Olivia Fletcher hears how Covid has changed the way we dress for work
Going back to the office with nothing smart to wear? Or worse, you got so used to wearing joggers at home that you don’t want to go back to stretch-free formal wear?
There’s no need to panic.
When it comes to returning to the workplace, Northern Irish style guru Cathy Martin, who has been director of Belfast Fashion Week for 15 years, says traditional workwear is out, and smart casual is in. And it’s all because of the pandemic.
“I think there’s been a relaxing of our attitudes, but also thankfully a relaxing in how clothes are actually tailored, designed and made. So, it seems, from my understanding, tailoring isn’t so formal or strict or restrictive,” she says.
Martin points out that “while there was already a very slow but general trend towards slightly more casual clothes and athleisure, I don’t think anyone had planned for this speed and velocity, which has grown because of the pandemic.”
And she adds: “I think as the pandemic put us in that position of working from home, a lot of people were refusing to come back and sit in stuffy suits, both males and females.”
Nobody knows this better than Chris Suitor, tailor at Suitor Brothers on Belfast’s Upper Arthur Street.
“Some guys were mail ordering jackets from us just purely for their Zoom calls,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“We have definitely seen a decline in the number of business suits that we are selling,” he says, before adding that “since things have opened back up again, we have seen a little lift in it but certainly it’s nothing like pre-Covid”.
Men returning to the office – particularly younger men, Suitor says – want styles that are easier to wear but, of course, still sartorial.
Being dressed in a good “suit of armour” is key to feeling confident – and while styles may be changing, this never will.
Suitor, who has been in the bespoke tailoring business for 30 years, says, “We have definitely seen an uplift in our smart casual end which is more our chinos and jackets.”
But, echoing Martin, he adds: “That was happening before the pandemic. I think the pandemic has just accelerated it.”
For women, Martin recommends a stylish yet breathable jumpsuit.
“I just think females are getting a lot more casual as well so, you know, even blazers and jeans are a bit more of a thing now right across lots of industries,” she says.
The pandemic has even given the office a splash of colour. “I also see that a lot of high street stores and even designer brands are still really embracing bright colour, and I think that’s a really nice antithesis to what we’ve just been through — the restrictions of the pandemic and being locked down.”
She adds: “River Island, for example, has really nice, bright pink suits and trouser suits, and there’s definitely an acceptance of individuality in the workplace. So, I think if someone chooses to have pink or purple hair or half pink half purple hair, we, culturally, are much more accepting of that, whereas before, there might have been stricter rules.”
And the most significant change according to Suitor? He answers in one word: ties.
“That’s probably the biggest part of our business that has declined completely,” he says. “Even the guys going to work in the suits are now generally open neck.”
He adds: “We used to sell hundreds upon hundreds of ties every year and it’s definitely taken a huge dip.”
But when asked if he thinks the trend away from business suits will stay for good, he says: “We are confident it’s going to change. It’s going to start coming back our way.”
“At the minute it’s definitely still more chino, jacket and casual shirt than the business suit,” he says. “I think the business suit is still there but has certainly had the pause button pressed. I hope that we’ll go back to it.”
“If you’re going to an executive job, I would prefer the guys wearing suits and being sharp rather than dressed down in a pair of chinos, an open-neck shirt and a jacket,” he says.
“That’s just me and my traditional outlook on things, but I totally understand why guys want to be more comfortable in what they’re wearing – I totally understand, and I’m quite happy to facilitate that.”
Martin has other ideas though.
“Although I enjoy an LBD (little black dress) for a work event every now and again”, she says, “I also do agree that people were crying out for a lot more comfort.”
So, has office style changed for good? “100%,” she says. “I don’t think we’re going back in time any time soon.”
And it may even be for a good reason: sustainability.
“Myself and probably hundreds of thousands of others ended up doing wardrobe clearouts when we were locked down,” Martin says. “I think a lot of people realised how much stuff they had in their wardrobes that they didn’t actually wear, so we know statistically that it increased the number of donations when charity shops opened again.
“But I think it has also made people realise how many pieces of clothing we all have and how many we actually need — which is a lot less.”