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The New Office Look Is 'Power Casual.' But Save The Stiletto Crocs For Happy Hour

When the coronavirus pandemic sent workers home and lives moved to the lower-resolution virtual world, fashion took a backseat. Crocs became an "it" shoe and "soft pants" filled closets.

As companies welcome back their employees, many people will have to think about what to wear to work for the first time in over a year. So, does that mean we have to change out of our sweats?

Robin Givhan, senior critic-at-large for The Washington Post, says dressing up and comfort will likely co-exist.

"I don't think that we will completely, or at least immediately, forget about how great it felt to be comfortable sitting at a desk for a large portion of the day," she tells Morning Edition co-host Noel King. "But I do think that there will be a sense of polish."

Comfort enters the office

Helen Lambert, an international trends expert and CEO of The Style Pulse, says people will wear clothing they're able to move freely in but are more structured, durable and sustainable. Comfortable dresses will replace the chic loungewear that was popular at the start of the pandemic. Men will let go of their ties and suit jackets and opt for more laid-back button-ups that emerged over the last few months.

"Now that we're coming out of the pandemic, we're able to go out a little bit more. People want to get dressed up again, but we still want to have the comfort," she says.

Looser silhouettes, including wide-leg jeans, the lockdown-favorite caftans, cardigan-like jackets and bedazzled sweatpants are becoming more common, Givhan says. Women's workwear company M.M.LaFleur has shifted its focus to "power casual" looks, CEO Sarah LaFleur told NBC News. Those, she said, are a step down from business casual.

That might look like a top, with the comfort and look of a sweater and the sophistication of a lapel, says Richard Thomas Ford, a Stanford University law professor and author of the new book, Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History.

He says that such "high-status athleisure" meshes with the adoption of hybrid working environments that include both virtual and in-person workplaces.

"If the clothing that people wore on Zoom seems appropriate, it's going to be starting to look like professional clothing," Ford says.

But the relaxation of workwear and the pursuit for comfort won't encroach on the desire to make a fashion statement, he says.

Dress-up is reserved for after hours

"I don't think the fact that people are getting more and more casual with respect to work really means the death of fashion," he says. "That human desire to kind of see and be seen is still there, but it might be shifting to our free time."

He points to our pandemic streaming consumption habits. The showy wardrobes on hit shows like The Undoing, Bridgerton, Emily In Paris and The Queen's Gambit captivated the sartorial-minded. Ford says the popularity of such fashion-centric media signals a strong desire to dress up.

"We might see this inversion where now people are going to dress up on the weekends and after work, because that's what you're used to consuming," he says.

Lambert, the trends expert, has noticed customers being more expressive with their fashion choices now that they can go out, wearing a mix of bright colors like green and pink. That's because they're rediscovering pieces they didn't wear during the pandemic or had time to reimagine how they could wear pieces differently, she says.

Gold Crocs were Questlove's fashion statement at this year's Academy Awards in April.
Pool / Getty Images
Gold Crocs were Questlove's fashion statement at this year's Academy Awards in April.

The "ugly" shoe trend that predated the pandemic, for example, shows no signs of stopping among fashion influencers and celebrities. Comfortable footwear is becoming a "classic" rather than a trend, Givhan says. Chunky orthopedic sandals, like German sandal brand Birkenstock and Japanese footwear brand Suicoke, are continuing to be popular.

Both luxury and affordable brands have taken note, helping ease the transition back to society. For their 2022 collection, Balenciaga released exaggerated hybrid pieces intended to be comfortable yet stylish, like their Crocs with stiletto heels or khaki cargo shorts layered over top of blue jeans. Coach debuted a skirt-and-sweatpants look at its fall show. British designer Molly Goddard proposed a poofy tulle dress with ruffles under a patterned sweater vest. Chinese online streetwear retailer DOE is selling baggier, layered styles.

Molly Goddard's ready-to-wear fall/winter 2020-2021 London Fashion Week show introduced frills dressed down with cozy sweaters.
Victor Virgile / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Molly Goddard's ready-to-wear fall/winter 2020-2021 London Fashion Week show introduced frills dressed down with cozy sweaters.

"We saw people buying much more comfortable clothing, whether it be yoga pants, track pants," Givhan says. "The industry is very attuned to the fact that people are not going to want to give up that feeling of comfort."

We will continue to buy clothes online

Lambert says that e-commerce is growing at the same pace it did during the pandemic, when Gen Z, millennial and Gen X consumers upped their e-commerce spending on apparel, footwear and accessories, because it's easier and quicker. "We've all become much more comfortable shopping online," says Lambert.

On the front page of MatchesFashion.com, a popular high-end online retailer, you can find both men and women in roomy-yet-tailored button downs, jeans in subdued tones with a tie-dye flair. There are clogs and sneakers but, on a cursory search, you won't find high heels. Dive into the women's section and you'll see "easy dresses"; for men, "easy dressing."

At least for now, it appears that "high-status athleisure" can stay.

Milton Guevara and Paolo Ortiz produced and edited the audio version of this interview.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.