It’s Wednesday morning outside South Station. The workday bustle is back, at least today, with employees swarming past Atlantic Avenue and talking into AirPods. At least three people nearly collide, nose down on their iPhones, reading e-mail or perusing Google Calendar.
It’s not so different from life before the pandemic. But look at what they’re wearing.
For office workers who spend 9 to 5 in the heart of Boston, there is no dress code, no policy, and no certainty anymore. Retailers used COVID to peddle new categories of clothing, like “workleisure,” “power casual,” or the most straightforward contender: “hybrid workwear.”
No matter what you call it, the reality is that workers commuting into the Financial District have let loose. A suit these days is tough to spot. As recently reported in these pages, neckties are a rarity. Instead, people wear everything from golf polos and Lululemon ABC slim-fit pants to knit trousers and Nike sneakers.
“We’re coming out of style hibernation,” said Kenlyn Jones, an assistant professor of fashion design at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. “Not too fussy, not too difficult. It’s just true to the wearer, joyful and relaxed.”
Sales of office attire — dresses, shapewear, slacks, blazers — began increasing this summer with the return of weddings and in-person work, the market research group NPD found. But more people choose to keep it casual today than at any time in recent history, except the early depths of lockdown, said NPD apparel analyst Kristen Classi Zummo. Activewear is still trending higher than pre-pandemic levels, too. No one expects it to change soon.
“We anticipate this behavior to continue for the rest of this year and into 2023,” Zummo said.
To Mike Perry, the only rule for workwear is that it must be more put-together than 2020 Zoom attire, which he dubbed “the clothing version of a mullet.” (A collared shirt on top, pajamas on the bottom.) One recent morning, the cybersecurity employee donned a pullover, Spyder full-zip jacket, Mavi jeans, and Dr. Martens Oxford shoes. The effort was minimal; the outfit, acceptable.
“I’m thinking about clothes less,” Perry said. “I’m not trying as hard, because, why would I?”
That’s the point, said Saheli Goswami, an assistant professor of textiles and fashion merchandising at the University of Rhode Island. When it comes to choosing daily wardrobes, flexibility and ease have become the priority. The once-sharp lines of what a worker can and cannot wear inside the cubicle have blurred.
“People are gravitating toward more pieces that can be versatile,” Goswami added, “that can let you easily transition from one event to the other and not necessarily be categorized into, ‘Oh, this is my evening wear. Oh, this is my daytime wear. This is what I have on for casual Friday.’ ”
Take Rahsaan Akbar, for example. In H&M skinny plaid pants and Blundstone ankle boots, the insurance broker at Lockton Companies said the conventions of workwear fell apart over the past two years. He feels comfortable striding into work three days a week in a pink Urban Outfitters beanie and a smattering of jewelry: a jade pendant, stringy music festival bracelet, and two earrings — a green feather on the left ear, a gold hoop on the right.
“A shirt, tie, and slacks is very uptight for me,” Akbar, 24, said. “And no one expects it anymore.”
Dominique Clark, an accounting specialist at architectural firm SGA, dresses down now, too. One Wednesday, she wore a tweed coat with a cheetah print collar she’d picked up at Filene’s Basement (when one could still do such a thing) with a High Sierra backpack and VivoBarefoot trainers. “Super easy to travel with, super easy to walk in,” Clark said of the shoes. “That’s what we all need right now.”
And even lawyers have said bye-bye to the suit. Madison, a Seaport insurance defense attorney who declined to share her last name, said she only dons a jacket in 2022 when she has in-person client visits and court dates. Usually, she picks among a mostly neutral wardrobe filled with interchangeable pieces. The go-tos? A Madewell ribbed turtleneck, Ann Taylor Loft trousers, and secondhand loafers.
That closet of staples is also called a capsule wardrobe, and it’s growing in popularity.
Consumers are now choosing to buy only three dependable pairs of pants, a few shirts, a “third layer” of outerwear, said Gihan Amarasiriwardena, cofounder of Boston apparel brand Ministry of Supply. That approach allows shoppers to invest in quality, he added, and makes it easier to get dressed at 7 a.m.
“You have well-made, reliable pieces to fall back on to look put-together,” said Amarasiriwardena, whose brand uses temperature-regulating material to create clothes. “You can be cozy and presentable at the same time.”
Of course, not everyone wants to be laid-back. Sayak Subhra Panda, a 28-year-old management consultant, wore a black suit and laced loafers for a meeting recently. The formal attire was mandatory, but he was glad to do it.
“I’m willing to dress up more if I’m making the commute into the office,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s nice.”
And many recent college graduates still feel pressure — spoken or unspoken — to dress well to impress their supervisors.
Filomena Da Silva, 22, wore a Fashion Nova jumpsuit with a Ferragamo gold-tinted belt to work recently at her job as a business immigration analyst. “I’m living my big-girl-career life, and I want to dress for it,” she said. Karen Gan, an associate at Fidelity, opted for a checkered Ann Taylor vest and a hand-me-down trench coat, too, even though her colleagues often wear jeans and fitted tees.
“We’re toeing the line between business casual and business professional,” said Gan, 22. “I’m clearly going for more professional.”
And the sensibilities of post-pandemic attire are constantly changing. Jones, the MassArt professor, said people are evolving away from what was in style in 2020 and 2021 and increasingly turning to their personal preferences. What workers show up to the office in these next few months will probably be different from what we see come spring, she added.
That feels right to Debbie Katz, 52. She cast away several of her pre-pandemic clothes when she returned to work at the fund-raising department at Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
“I was pulling out things I haven’t been wearing. I was sick of them,” she said, draped in a fringy beige shawl. “Everyone is looking for change.”