Just how casual will wardrobes become?

Photo: @Nodar via Twenty20
Oct 15, 2021

A survey from Randstad US, the recruitment agency, found that one-third of employees would prefer an informal dress code to an extra $5,000 in salary.

The survey of 1,200 employees was conducted in June 2019, well before the pandemic accelerated a casualization trend that has been evolving for over a century.

In a column for Time from 2015, historian Deirdre Clemente came up with three “milestones” capturing the casualization of America, starting with the introduction of sportswear that flourished during the Jazz Age.

The second was the acceptance of shorts, helped by the popularity of bicycling in the twenties and the Bermuda shorts craze in the forties.

Finally, the third milestone was seen as the “unisexing” of wardrobes that began in the fifties when it became acceptable for women to wear pants, a trend that blew up in the sixties when women embraced t-shirts, jeans, cardigans and button-down collared shirts.

Ms. Clemente, however, said “comfort and practicality” has long underpinned the shift toward relaxed dressing. Those underlying drivers have been accentuated during the pandemic. Although athleisure is often cited among the newer trends driving casualization, people are believed to have grown accustomed to comfy clothes when cocooning in their homes throughout the pandemic.

“After being home for a year and a half, nobody wants to update their wardrobe to a really high dress wardrobe,” Scott Baxter, CEO of Kontoor Brands, the parent of Wrangler and Lee, recently told CNBC.

Increasing acceptance of remote work is seen as another catalyst.

In reporting second-quarter results, Macy’s noted that traditional wear-to-work and dressy categories were showing some recovery as people began returning to social gatherings and offices.

Casual apparel trends remained strong, however, and retailers continue to carve out more space for casual and active assortments. A Wall Street Journal article from June questioned whether ties will “ever be relevant again?”

In August, Marks & Spencer announced it would only be stocking suits in 110 of its 254 larger stores. Wes Taylor, director of M&S menswear, told the Sunday Times,COVID hit fast forward on the trend to more casual dressing that was already in train.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see the pandemic becoming a milestone event accelerating the casualization of wardrobes? How much of a blow will tailored suits, dresses, high heels and other formal wear take from the pandemic and how long will it last?

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"It may not matter in a behind-the-scenes office setting, but will employees be taken seriously in customer-facing businesses if they’re dressed in sweats and tees?"

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28 Comments on "Just how casual will wardrobes become?"

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Mark Ryski

Pandora’s casual fashion box is open and there is no closing it now. Everything changed as a result of the pandemic, and wardrobe is near the top of the list. The fact is, for most people, causal is more comfortable and more practical — causal is here to stay.

David Naumann

Casualization of work wardrobe was a growing trend before the pandemic and now it has accelerated. However there still seems to be regional differences to accepted work attire. Comparing Silicon Valley to Wall Street is a prime example. Rarely would you ever see anyone in a tie in Silicon Valley, even CEOs (Steve Jobs was a good example). While there may be some regions or industries that hold onto formal attire norms, most employers will likely continue to relax dress codes.

Neil Saunders

There is a distinct trend towards casual, but it’s not all about looking totally informal and wearing sweatpants. A lot of ranges are now fusing comfort with elements of style – for example, pants in nice fabrics that look formal but have a sweatpants silhouette and an elasticated waist band. I also disagree with the view that no one wants formal. That isn’t true: many people still like it and want to dress up for certain occasions and there have been recent upticks in the sales of dressier apparel.

Bob Amster

Much to my chagrin, casual dress has taken over. However there is casual and there is tasteless and we should not confuse the two. Elegant sport clothing can be comfortable and attractive. Until suits make a comeback (if ever), I vote for elegant casual.

Lee Peterson

Funny but absolutely true. I was even looking at talk show hosts thinking, “why do you guys still wear ties?” Ties. How last century.

Jeff Sward

I still remember some good advice from the emergence of casual Friday. “Remember, it’s not Saturday.” Point taken. While we have clearly shifted into a more casual point of view across the board, that doesn’t have to mean dress standards have necessarily totally deteriorated. The introduction of stretch and the emphasis on comfort into tailored suits and suit separates give that classification a level of casual and comfort not previously experienced. Remember, it’s not Saturday.

Zel Bianco

No doubt that casual dress is here to stay but there are unfortunate consequences such as a huge hit on dry cleaners and retailers selling suits, ties, dress shoes and on and on. This will contribute to a big hit on retailers especially in major markets like NYC and Chicago.

Dick Seesel

“Corporate casual” and “dressy casual” overtook tailored clothing for men and women a long time ago, with some industry exceptions. Most tech companies relaxed their dress codes even further several years ago, especially as a recruitment tool for new hires coming from college.

The biggest question after the pandemic (whenever that occurs) is whether athleisure in the office presents an acceptable alternative to more buttoned-up casual clothes. It may not matter in a behind-the-scenes office setting, but will employees be taken seriously in customer-facing businesses if they’re dressed in sweats and tees?

Lisa Goller

If our wardrobe gets any more casual, we’ll be nude.

Yes the pandemic has smashed the status quo everywhere, including our daily fashion decisions. In general, we now regard our formal suits, tight pants and high heels with disbelief, as we replace constraining clothing with comfort.

For now.

Over the medium term, consumers will likely return to more formal attire as a backlash to our current uniform of comfort. We’ll go from dressing like Mark Zuckerberg toward dressing like Mr. Peanut. In time, more consumers will feel inspired to suit up and stand out.

Bob Phibbs

Confident people dress accordingly. If they are in sales or any kind of persuasion where someone will see them, I don’t see much changing. Ties are history but dressing to impress never goes out of style.

Steve Montgomery

There is no question that the increase in working from home during COVID-19 expanded the meaning of business casual. Casual Fridays became casual every day.

That being said I don’t expect sweatpants to be accepted as office attire any time soon. I do expect that more formal clothing will still be de rigueur in some companies’ offices and for certain special occasions.

David Spear

The era of mass casualization is here to stay, and the pandemic clearly accelerated this trend. Just look at what your colleagues are wearing during weekly Zoom calls or at a middle- to high-end restaurant or even at Sunday church. But I’d advise not to throw out dresses and suits (OK, maybe you can ditch the ties) because they’ll still be needed for many different occasions (work and pleasure).

Ryan Rosche

The pandemic has accelerated the wearing of casual wardrobes and the athleisure market but with a majority of companies moving towards a hybrid work environment, we may see a swing back in the other direction. The market won’t swing all the way back to business formal but there is a middle ground that will develop where athleisure meets business casual forcing brands to rethink their offerings. Consumers are going to want their clothes to be as flexible as their current work situation going from their home office to a business dinner.

Cathy Hotka

Politicians and bankers will continue to wear business wear, but I don’t see it elsewhere. Elevated casual wear is easy to find; I expect khakis and sports jackets for men in most settings.

Craig Sundstrom

Politicians and bankers will continue to wear business wear…. Cathy, I think you just gave it a death sentence! 🙂

Brian Cluster

Yes, 18 months working at home for individuals who never worked at home before definitely accelerated the casualization of wardrobes. However we already had casual clothing infiltrating business attire as early as the ’80s with the t-shirt and suit look similar to Miami Vice. I believe that suits and formal wear still have a place in business and in other formal settings. Individualism and standing out still matters and if everyone is wearing shorts and a gray t-shirt, how individualized is it? Smart professionals with higher career aspirations still have an opportunity to dress up and look the part of their aspired role and stand out. Mass casualization is here but many things will change like they always do, and we may see areas where business casual or formal wear becomes popularized a bit more.

Mel Kleiman

The only people who are going to be wearing suits, ties, and high-heeled shoes are lawyers and politicians, and even the most successful of those will dress down to a more casual look since that is what the people they deal with will want.

Georganne Bender

I still wear dresses and heels when speaking. If the group is more casual then I switch to jeans, a blazer and heels. It’s as much of a personal choice as it is respect for the client and audience.

Georganne Bender

Lisa Goller nailed it! Rich and I still work in industries where suits and ties and dresses and heels are the appropriate choice of attire. A lot depends on the industry.

I will never forget the time we were in our office putting it back together after getting new furniture. We were in jeans and sweatshirts. A saleswoman walked in and asked to see someone who worked there; I introduced myself. She said, “Sorry, I thought you were the cleaning people.” I may wear pajama bottoms while working at home but never in the office.

It’s too soon to write off everything other than sweats and athleisure wear, so I’ll just sit back and wait for the surveys that find that too casual attire affects job performance.

Craig Sundstrom

My story is just the opposite: I was flying back from Europe, and was wearing a suit (I guess so I wouldn’t have to pack it). A fellow passenger approached me for a drink, apparently mistaking me for a steward … I was fifteen years old.

Paula Rosenblum

Once you go casual, you never go back. I haven’t worn panty hose since 1992, and that’s the way it’s going to stay. In what universe do you do better work when you feel like you are encased in Saran Wrap?

Liza Amlani

The comfort category is here to stay and we had been seeing a decline in formal wear and suits way before the pandemic. Work from home accelerated the shift and I am all for it.

Merchants and designers need to continue to be creative to infuse comfort into categories outside athleisure. Formal wear and suits are not completely going away but the innovation in fabrics and textiles will definitely change the game for fashion.

Zel Bianco

It is unfortunate that this trend may stick. It’s not that I miss putting on dress clothes but think of the dry cleaners that will eventually go out of business – many already have. What about the thousands of retailers that are all about business dress – suits, ties, dress shoes and more? Yes, the Brooks Brothers and Men’s Wearhouses of the world will change with the trend but they will likely never be able to achieve the profit margins that suits generated.

Then again, trends are trends and even this one may not last forever. We may get tired of dressing causally and perhaps go back to a more business look in the days and years to come. That would certainly be a welcome change for many retailers and landlords who are trying to keep storefronts occupied.

9 months 26 days ago
How one dresses, what type of clothing one wears is as much about comfort (or discomfort) as it is about overtly or covertly transmitting signals about a person’s connection to a company, cause, or individual status. So, does casual attire align mostly with labor that can be performed by persons not so much in a lax but maybe less restrictive manner? Perhaps. But of something requiring a sense of solid foundation? You would expect persons in those situations to present themselves in a more established way. Otherwise, say, for the bank employee, from teller to officer, to appear “loose” could indicate to the viewer (customer) too-casual standards where structure is required. Meanwhile, many of the most successful people can dress however they want. Because looking down-trodden is something they can “afford.” However, try appearing like you “can’t afford the rent” when looking for investors’ money to build your business (or to join theirs). Lastly, it’s always been about underdressing and overdressing, and why the vast majority of people—though they may feel loathe to accept it—need… Read more »
Brandon Rael

Having lived through starting my career wearing suits and slowly migrating over to corporate casual Fridays, skinny jeans, and now more casual clothes with the WFH movement, it’s clear that the consumer behavior shifts are here to stay. However, with that said, casual and business casual apparel could still be quite stylish and trendy.

Retailers and fashion brands are now challenged to meet the changing consumer preferences and come up with comfortable, fashion-forward, and casual enough for both in-person and remote work. It’s clear, however, that the shifts from formal office attire to business casual are here to stay. Many of us haven’t had to wear a suit and tie or formal clothing other than special events.

Craig Sundstrom

Hmmm: 6% of the voters work for Nordstrom. No, seriously, if I were a retailer dependent on dress … work … let’s just call it “nice” clothing, I’d be worried about my future. I’m sure,confident hoping it has a future, but it’s hard to believe it’s going to be what it once was (talk of “resurgence in wardrobes” comes from people who either have a vested interest — no pun intended — in seeing that or are delusional). I don’t think the pandemic has much to do with it — though it certainly didn’t help — as we’ve been on a downward path for a long time.

Carlos Arambula

There is “casualization” of wardrobe, but that’s currently aided by supply issues. There is also “new-tech” fabrics and weaves that have been adopted during the pandemic and, as soon as supply issues are addressed, will appear in business and formal wardrobes.

Narratives from retailers tell that consumers are attempting to enhance wardrobes, try new fashions, and generally take several fashion steps forward. However, the lack of dressy inventory (dress shirts, shoes, heels, dresses and accessories) is preventing consumers from achieving their fashion best.

Once supply issues are addressed, we will have a better idea of the true fashion trends.