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Sneakers, elastic pants: people are changing their office outfits amid COVID

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Prior to COVID-19, Martin-Pence wore dress pants with blazers at the pharmaceutical company where she works. She’s gone back to heels, but they’re lower, and she says she’ll never wear dress pants to the office again.

Knit blazers, pants with drawstrings or elastic waistbands and polo shirts as a new button-up shirt.

Welcome to the post-pandemic dress code for the office.

After working remotely in tracksuits and yoga pants for two years, many Americans are rethinking their wardrobes to balance comfort and professionalism as offices reopen. They’re giving a spin to the structured suits, zippered pants and pencil skirts they wore before the COVID-19 pandemic and experimenting with new looks. This is forcing retailers and brands to race to meet workers’ fashion needs for the future of work.

“Being comfortable is more important than being super structured,” said Kay Martin-Pence, 58, who returned to her Indianapolis office last month in dress jeans and flowy tops after working remotely in leggings and slippers for two years. “Why feel buttoned up and stiff when I don’t have to?”

Prior to COVID-19, Martin-Pence wore dress pants with blazers at the pharmaceutical company where she works. She’s gone back to heels, but they’re lower, and she says she’ll never wear dress pants to the office again.

Even before the pandemic, Americans dressed more casually at work. The time spent in tracksuits has accelerated the transition from “business casual” to “business comfort”.

Still, dressing back to the office remains a social experiment, said Adam Galinsky, a social psychologist at Columbia Business School who coined the term “enveloped cognition,” or how what people wear affects the way they think.

“I guess it will be more casual, but maybe it’s not,” Galinsky said. “People are going to consciously ask themselves, ‘Am I wearing the right outfit to be in the office?’ They will reflect on what they are doing, the context in which they find themselves and the social comparisons of what others will do.

Steve Smith, CEO of outdoor sportswear brand LL Bean, said people are stepping out of their “typical uniform” – whatever form that may take.

“They’re going to expect more flexible hours, to be able to work in a hybrid model, and to be comfortable — as comfortable as they were at home,” he said. “Some of the office uniforms, office cabinets, change and change. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be permanent.

Data from market research firm NPD Group and retailers reflects changing trends.

Wire-free bras now account for more than 50% of the total non-sports bra market in the United States, reversing a long-term trend, according to NPD. Dress shoe sales have been rebounding since 2021, but are still 34% below 2019 levels and more likely fueled by the return of social occasions, not the office, NPD said. Instead, casual sneakers are now the most common footwear for work.

Clothing rental company Rent the Runway said blazer rentals nearly doubled in February from a year ago, reflecting a return to offices. But her customers choose colorful versions like pastel and fabrics like lightweight tweed, linen and twill. He said “formal business” rentals — traditional workwear like basic sheaths, pencil skirts and blazers — are about half of what they were in 2019, said Anushka Salinas, president and chief of operation.

Stitch Fix, a personal shopping and styling service, noted that men are increasingly choosing options like hiking and golf pants for the office. For the first three months of the year, revenues from this type of clothing almost tripled compared to a year ago.

Polo shirts have replaced button-down shirts for men, and there is strong demand for pull-on pants, the company said. The ratio of work pants with an elastic waistband to those with buttons or zippers on Stitch Fix was one to one in 2019; now it’s three to one.

Other workers, however, feel excited about dressing up again.

Emily Kirchner, 42, of Stevensville, Michigan, who works in communications for a major appliance maker, said she invests more in her wardrobe when she returns to the office. She used to wear Stitch Fix tunics and leggings in the pre-pandemic era. Now, she turns to the service of high-end jeans, blouses and blazers.

“It’s quite fun to dress up,” said Kirchner, who had a baby early in the pandemic and wants to wear clothes that don’t make her look like what she calls a “frumpy mom.” “It’s kind of like that back-to-school feeling.”

Retailers have had to adapt to the changing demands of Americans throughout the pandemic and now again with many returning to the office. High-end department store Nordstrom, for example, has opened women’s denim boutiques to showcase its expanded selection as it sees more and more women wearing jeans to work.

Even Ministry of Supply, a company striving to make workwear as comfortable as sportswear, had to make big changes. When the pandemic hit, she was stuck with piles of tailored pants and jackets in performance fabrics deemed irrelevant for a remote workforce.

The Boston-based company, founded by graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, quickly redesigned the items, sticking on elastic waistbands and removing zippers. He also refined the hemlines of trouser suits to give them “sneaker” cuts.

As workers return to the office, the Department of Supply is keeping those casual looks and sneaker cuts and has eliminated zippers for good — all of its pants have elastic waistbands or drawstrings. It’s also about reinventing your tailor.

“The new challenge is: how do I look presentable when I’m in person without sacrificing comfort?” said Gihan Amarasiriwardena, co-founder and president.

The 200-year-old haberdashery Brooks Brothers had a bigger challenge: It never followed the office casual trend several years ago like its rivals. Under new owner and CEO, Ken Ohashi, the company succeeded in delivering casual styles in a post-bankruptcy reinvention.

Today, 45% of its offerings are casual sportswear like sweaters and polo shirts. Before the pandemic, that figure was 25%, Ohashi said.

He said dress shirts were making a comeback as workers returned to the office. But Brooks Brothers adds a twist: a stretch version of its cotton knit shirts with the comfort of a polo shirt. It also offers colorful jackets.

“The guy is attracted to novelty right now, the color of novelty, the feel of novelty, the pattern of novelty,” Ohashi said. “Historically this guy came in and he was buying a navy, charcoal and black suit. He absolutely wants to mix everything up. And I think it’s here to stay.

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Associated Press writer David Sharp contributed from Freeport, Maine.

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