Smart Living: What Does Workplace Dress Code Look Like Post-COVID?

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After two-plus years spent working remotely in our loungewear, it seems no one really knows what to wear to the office anymore. As more and more companies put their return-to-office plans in place, searches for “business casual outfits” and “casual work outfits'' have reached an all-time high. “Office wear” videos have also racked up over 58.5 million views on TikTok, where influencers focused on workplace attire like @maddison__lynn and @quepasoyaya have hundreds of thousands of followers devouring their outfit ideas and tote reviews.

Understanding office dress codes has become a particular concern for Gen Z employees, many of whom are entering the workforce for the first time. With employers looking to hire nearly 32% more college graduates from the class of 2022 than the previous year, more new professionals than ever are embarking on their first jobs without much guidance on what to wear. Many of these Gen-Z professionals, myself included, spent the last two years in internships or workplaces that were fully remote without opportunities to ask HR or see how more experienced coworkers dressed.

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Recent college graduate Binqi Chen found herself in this predicament. “I was definitely concerned about, do I have the time and money to go out and buy a new wardrobe?” she says. (Her solution, like so many of her generation, was to turn to TikTok for ideas.)

Clearly, Chen is not alone in her concerns. So we spoke with image consultants, talent recruiters, and other professionals to answer some common questions about workplace fashion and what it looks like post-pandemic.

So, what makes an outfit appropriate for the workplace anyway?

Before the pandemic, terms like “business casual” and “business professional” were commonly used in office dress codes. According to a MasterClass with Tan France, the British-American designer and Queer Eye cohost, business professional is a tailored “pantsuit and button-down shirt or knee-length skirt and blazer.” Heels are ”closed-toe and three inches or shorter" and “nice flats, loafers, and oxfords are appropriate.”

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But when working from home became the primary model for 71% of Americans, employees understandably began to lean more into the casual side of business casual. This made sense when your boss and coworkers could only see you through the confines of a Zoom box. Now, however, the definition of what qualifies as “appropriate” on the job is being revisited—which can be confusing for new hires meeting their team for the first time in two years.

“Office cultures are shifting,” says Katie McDonald, Director of Talent Acquisition at POLITICO. “You should find ways, while still being professional, to showcase your personal style and how you want to be represented at work.”

To McDonald, that means relying on seasonal pieces that speak to you—dresses or skirts in warmer climates, pants or boots in the winter—in more conservative styles. “I'm not going to wear a short dress or something too revealing to work,” she says. McDonald even avoids open-toed shoes, though that's more of a personal decision than a workplace mandate. “In my office, plenty of people wear [sandals]; I personally just don't feel comfortable.”

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But the label of what makes something “appropriate” is especially fraught for women with curvy body types who are already marginalized for their physical appearance. In an article for Glamour, former senior beauty editor Lindsay Schallon remembers being told to “dress better” and work on her “presentation” after gaining 60 pounds. “For women above a size 12, there’s invisible labor that goes into putting together outfits the fashion world considers stylish,” Schallon writes. “We can’t just pop into a department store or Zara and buy off the rack. We have to hunt down pieces online, spend extra money for shipping, and carefully study measurements to find things our colleagues can buy with ease.”

Says Miraque Hicks, senior vice president of people, talent, and DEI at One Drop, “To make the comment on what someone is wearing if their body is more voluptuous compared to someone whose body size is smaller or slimmer is a very dangerous line to walk, and it can wind up making more people feel uncomfortable. It begs the question: What is considered a distraction, and why is it considered a distraction?”

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Hicks believes that as long as someone is not wearing a “tube top and booty shorts where the amount of skin showing is similar to wearing a bikini” than employees can maintain a good amount of discretion for what is appropriate for work.

What are some essential workplace basics?

Even though office dress codes are more relaxed than they were pre-pandemic, the experts we spoke to still recommend separating work and casual attire. As Martina Barboni, a self-employed fashion stylist based in New York City, says, “I believe you’ve got to maintain a certain level of elegance and sophistication that’s always respectful of the environment you are in.” To achieve this, she suggests shopping for timeless things like blazers, pants, and skirts. Barboni recommends her clients then show their personal style through the patterns, colors, and fabrics of these basics.

Barboni suggests finding classic cuts in fun patterns or fabrics. © Melodie Jeng/Getty Images Barboni suggests finding classic cuts in fun patterns or fabrics. Adding accessories with a pop of color is another way to show your personal style. © Edward Berthelot/Getty Images Adding accessories with a pop of color is another way to show your personal style.

“Jewelry, for example, is a very good way to be experimental with colors,” she says. “We’ve been seeing a lot of very colorful beaded necklaces and jewelry in general.”

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Where can someone shop for the workplace while on a budget?

Thrifting is a sustainable way to find quality and unique pieces of clothing for women of all ages, and it's a particularly attractive option for Gen Z employees shopping on an entry-level salary. From your local Goodwill to online marketplaces, buying secondhand is a respectable and eco-friendly activity that even Congresswomen partake in.

McDonald, a recruiter for over a decade, also recommends sharing clothes with friends as a way to save money and get new items for your workplace closet. “We’ll do mini outfit hauls for each other and show what we’ve gotten recently and what we like,” she says. “By sharing pieces every so often, I feel like we just never get sick of our wardrobe.”

Another way to have a steady rotation of clothes is through rental services. Kristina Ang, a recent graduate of Parsons School of Design, tells Glamour that she loves her subscription to Rent the Runway and browsing ThredUp as a means of switching up her wardrobe and trying designer items that she can’t afford on her entry-level salary. A freelancer at the Council of Fashion Designers of America, she says she sometimes feels pressure to wear designer brands because of her industry. “Let’s say I was meeting with my CFDA coworkers—I would never wear a top from [a fast fashion store] because I’d be afraid that they’d ask me where it’s from,” she says. “There’s an immense pressure when I’m in the office. I like to wear stuff that's vintage or I thrifted so that at least it is its own unique piece.”

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If I can only get a few new items for the office, what should I invest in?

Across the board, the women I interviewed agreed that a quality bag and a pair of shoes were the most important investment pieces. Many times, they tell me, these items are the first thing others look at when viewing an outfit. This doesn’t mean you have to blow your budget—simply find the one that works in a price range for you.

Until I started shopping for my first job, I didn’t realize how many different tote bags there were. Structured or loose? Laptop sleeve or no laptop sleeve? Thick or thin straps? There are so many options out there, which can be overwhelming, but that also means there’s likely the perfect bag waiting for you.

McDonald recently purchased a luxury designer tote bag for her return-to-office wardrobe.

I put a lot of thought into it," she says. “I wanted something special to commemorate my new position, so I got a really beautiful tote by Celine.”

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The right pair of shoes also raises questions. Closed-toe or sandals? Will everyone be wearing heels? How many inches are appropriate? We're all seen those classic images of working women wearing sneakers on the train, their workplace-appropriate shoes tucked safely in their bags.

Chen, a research analyst at a healthcare research consultancy firm in Washington D.C., says she find loafers to be good in-between for comfort and style. Loafers continue to be a staple, in and out of the office, because of their versatility and classic nature. You can have a flat loafer, heeled, along with an assortment of colors and designs. “I have a pair of hand-me-down leather loafers that I really like," she says. "They look like the Prada ones where it’s a little bit of a platform, but I do want to save up and perhaps in the next year or two get a new pair.”

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For Yaritza Aguilar, a paralegal at The Door, her workplace environment is more casual than most law settings. When most people think of lawyers or people in that field, black and gray suits come to mind along with briefcases. But Aguilar has found a company that allows her to be comfortable in her clothes while doing the work she cares about. Because of this, Yaritza’s go-to shoes are sneakers, specifically Reeboks and Air Forces. “I want a good pair of shoes that are very comfortable so I want to invest more in shoe basics.”

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So what does this mean for you?

Ultimately, there’s a common sentiment amongst the women I spoke to: Like it or not, your outward appearance in the workplace does matter.

As Chen says, “I haven't seen anyone wear a crop top in the office, so I assume that is probably still not appropriate—especially if you are going in to talk to clients or upper management. I have seen people wear dresses, but they're definitely past the finger-length test.”

There are so many rules that women feel the need to follow, but it is not one size fits all. Depending on your industry and environment, a backpack could work better than a tote bag. Conversely, a bag with a laptop sleeve could be a better fit for someone constantly at their desk.

Ang, who also works as a Product Designer at CUUP, realized that her expectations of the workplace were worse than reality, and I can attest to that as well. I stressed myself out to an incredible degree before beginning my job about what to wear, only to conclude that a lot of my closet worked just fine for the office.

The final answer is that there is no answer. “Appropriate” office attire depends on a myriad of factors, with the most important being whatever you think is appropriate. As McDonald says, “If you're not finding that you can be yourself at your workplace, maybe it's not the right fit.”

Watch Now: Glamour Video.

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