safe color choice!
Check out these 9 amazing ways to style a blazer!
3. Dresses and skirts are flowier
One of the major losses of work wardrobe essentials is the pencil skirt. While it’s not out of style to wear a pencil skirt (and it likely never will be), there’s a significant transition from pencil skirts to more flowy, free-form skirts and dresses. Women are opting for looser silhouettes that increase comfort levels for long days at the office. We’re also seeing hemlines move more towards the knee-calf, with midi skirts becoming the go-to for work and home wear.
Short sleeve dresses are still a wardrobe must-have, and they work especially when paired with an unstructured blazer. Knit dresses (and blouses) are the go-to style for workwear because they’re snug yet polished. Plus, knits are one of the longest-lasting clothing pieces, making them a great investment for your wardrobe and wallet.
4. Black pants are getting more stretchy
Did we mention we love black? Because we do! Black pants are always going to be an essential for the office, but different seasons tend to see different hemlines, silhouettes, and fits of black pants.
But one change that COVID has made in the pants department that we hope is here to stay forever… elastic waistbands and drawstrings on work pants. Several fashion designers are creating workwear that looks traditional but feels like yoga pants (or even sweatpants). Comfort and professionalism! We’re all for this shift; if elastic waists ever start to go away, can we all agree to host a fashion revolution?
You’ll want to check out these 10 comfy yet chic athleisure looks!
5. Pumps and loafers are equally loved
Pumps are always going to be a favorite for work and play, but they’re now a nice-to-have instead of a must-have in the office. A lot of women are wearing sensible, comfortable flats and loafers for daily wear with pumps as a “special” workday shoe. On the other hand, plenty of women are still wearing heels on the regular to dress up outfits that are otherwise dressed-down (like a nice white tee with dark denim). So go with the shoe you feel most comfortable in!
Not sure what shoes to wear now that we’re moving towards a professional-casual work environment? Check out our guide to high heels for tips and tricks!
6. Tote bags are a must-have
Tote bags were on our original work wardrobe list, and they haven’t gone anywhere. While oversized totes (that border on luggage) are off the hot list, moderately sized totes that can fit your laptop and basic work gear are still essential.
Structured totes are popular because they add a polished look to even dressed-down outfits. Neutral totes will be a great investment for years to come, but you can also play around with bright colors and fun prints if you want your bag to be your go-to accent piece.
7. Sustainable, comfortable fabrics are everywhere
Even for those work outfits and silhouettes that are staying the same, there’s a push towards more comfortable and sustainable fabrics. This means natural fabrics like silk, cotton, cashmere, and linen are hitting the scene instead of synthetics—and we are thrilled about this! These materials also last longer in the fashion cycle and, when their time does come, they can break down and not stay in landfills for as long as synthetics.
Silk blouses have been a part of the work wardrobe, but they’re particularly revving up speed now, and we expect they’ll stick around for decades to come. They’re lightweight and soft, perfect for layering. Plus, they don’t wrinkle easily, so you can go from the couch to work (and back) with the same shirt on!
8. Accessories are queen
Accessories are hitting workwear harder than ever before. Small, dainty jewelry has always been considered professional, and it’s still a perfect option if you love daintier pieces. For example, diamond studs and pearl necklaces will always be elegant and timeless basics.
But, if you like bolder accessories, it’s your time to shine. Shoes, jewelry, handbags, and even sunglasses are all hitting the boardroom in new and exciting ways. From larger pieces to bold colors, it’s becoming less frowned upon to wear exciting jewelry as part of your fashion statement. Accessories are also a great way to elevate a more comfortable, dressed-down outfit for the workplace.
9. Neutrals are forever, but so are colors
Neutral colors, like white, black, beige, and navy, are always going to be in style. They’re easy to mix and match with just about any outfit, and they don’t have any associated seasonality with them. If you’ve read our French “it” girl style article, you’ll know that neutrals are the cornerstone of a fashionable closet.
With that said, COVID is also bringing out each of our own unique personalities and identities. That’s why we’re also seeing a lot of bright colors, florals, and prints entering the workplace at unprecedented rates. It’s not just about comfort—people want to express themselves, even at work. They want to dress happy and be themselves—and you should too!
So, stock your closet with neutrals, but don’t be afraid to play around with colors and patterns that speak to your soul.
10. Accent pieces are more than just one power color
The outfit’s accent piece used to be a bold lip or a patterned purse or a colorful shoe. Now, though, we’re seeing accent pieces in other parts of workwear, like graphic tees or fun hairstyles. As individuality is shining through, there’s now a strong pairing of key work wardrobe essentials with fun, unique accent elements shining through. As long as it’s work-appropriate and you’ve “okayed” it with your team, try out something new and bold!
11. It’s all about making conventional workwear more practical and comfortable
Overall, the new essentials are those that are sensible, comfortable, and show off our own sense of style—not what the workplace dictates we should wear. The essentials are those things that we want to wear five days a week and those pieces that can accompany us to work, on our commute, with friends, and hanging out at home. Casual isn’t the name of the game; it’s all about practicality and personality.
The newest and most important work wardrobe essential is personality. Let’s start celebrating our differences and how they contribute to the team!
What are your new must-have workwear essentials?