Since the very first pandemic lockdowns in 2020, office culture has been completely upended. (By that May, a third of America's workforce was working from home.) But it hasn't been eliminated: This year, many workers entered into hybrid arrangements, agreeing to go to the office a certain number of days per week. Meanwhile, the "great resignation" has pushed dress code violations down pretty low on the list of fireable offenses.
"In the current climate, when the unemployment rate has fallen to the lowest level since the pandemic took hold, employees might think: My employer is lucky to have me, so why should I wear pants that zip?" wrote Sapna Maheshwari in The New York Times.
In scrambling to cater to this emerging lifestyle that has given employees more autonomy over what they wear to work, retailers have invented a new clothing category that merges workwear professionalism with the comfort we all grew accustomed to while working remotely. Their marketing teams have even coined terms for this approach to dressing, including "power casual," "business comfort" and, my personal favorite, "workleisure."
Stitch Fix, the personal styling retailer backed by data science, surveyed 1,300 clients this March and found that nearly half of them wanted to buy a new work wardrobe, and that 68% said they planned to wear more relaxed silhouettes in the office than they did pre-pandemic. The retailer dubbed the styles its customers have been gravitating towards — including stretchy knit trousers, tops and dresses; jeans; and loose maxi dresses — "business comfort." About half of respondents also said they now wear the same clothes to work as they do on the weekend and outside of work, which Stitch Fix took to mean that they want their wardrobes to pull "double duty," pinpointing a need for pieces "that are polished enough for the office yet comfortable enough to wear in their free time."
As a result, shoppers are looking for workwear in unexpected places, like Lululemon and Athleta. The latter's customers have been searching for workwear pieces more than leggings and sports bras, according to an email from the Gap-owned brand, which is known for activewear. So far this year, searches for work pants are up 165% on its site, while dresses are seeing triple-digit growth compared to 2021.
Designers like Thakoon launched collections with return-to-office in mind, incorporating easier, more casual silhouettes than what you'd typically associate with workwear. Retailers have also added dedicated back-to-work sections to their websites featuring these kinds of pieces. And brands that launched expressly to give shoppers more comfy alternatives to suits, like Lezé (coiner of "workleisure") have capitalized on post-pandemic demand for their offering. Meanwhile, those known for office attire have rushed to casualize their collections, like the digitally native M.M.LaFleur, which began pushing its "power casual" aesthetic in marketing materials this spring.
Aside from a proliferation of tailored items made from stretchy, forgiving fabrics more commonly used in active and loungewear, the innovation here is not so much in the garments themselves, but in the ways they're styled and presented. J.Crew, Uniqlo, Alex Mill and Everlane are unsurprisingly well-equipped for this way of dressing, but so are less traditional brands like Donni and Leset. Things have majorly opened up in terms of what and where you can shop for work, but for many, that means a paradox of choice: How do you decide what wear to work when you can almost wear anything?
The gallery below, comprising some of our favorite office-appropriate casual pieces from brands purposefully investing in this category (and some that aren't), is a good place to start. Bonus: Many of these comfortable pieces and outfits double as chic travel attire.
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