Workplace Dress Codes are More Casual Post-Pandemic

Rows of casu­al and busi­ness casu­al cloth­ing at TJ Maxx. (Colleen Lucey/UConn Journalism) 

By Colleen Lucey
April 30, 2023

Robin Monk, a yacht insur­ance agent, recalls wear­ing a suit and tie to work every day at Trav­el­ers Insur­ance in Hartford.

My dry-clean­ing bill would be like hun­dred bucks, every oth­er week,” Monk recalled.

Now, 35 years lat­er, Monk and his cowork­ers rarely wear suits.

Busi­ness casu­al, which defines as blend­ing tra­di­tion­al office attire with a more relaxed style, is becom­ing increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar. The men’s suit mar­ket decreased in sales by 8 per­cent between 2015 and 2019 and con­tin­ues to decline, accord­ing to Wall Street Jour­nal. When work­ers returned to the office after the pan­dem­ic, dress codes have become more casual.

Megan Nolan, a con­tract nego­tia­tor at Mass­Mu­tu­al, says that less than half of her office wears a suit. Her office dress code changed pri­or to the pan­dem­ic with a com­pa­ny-wide memo that encour­aged work­ers to wear what they thought was appropriate.

Peo­ple just inter­pret­ed it in dif­fer­ent ways,” Nolan said, recall­ing that some of her female cowork­ers wore spaghet­ti-strap tops and flip flops dur­ing the summer.

For women, suits are seen less in offices than they used to be but are now worn as trendy streetwear. Over­sized blaz­ers are one of the most recent trends fueled by social media and celebri­ty sight­ings, accord­ing to Glam­our Magazine.

The over­sized blaz­er look can be part of a casu­al ensem­ble. Dana Mor­ta­da, the founder of Dālthe Label, a new cloth­ing line launched in 2022, told Harper’s Bazaar that her blaz­ers can be paired with shorts, a T‑shirt, or a sum­mer dress.

Beth Set­tje, an asso­ciate direc­tor at UConn Cen­ter for Career Devel­op­ment, advis­es stu­dents to wear clothes that are pro­fes­sion­al and fit well. Set­tje still sug­gests the “dress for the job you want” say­ing. How­ev­er, as offices dif­fer in dress codes, this cre­ates uncer­tain­ty for stu­dents inter­view­ing with mul­ti­ple companies.

Stu­dents in gen­er­al have expressed con­cerns about dress­ing too casu­al­ly for a career-relat­ed event ver­sus being over­dressed,” Set­tje said.

Younger gen­er­a­tions have cre­at­ed a push for more com­fort­able wear in the office. The largest gen­er­a­tion in the work­force is mil­len­ni­als, as one in three employ­ees is born after 1981, accord­ing to the Pew Research Cen­ter. Mil­len­ni­als are mov­ing toward a more mod­ern work­place and break­ing away from the tra­di­tion­al office norms from the late 20th century.

“Relaxed chi­nos” and oth­er busi­ness casu­al pieces at TJ Maxx. (Colleen Lucey/UConn Journalism)

As she shopped recent­ly at TJ Maxx, Pat Miller, a retired librar­i­an at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut, recalled advis­ing mil­len­ni­al col­lege stu­dents about how to dress in the work­place. She point­ed to the junior sec­tion, where they were crop tops and short skirts.

When you work with the pub­lic, you just can’t dress like that,” Miller said.

Through­out her career, Miller nev­er wore jeans to work because they were too casu­al for her lik­ing. Now, jeans are being designed in a way to fit the “busi­ness casu­al” style.

A trendy cloth­ing store, Express, start­ed sell­ing women’s busi­ness casu­al jeans. The store sug­gests that if wear­ing jeans to work, choose a slim-fit and dark wash, accord­ing to their web­site. They also say that wear­ing a blouse and acces­sories can dress up jeans at work.

Oth­er com­pa­nies such as State and Lib­er­ty and Bono­bos have cre­at­ed more com­fort­able dress pants for men. State and Liberty’s Ath­let­ic Fit dress pant style is designed with four-way stretch for com­fort and dura­bil­i­ty. The mix­ture of nylon, cot­ton and Span­dex mate­r­i­al is low main­te­nance and wrin­kle-resis­tant, accord­ing to the State and Lib­er­ty website.

The online site, Bono­bos sells a sim­i­lar dress pant called the Stretch Week­day War­rior. The site details rec­om­mend not dry clean­ing the pants because it will harm its durability.

Meg Christo­foro, 22, strug­gles to age-appro­pri­ate out­fits for her assis­tant event coor­di­na­tor job at South­ern Con­necti­cut State University. 

I either look way too pro­fes­sion­al and over­do it. Or I look too under­dressed and casu­al. There’s no in-between,” Christo­foro said.

While many retail stores have closed in recent years as online shop­ping surges, suit stores have tak­en a par­tic­u­lar­ly hard hit. In August 2020, the own­er of the com­pa­ny, Tai­lored Brands, which over­sees Men’s Wear­house and JoS.A. Bank, filed for bank­rupt­cy, accord­ing to a New York Times arti­cle.  

The com­pa­ny said it planned to elim­i­nate 20 per­cent of cor­po­rate jobs and close 500 stores nation­wide, due to the lack of sales dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, the arti­cle added.

The COVID-19 pan­dem­ic impact­ed in-store sales in major retail­ers after many peo­ple spent months work­ing more casu­al­ly from home.

Some employ­ees dis­cov­ered they were more pro­duc­tive that way. A poll found that 80% of work­ers per­formed bet­ter in com­fort­able wear, accord­ing to a 2022 Fast Com­pa­ny arti­cle. The relaxed dress code may also cre­ate a bet­ter work envi­ron­ment: 76 per­cent of employ­ees said casu­al wear cre­ates bet­ter con­nec­tions between col­leagues, the arti­cle added.

Some offices have imple­ment­ed a “Dress for the Day” pol­i­cy, which allows employ­ees to choose their attire based on their oblig­a­tions for that day, such as in-office meet­ings or pre­sen­ta­tions. The UConn Cen­ter of Career Devel­op­ment imple­ment­ed this pol­i­cy before the pan­dem­ic and allows their employ­ees to have more flex­i­bil­i­ty with their outfits.

We want to dress as pro­fes­sion­al­ly as pos­si­ble, while also being com­fort­able and approach­able,” Set­tje said.