No pajamas at the office, please

For the last year, my work wardrobe consisted largely of jeans, Birkenstocks and a Zoom-acceptable top. So with back-to-the-office looming, I went to an actual mall to catch up.

This is what I saw:

Elastic. A lot of elastic.

Gone, or at least diminished, were rows of sharp business suits I’d previously perused. In store after store, I saw women’s “workwear” that was long and flowing, soft and loose, stretchy pants and lightly cinched elastic waists forgiving of stay-at-home indulgences.

With the caveat that this sobering surge may alter return-to-the-office plans: What will dressing for work look like at this point in the pandemic?

Because already, we’re trickling back: The Tampa Downtown Partnership says at least anecdotally, property managers report about 30 percent of the workforce is live and in person. And many of us will return as employees who’ve been taking great comfort in soft cotton shirts and yoga pants.

Now: “work leisure.” (Which has to better than the “athleisure” that made it acceptable to wear gym clothes anywhere short of a formal wedding.) Clothing retailers and manufacturers that took a hit in the pandemic are pivoting.

“The style for the workplace has evolved into a fusion of comfort and polish coming together to address the modern woman’s needs,” Macy’s told me when I emailed to ask what’s next. “This year’s back-to-work trends combine workplace classics with more comfortable pieces we know and love to better fit hybridized work schedules.”

We should probably get used to words like “hybridized,” too.

Employers are evolving as well. Raymond James Financial, where the plan is to be back Oct. 11 to a hybrid work environment, just announced a new dress code philosophy: Dress for your day.

“Dress appropriately for what is on your calendar that day,” said Chris Aisenbrey, chief human resources officer. “For some people, that will mean jeans and maybe a polo shirt. For others, it may mean traditional business attire.” Nothing as casual as pajama bottoms, beach cover-ups that double as dresses or your 1978 Rolling Stones tour T-shirt, but a change nonetheless.

Reaction? Aisenbrey said since announcing the policy, “I certainly have not had any emails saying this is the worst idea ever.”

In truth, Florida has always leaned toward casual. Pre-pandemic, I’ve seen passengers on planes in barely-covered-up bathing suits. And work dress codes have been softening since the day someone came up with casual Friday. A recent (masked and socially-distanced) trip to jury duty showed me we are definitely cutting ourselves a fashion break these days — I witnessed shorts, sandals and T-shirts.

Even big-name law firms — which tend to be more constricted wardrobe-wise given the formality of court — are adjusting to the moment.

“There’s a certain decorum that is necessary in the courtroom and I don’t see that changing,” said Ron Christaldi of Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick in Tampa. But he’s noticed non-court Zoom meetings skewing casual — as in, sometimes, he’s the only guy in a tie.

(An aside: Ties seem to me the equivalent of pantyhose, a fashion torture device no one could possibly be missing.)

“My philosophy as managing partner of the office is to have folks dress comfortably,” Christaldi said. “I don’t think we’ll be in shorts and flip flops in the office, but I do think we’re much more relaxed than we have been in the past on such things.”

Which, given the year-and-a-half we’ve had, might just include some of that forgiving pandemic elastic.

Returning to the office? After the year we’ve had, we may be dressing more casually. Think: elastic waists. to the office? After the year we’ve had, we may be dressing more casually. Think: elastic waists. Dreamstime/TNS
But are we ready for a ‘work leisure’ wardrobe?

By Sue Carlton

Tampa Bay Times