Marian Salzman, Contributor
Oct. 30, 2020
Attitudes toward formality change, just as fashions do, but it has been fascinating to watch the speed at which casual culture has overtaken our world these past several decades. We have seen it in the halls of government. And we have seen it in business (during the pandemic, yes, but long before as well).
“But what about Obama’s tan suit?” In the U.S. these past four years, that phrase has been a sardonic way for detractors of President Trump to contrast the “scandals” that took place under his predecessor with those of the current administration. If only the “ audacity of taupe” were the most we had to worry about in these days of pandemic. Faux outrage has always been a political tool, but in the current era it has become an art form, with criticisms of “casualness” being weaponized. There was endless pearl-clutching during the Obama years when Michelle dared show her toned arms in sleeveless dresses. Others blanched at the Trump White House’s decision to serve fare from McDonald’s and Wendy’s to members of the Clemson football team. More often than not, appropriateness is judged through a political lens. In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s unkempt hair is a mark of honor for some, horror for others. Partisans “shocked” by Barack Obama working in the Oval Office in shirtsleeves take no umbrage at Representative Jim Jordan’s penchant for placing his jacket anywhere but on his person. (Needless to say, Jordan’s jacket has its own Twitter account.)
This kind of informality is rife in business as well. The battle against dress-down Fridays waged in the ’90s has long been lost—perhaps with an assist from Silicon Valley superstars Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, whose signature outfits have everything to do with comfort and nothing to do with signaling “corporate.” Instagram accounts such as @MidtownUniform remind us that even New York City’s once buttoned-up business district has taken a casual turn.
COVID-19 has further accelerated the dominance of casual. With business meetings now conducted in homes, participants are OK to wear anything or nothing below the waist. (This is me not mentioning Jeff Toobin.) If the trend toward WFH continues beyond this pandemic—and there is every indication it will—what will be the implications? We already see an uptick in closures and bankruptcies among retailers of traditional business wear. RIP, Brooks Brothers and Ann Taylor. Diverse wardrobes are being replaced by tried-and-true Zoom Shirts —typically kept within reach of one’s keyboard for a quick pre-video-call change out of something even more casual.
Savvy brands and marketers are taking note. Madewell is promoting “ video-chat-friendly accessories ,” while observers of Milan and London Fashion Weeks noted a “waist-up” focus, including the Prada logo pushed upward to collar level. I admire the pivot of sisters Vicky and Nikoleta Lirantonakis, who had to close their dress rental business during the shutdowns. Now, they are back with a new business model: “behind-the-screen chic.” Their Style Fílos offers self-selected boxes of videoconference-ready accessories (e.g., scarves, jewelry, hair accessories) or a monthly shipment curated by the company’s stylists. I expect other clothing subscription services such as Stitch Fix and Nordstrom Trunk Club to follow their lead, providing an option for waist-up-only looks. And, of course, the time is right for the rise of the virtual stylist.
Marketers will want to monitor the bobbing and weaving that takes place—in fashion, home décor, and otherwise—as we move into what eventually will become our new normal. Translating the evolving zeitgeist into cultural and commercial context is part of the job, but we need to be careful see the full picture, not just its most prominent facets. As always, for every yin there is a yang, and I won’t be surprised to find a counterbalance to uber-casualness.
While scanning recommended Zoom outfits on Society19 —knit tank tops and off-the-shoulder bodysuits among them—I couldn’t help but wonder whether the pendulum will shortly be swinging in a more conservative direction. I won’t be surprised to see employers draft clothing “regulations” they need not have considered when people were commuting to the office. No pajamas. No swimwear. Shirts required. Such restrictions may sound obvious, but in April, a Florida judge felt the need to write to the local bar association to complain about the liberties attorneys were taking during video hearings , including a shirtless male lawyer and (separately) a female attorney still in bed.
Once the novelty of home as our “one place” begins to wear off, I suspect more people will remember that style isn’t just about making an impression—or avoiding #NSFW video calls. What one wears influences how one thinks, behaves, and is perceived. The infamous “lab coat effect” cuts two ways: For some patients, seeing that white coat on a healthcare worker leads to a spike in blood pressure. For practitioners, donning the coat projects authority. Research from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University even found that test subjects displayed improved attention spans when they put on a white coat associated with laboratory scientists. In the communications industry, marketers, designers, and creatives are known to express their style of thinking through fashion. Might what we wear also influence how we think and what we create?
In our new WFH era, maybe we need to dress for creativity and productivity rather than simply comfort. It might offer a psychological boost, too, to consider some sort of Mr. Rogers-ish apparel transition at the end of each workday to set a firmer boundary between our professional and personal lives. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll get back to wearing heels during the day.
By Marian Salzman, Contributor
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