By Vanessa Friedman
Let us consider, for a moment, the Zoom sweater. Or rather, the ideal Zoom sweater. Will it be thick and reassuring, or thin and wrappable? Pullover or cardigan? Round neck, V-neck or high-neck? These are not immaterial questions.
The Zoom sweater is, after all, the seasonal next wardrobe step after the Zoom shirt: the garment that stays draped on a chair and tossed on for meetings as the long, hot, summer of the pandemic segues into cooler, more unpredictable months.
For some, this may seem liberating: A final declaration of independence from the suit, and proof that after months of dressing for ourselves — and our perch in the corner of the couch — we have been freed from the constrictive suiting of white collar yesteryear (and all the antediluvian fashion rules they represent).
And yet my heart sinks at the prospect.
Here’s the problem: How will we know how we want to dress if we’ve got no colleagues around from whom to take our cues? No role models to emulate? If a tree falls in the woods, and all that.
The other day, I got a text from Virgil Abloh, the designer of Off-White and Louis Vuitton menswear. He had just finished a presentation to company executives, and was sure he’d spent more time choosing between “the million hoodies I own” than most businessmen do on their suits. “It’s an extremely interesting tango: suits vs. quarantine hoodie,” he wrote me. He was trying to figure out how his choices would be read through the tiny boxes on a computer screen, given they weren’t the same choices his far away executive colleagues were making. Would they be jarring? Or a statement of independence of mind? Maybe a bit of both.
In any case, he’s not the only one wrestling with this question.
Lyst, the global fashion search platform, recently noted in its quarterly ranking of the hottest brands that, for the very first time, Nike had come out on top rather than a luxury fashion brand — propelled by a 106% increase in demand for loungewear and activewear as consumers went all-in on comfortable clothes to wear at home.
What the Pandemic Did for Work Wear
Workplace dressing has been moving toward casualization for some time — from the gold-buttoned power suits of the 1980s to the T-shirts and Tevas of the early digital age and — ultimately — the mix and match suits-’n-floral-dresses-n-sneakers of pre-coronavirus time.
Now the pandemic has accelerated that shift.
But while the charms of all-day snuggle shirts and make-the-best-of-a-bad-situation leggings may have been appealing at first, the joy of secretly breaking dress code rules (no pants!) and tossing on a work-appropriate top at the last minute is beginning to lose its charm.
While it once seemed alluring — and potentially salubrious — for one’s mental health to wear the garb that signaled relaxation to do daily battle with the grim news of the day, it has also lessened the enjoyment of slipping into them afterward.
In the same way that smartphones have made it possible to work at all places and all times, just because you can wear your stretchy old workout gear in front of the computer, doesn’t always make it a good idea.
Or so I increasingly think, sitting in my track pants and slippers instead of the shirtdresses and sari silk blazers I used to wear. I am beginning to believe I can feel my mind getting flabby and fraying around the edges — along with the frayed edges of my T-shirts.
It’s been fun, wallowing in workout gear. But it was a short-term solution. Now we have to figure out what comes next.
Dress for the Mindset You Want
There is something to be said for putting on the costume of work: for that slight bit of discomfort that can keep you alert, that tailoring of the mind.
When I was a freelancer and worked at home by choice, I made sure to dress and put on shoes each morning before I sat down at my desk — as a signal from body to brain that it was work time.
We all have rituals that serve as psychological cues; we don not just different clothes, but with them, different versions of ourselves.
And so these days, I have found myself staring nostalgically at my old jackets — the ones that sharpened my shoulders just enough to convince me I could batter down whatever barricade life might throw at me, or wrestle an idea or assignment into shape.
There is a reason the suit has survived as long as it has: as Anne Hollander, an art and dress historian, wrote in her 1994 book, “Sex and Suits,” it both idealizes and abstracts the body — smoothing it into a modern simulacrum of Greek statuary and making us all feel garbed in a version of our best selves (the kind that can project across even the most cavernous conference room).
And yet, those broad shoulders may read well in a meeting room or podium, but on a small screen they just look desperate, as if you are trying to hard to dominate — the living room? (Well, that, or auditioning to be an anchor/talk show host.)
A few years ago there was an attempt to introduce the term “workleisure” to our dressing vernacular. It did not take off, perhaps for obvious linguistic reasons.
However, as a concept, its time may have come.
Free of the saccharine preachiness of “athleisure,” but with the same implications of comfort, workleisure (a reward to whomever can come up with a better term) is more creative than “business casual,” which was really just a suit with a mismatched jacket and pants.
What are its hallmarks?
First, start with what it is not: anything that might be confused with sleepwear or that you might once have worn to the gym and which was created to wick away sweat. Similarly, it is not anything with too giant a shoulder pad or too corseted a waist; those kind of restricted silhouette-shapers call to mind another, more air-brushed and power-sheathed, time.
Then acknowledge, a new era — which this will be — requires its own signifiers.
For me, workleisure begins with the basics of the off-duty wardrobe (T-shirts, pullovers, track pants) translated in the materials and details of the office. That means elastic waistbands are acceptable, but only if attached to the type of fabric — silk, linen, wool, pinstripes — that suggests a different kind of effort. That, when you catch them out of the corner of your eye, suggest you sit up just a little bit straighter. It means T-shirts fancied-up with embroidery. It means jackets with the structure taken out, so they are more like shirts, but still jackets, and shirts with a bit of slink.
Ultimately, it means the Zoom sweater, but blanket-striped, perhaps with one of the stripes glinting with sequins. And with it, promise.