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We asked people what they’re wearing to the office. Their answers show how America’s definition of success has changed

November 4, 2022, 6:55 PM UTC
Has the pandemic changed office workers' approach to dressing for success?
Bo Zaunders—Getty Images

There’s an old adage: You should dress for the job you want. What’s implied is the idea that we need to dress for success.

Looking professional and dressing with the goal of one day becoming an executive—because that’s what we all mean by success, right?—used to mean no visible tattoos, traditional haircuts (i.e., no braids, no natural hairstyles, no Manic Panic hair dye), a suit, a dress, and khakis on “casual Fridays.” You know the image.

But even pre-pandemic, that stodgy, stuffy approach to office attire was shifting. And since many of us spent the better part of two years working from home, we’re left with questions about what we wear to work—and why—as we begin to slowly trickle back to the office.

Fortune headed over to Brookfield Place in lower Manhattan during the lunch rush on a sunny Thursday afternoon to see what professionals in New York City are wearing on days they head into the office, and how the pandemic has changed their approach to dressing for success.

Hannah, 20, intern at Brookfield

Fortune: Is this your first office job?

Hannah: I’ve had a couple of internships before, but this is probably my first serious internship.

Has the pandemic changed how you think about getting dressed for work?

I think so. I first got to college during the pandemic, so obviously I was dressing like a high school student. But I think during the pandemic I was exposed to more media on Pinterest, and I started subscribing to magazines. It was a really good time for me to grow style-wise.

Does your office have an official dress code?

The official dress code is business formal. Women are expected to wear slacks or dresses, and men are expected to wear, like, a blue or white shirt with slacks and dress shoes. I’m wearing heels right now.

How did you decide what to wear today?

I’m coming from school, so I wanted something casual and formal. I put on this sweater, slacks, and heels that are really comfortable to commute in.

Anything about your outfit you really enjoy?

This is my favorite sweater, it’s from Reformation. My pants are from Aritzia—it is very expensive, especially on a student budget, but I think it’s a really worthy investment because the quality is so nice, it’s really ideal for work, and I just feel like they’re designed for the New York Wwoman. My shoes are Everlane. 

Do you buy into the old adage that you have to dress for success?

I think so. I just like to dress up for work and have fun with it because it adds excitement to my day.

Austin, 34, visual merchandiser at J.Crew

Did the pandemic change how you approach what to wear to work?

Austin: For me, no. The way that I work has remained the same throughout the pandemic. I’ve been coming in because I work hands-on with product and clothes. We haven’t really had the ability to be remote. Especially when it really was the pandemic and we were still coming in, I felt like this was the one opportunity to put on some clothes that you actually like, not sweatpants. 

It does seem like, office or no office, people want to be more comfortable.

Comfortability is for sure a factor. You definitely want to be comfortable at work. I think, at least for me, you want to be comfortable, but you also want to look the opposite of how you looked in 2020.

I love your leather pants. I always think that’s a move I could never pull off.

You can pull it off. It’s all about just getting a looser fit one. If it’s too tight you feel like—

Lenny Kravitz?

Exactly, but if you can get a looser pair then you can wear them to work.

Do you buy into dressing for success?

I think perception is a really important part of your job. For me, if I’m supposed to be the authority on how to arrange [J.Crew] products in our stores, then I need to look like I know what I’m doing. And I think that kind of relates to anybody’s job. That’s why some people wear suits to work, because they want to look like they’re in charge. That does resonate with me in some way. 

Isabelle, 22; Gabrielle, 27; and Liz, 27, merchandising at Saks

Has the pandemic has changed how you approach getting ready for work in the morning?

Liz: It’s just more casual. I don’t think there’s an expectation to wear heels to the office every day.

Gabrielle: We actually have to go in every day. I dress up because I didn’t do it for so many years, and I would just sit in my pajamas. Now I’m like, ‘Okay, back to what I was doing three years ago.’ But it’s definitely more lax. You can wear sneakers, and I feel like before it wasn’t as acceptable. 

Isabelle: This is my first time dressing up for the office. Before my first day, I was like ‘I need to get loafers, I need to get blazers.’ I was intimidated by the attire, but when I actually got to the office it was so chill. I can wear jeans if I want to. I can wear a skirt. I can wear trousers. It’s really versatile. The older people in our office definitely dress much more business professional than the younger people.

Is there an official dress code in your office?

Isabelle: Business casual.

Gabrielle: I would say it’s unofficial.

Liz: Yeah, I can’t see anyone getting reprimanded for anything. It’s really anything goes.

What about crop tops in the office? The New York Times just did a story about them being popular.

Isabelle: We do have a ban on crop tops. The rule is no midriff.

How did you decide on what to wear today?

Liz: I feel like I dressed up more last week, so I really just wanted to relax and focus more on what I need to do in the office. I went for comfort.

Gabrielle: I definitely just wanted something easy, like comfortable and chic. You don’t have to really think about dresses—you just put it on. Also, I feel like I’ve been running late this whole week, so I was like, “I can’t be late today.”

Isabelle: I was also kind of running late, so the first thing that popped in my head I just kind of threw it on. I threw on some trousers and I have a blazer, but you caught me with my sweatshirt. This is not actually my outfit.

The sweatshirt is because it’s freezing in our office, so a lot of the time people will put on sweatshirts or cardigans once they get to the office. 

But this is what you’re wearing around the office? I think it’s dope.

Isabelle: Yeah.

Gabrielle: She happens to change a lot, actually. She has like five jackets on her chair.

Do you all buy into dressing for success? Do you think it’s changed at all during the pandemic?

Gabrielle: I believe in that. I’m 27, so I think my mindset has changed. When I was younger I was like, “Oh my God, I want to be cute and go into the office.” You can still do that, but you do have to be professional and you do have to look presentable. So I personally choose to dress up, because I’m going to an office. That hasn’t changed for me, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case for everybody.

Liz: Yeah, I think that’s true. I do feel like I can be more casual because I see people I admire in the office being more casual. You can win either way; you don’t have to go over the top every day, because the people I admire aren’t doing that. It doesn’t work against you. I think you can still be put together and be very presentable even if it isn’t a suit or a blazer.

I want to wear sweatpants to the office one day. What are your thoughts on sweatpants in the office?

Liz: They would have to be done perfectly. Like, they would have to be put together so well.

Isabelle: Like a chic sweat set? It doesn’t even have to be a designer. I think it’s more so about the way you style it, the fit, and the material.

Alberto, 59, lawyer traveling on business from Mexico City

Do you think the pandemic has changed the way people dress at work?

Alberto: Fortunately, yes. I love to do my sport look and to be comfortable all day.

But just not to the office?

Eh, with age there are some privileges. I try to present myself well as an example to the young lawyers and respect the place I work as it’s more formal. But yes, we are now a little bit more flexible and that’s good.

You said before that people aren’t wearing ties as much now.

I love a tie, but we’re just wearing them less often than before. But if you have a client. and you know they wear ties, then you wear a tie out of a show of respect.

I really love your blazer.

Oh you’re too kind. You want to know something, I bought this a long time ago when I was in Canada and it was on sale.

Do you buy into the idea that you have to dress for success?

I believe that you dress as an expression of yourself. I prefer to wear what I like and in which I feel comfortable. What’s the meaning of success nowadays anyway?

Michael, 26, works for a performance marketing company

Has the pandemic changed your approach to what you wear to the office?

Michael: It’s hard to say because I never really worked in the corporate world before this. But I love working at this tech startup vibe because it feels like a fashion show runway in the office every day. As long as you look put-together, I feel like you can wear whatever you want.

Doesn’t sound like there’s any kind of official dress code?

Definitely no official dress code. I’ve seen some people occasionally looking meh, but I would never feel comfortable walking into the World Trade Center and potentially seeing Anna Wintour looking like I rolled out of bed. 

Are you hoping to run into Anna Wintour?

I don’t know where she’s been. Other people run into her all the time. 

Tell me about how you decided on what you’re wearing today.

I was wearing a turtleneck but then that was too formal, and it’s such a beautiful day. I try to coordinate with the weather. I don’t think I can wear the casual jean vibe much longer. I’m going to have to be doing sweaters for the next six months so this is like the last time to get out the jeans and I pulled out the boots because I guess they match. I’ve been waiting to wear this jacket since I got it this summer.

Yeah it’s great. Where is it from?

It’s from a thrift store in Barcelona. I saw it and immediately just loved it.

Do you buy into dressing for success? Has that changed during the pandemic?

Once you’ve established yourself at a place in a company, you have to just feel out what the vibe is. I personally don’t think that you shouldn’t be able to express yourself through fashion. 

Women, I think, have a larger range of options they can wear that count as professional. I think that should apply to men too. Why should you be limited to a suit? As long as you look put together and intentional with your outfit.

There was a time where dressing for success would mean you and I would be wearing suits. In what ways do you think that’s changed?

Work from home has made things more casual. I think people are prioritizing their lives more, and their needs. I think Gen Z is shaking everything up because honestly f— corporate America. F— corporations. F— capitalism. We shouldn’t be in a growth-economy mindset when the world is dying. Sustainability and growth are not synonymous. Like, sustainability is to work with what we already have and dare I say redistribution and socialism is…anyway, this is getting off topic.

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