Style During Social Distancing: Dressing for Work When You’re Not Going Anywhere

A coworker comes to every Zoom meeting in a bathrobe. A professor who dressed in a suit every day for in-person class now teaches in PJ shorts and a t-shirt. Walmart sales for dressy shirts go up, but since a webcam only shows heads and shoulders, sales of dress pants and skirts stay the same

Welcome to workplace fashion in the time of the coronavirus. Offices and schools around the U.S. have switched to remote operations to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Amidst the sudden transition, professionals and college students across the country are finding a sweet spot between sleepwear and business attire. 

“Now, I pretty much wear athleisure even when I’m Skyping with clients or other, more senior people,” Ava Chafin, a Deloitte consultant in her mid-20s, said. “I don’t really see a huge need to get dressed up for that, just because we all know we’re at home.” 

Though many are experiencing it for the first time under new social distancing measures, the switch from cubicles to Skype screens isn’t a new phenomenon. In 2018, nearly a quarter of the U.S. workforce spent some hours teleworking on an average day, according to Brookings. This trend toward working from home has made it difficult to define even “the office,” much less the office dress code. 

Jean McElvain, a University of Minnesota fashion professor and associate curator at the school’s Goldstein Museum of Design, noted that videoconference attire can demonstrate how the line between employees’ professional and personal lives can blur while teleworking.  

“My boss, the director of the museum, wanted to remind us that we did have to dress for Zoom meetings,” McElvain said. “Apparently, some people have gotten really lax, and there would be, like, people wearing pajamas to their Zoom meetings, or not having a shirt on – you know, things that make you comfortable in your home.”

Many professionals and college students, though, are not choosing to wear the clothes (or lack thereof) that make them most cozy or relaxed during their usual work or school hours. Aside from raising virtual eyebrows from peers in the Zoom room, the comfiest outfits can also hinder efficiency and motivation. 

“It is important to me to change into something, like, normal during the day,” Andy Masley, a physics teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia, said. “If I was in pajamas all day, I think that would really probably affect my productivity.” 

College students, newly thrust into online learning and gearing up for the papers, projects, and exams that pile up at the semester’s end, have also noticed that the clothes they wear impact their ability to get work done.  

a photo of an open planner

“I feel like I am more productive the days that I do put myself together more,” Cailin Mahoney, a graphic design major at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, said. She added that on days when she knows she has to do a lot of work, she dresses more like she would if she were still on campus.

These observations about the connection between clothing and effectiveness are backed up by social science research, which has long concluded that the clothes people wear affect the way they view themselves and their work. One 2012 study found that wearing a lab coat associated with doctors increased participants’ success in detail-oriented tasks that required sustained attention. Another study, published in 2015, found that wearing formal clothing increased people’s perception of themselves as powerful, which in turn improved their conceptual thinking abilities. 

Dawnn Karen, a psychology professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, a practicing psychologist, and a newly published author, has made a career out of helping people harness this link between their clothing and their cognition. Karen is a world leader in the emerging field of Fashion Psychology, which her website describes as an “academic discipline focused on the study and treatment of how color, beauty, style, image and shape affects human behavior.” 

shopping bags

Informally, Karen describes her practice as one that combines the purposes of a stylist, an image consultant, and a traditional talk therapist. She aims to help people align their internal attitude with the clothing they wear. 

She said her fashion psychology practice, which she has always conducted virtually, has seen increased traffic since COVID-19 forced people to stay home.  

“They are now aware of how their clothing impacts them, because they’re inside the house and they have time to think about it instead of being on autopilot,” she said. “People want to know, what do I wear when I’m working from home?” 

While recognizing that every individual will have different styles that help them thrive, Karen does have two general pieces of advice on that question.

“Don’t live in your pajamas for more than three days in a row, because it will bring about some depression unknowingly,” she said. “And I also tell them, if you’re going engage in a new activity, switch up your outfit.” 

Muskan Kaur, a student at American University in Washington, D.C., has found this second trick helpful.  

“I try to plan what I’m going to wear depending on what I need to do that day,” Kaur said. “I try to change it around, if I have work to do, or if I’m going to be, like, outside.”

Change neon light signage

Last semester, Kaur started a sustainable fashion brand where she collaborated with other women to show off upcycled clothing. While she can no longer do full photoshoots with her team of creatives, Kaur has spent her time at home sewing, cutting, and generally finding ways to repurpose old garments. She describes her usual style as having a lot of layers with varied patterns and fabrics. But despite her love for creative fashion, Kaur has found herself dressing down since she can’t go out. 

“Now that I’m home, I’ve been trying to definitely be comfier,” she said. “So I’ve basically just been wearing a rotation of the same couple of jeans and t-shirts.”

She isn’t alone; few professionals or students are wearing the same outfits they usually wear, even if clothing had been a key part of their identity before the coronavirus hit. 

“I’m certainly the kind of person who likes to be dressed very nicely, like I really take pride in what I’m wearing,” Jenny LaFreniere, an analyst at Deloitte, said. “So this is definitely strange for me, not having that outlet.” 

Unsurprisingly, bloggers and other online media have wasted little time turning this trend in caring less about clothes into an opportunity to sell more clothes. March 2020 saw a plethora of listicles featuring comfortable but stylish garments from a wide range of organizations, including the fashion blog Who What Wear, the tech-oriented site Wirecutter, and New York Magazine’s The Strategist.

person holding money

These listicles advertise the jeans, leggings, sweatpants, sweaters, and t-shirts that have suddenly become acceptable work attire. While the change to widespread teleworking has been abrupt, in general, American workplace fashion has been growing less and less formal since the 1970s. Many young professionals today are used to the idea of “business casual,” and have spent most of their careers working in places with flexible dress codes. 

However, tied as it is to the practical realities of social distancing, this extra dressed-down trend is obviously unlikely to remain as widespread as it is now. In fact, people like LaFreniere, who miss having a reason to dress up, may take their style in a more formal direction once offices open again.

“I’m wondering if there won’t be a slight kickback, where we might see people really interested in dressing up a little bit,” McElvain, the fashion professor and design museum curator, said. “I’m not talking about back to 1960s-level, or even ‘80s – I don’t think men are going to start wearing suits again, necessarily, to work. But I feel like I know a lot of people, and I’ve talked to a lot of students, that say they get dressed up just for themselves.” 

COVID-19 has challenged Americans to walk some fine lines: take the virus seriously, but don’t panic; validate feelings of disappointment, but be grateful to be safe; maintain a sense of normalcy, but cut yourself some slack. For many new teleworkers, getting dressed for both productivity and comfort appears to be one more balancing act.