Going casual in the age of COVID-19

By Sue Baldani

With many people working from home due to COVID-19, weekday dress is transforming from business casual to, well, just casual. Leisurewear and athleisure, such as yoga pants and stylish sweats, were already hot commodities for after work and weekends. Now, they are becoming the workday norm. This year, fall fashion is going to look much different than it did in 2019.

“Work-from-home is a category of merchandise that never existed before and is going to persist for quite a while,” says David Zoba, Chairman of global retail leasing at JLL, in the article, “How COVID-19 is Changing the Fashion World,” on its website.

 How we dress is not only about fashion. During times of great uncertainty and fear, people seek comfort, whether in clothing, food, or family. Along with the emotional fallout, there is the loss of everyday social interactions. Working from home can be isolating for those used to the hustle and bustle of an office. There is no longer bantering with coworkers during coffee breaks or stopping to chat at a colleague’s desk. So, if we have to be alone at home, we might as well be comfortable.

 People are now living, working, and playing at home, and their clothing reflects that. Instead of changing outfits for these different activities, they’re now wearing the same one for all three.

Lululemon, one of the best-known brands in the athleisure market, is experiencing a tremendous surge in sales after expanding into loungewear. And Betabrand, an online retailer that began its “Dress Pant Yoga Pant” campaign many years ago, has been enjoying steadily increasing sales after hosting a “Work From Home” online runway show early on in the pandemic.

An additional issue these days, especially when it comes to high fashion, is money. Unemployment rates are staggering, and even those still working may have taken a pay cut. This has changed the trend from spending to saving. Having the latest Michael Kors handbag or Jimmy Choo shoes may not be a priority, especially when there is nowhere to go and no one to admire them.

The contents in those designer handbags have also changed. Those fun extras that women used to carry such as body sprays and hair ties have now been replaced with hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and extra masks.

Traditional clothes shopping has also undergone a huge change. Shoppers may be hesitant to go into physical stores, so fashion retailers have shifted their focus to e-commerce. According to data from analysis firm Commerce Signals, online sales skyrocketed following the March closures of brick-and-mortar stores in the U.S.

However, online buying is not without its problems. One major disadvantage of purchasing clothing online is the inability try things on; the other is shipping costs. This has led to more consumers “shopping” in their closets. They are rediscovering outfits that may have been pushed to the back of the closet some time ago.

Joshua Williams, assistant professor of fashion management at the Parsons School of Design, in the Bustle magazine article, “People May Never Dress The Same Again After Coronavirus, Experts Say,” states, “Most importantly, this pandemic has made us realize that we have a lot of clothes in our closets we are not wearing.

It’s forcing us to think about what clothes we will likely wear post-pandemic — especially with the idea of moving through the world in more comfort.”

Social media also reflects this new normal. Whereas pre-COVID it was common to see users showing off their stylish new outfits and accessories, now you see many more selfies featuring more casual clothing.

Another reason for comfortable and oversized clothing during a pandemic? Weight gain. With gyms closed, limited places to go, and  a refrigerator and pantry in the next room 24/7, people are finding it harder to stay fit. Those elastic waistbands help us to ignore the fact that we can’t fit into our tailored suits any longer.

Of course, there are times when business wear still comes into play, even while working from home. Bosses, colleagues, and clients may request to see you onscreen, so “waist up”  dressing has become quite the thing. Basically, wearing business attire on top, but then sweats or even underwear below.

This has also led to a new type of apparel called the “Zoom shirt.” This is a more office-friendly shirt that is donned only while having online meetings.

In the article, “The Video Call is Starting. Time to put on your Zoom shirt,” Maria Rugolo, an apparel industry analyst for the NPD Group, states that according to a company poll, only 10 percent of people actually get dressed in business attire to work from home. The majority just slip into and out of Zoom Shirts.

Despite the trend to casual wear, there are people who are still interested in adding some unique style into their everyday lives, especially when they do leave the house. Instead of having to wear those ubiquitous, plain surgical masks, some designers and consumers are making cloth masks that go specifically with certain outfits, either by using matching fabric or fabric that accentuates the colors in the clothes.  Masks have become another accessory, albeit a necessary one, so why not dress them up?

What about post-COVID fashion? Will we go back to a more formal style?

“I do believe we will dress up for special events,” Dawnn Karen, a fashion psychologist, states in Bustle magazine. “But work attire will become lax. At a psychological level, people will still be fraught with anxiety. This has scarred us, and this will affect how we present ourselves to the world externally due to the inner turmoil the pandemic has caused.”

Other experts, however, are predicting a resurgence of the desire to “get dressed up.” They expect people to get bored with the casual look and go back to relishing the idea of  putting on a fancy dress or a designer pair of pants. Timeless classics, they believe, will also regain popularity.

With casual clothing most likely to continue well into the fall season, fashionistas may have to wait until the spring season to break out their favorite au couture outfits once again. Until then, make sure those Zoom shirts are within reach.

Written for Grosse Pointe Lifestyle magazine in Michigan.

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