IN A FREQUENTLY referenced scene from 1988’s “Working Girl,” Melanie Griffith’s character Tess McGill rushes into her office scrambling to grab a ringing phone while yanking off her Reeboks and tube socks to slide on a pair of heels. Although workwear has evolved dramatically since the commuter-sneaker era—with athletic shoes even infiltrating boardrooms—many of us still observed a distinction between work clothes and home clothes until the pandemic hit. Then came the advent of WFH outfits that, while hardly “professional,” took us from household chores to Zoom meetings to workouts to child-wrangling.
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As our work calendars begin to fill again with actual, if socially distanced, professional interactions, round-the-clock loungewear no longer fits the bill. For women who are teachers or bankers or museum curators, wobbling between home and office life, this fall will be a curious exercise in dressing for uncertainty.
A transitional workplace environment calls for a new kind of hybrid dressing. Carine Vinett, 41, an advertising executive in New York and founder of accessory startup the Best Friend, has started seeing clients face-to-face, relying on feminine dresses by LoveShackFancy, sufficiently presentable yet notable for their ease. Real-estate agent Orrie King, also 41, has been hosting in-person showings in a wraparound dress with a nipped waist by Dôen that has a similar best-of-both-worlds appeal. Bethany McDaniel, 31-year-old founder of the natural skin care startup Primally Pure, works from her Southern California office full-time and is rarely without a Janessa Leoné hat—a foil for unwashed hair and built-in sun protection for all the outdoor meetings. And while her initial consultations are still conducted virtually, San Francisco plastic surgeon Dr. Carolyn Chang, 53, is back in the operating room, to which she wears a pair of elegant but slipper-like Bottega Veneta closed-toe mules.
“ Women are ready to get dressed, but they aren’t ready to sacrifice the ease that came with dressing down. ”
Even women whose work remains strictly and indefinitely WFH are souring on sweats. “I’m teaching entirely from home, but I’m still planning to dress the way I did in the physical classroom,” said 40-year-old Sari Edelstein, a professor of English at University of Massachusetts Boston. “Clothes allow me to shift into different roles and I don’t want to give that up just because I’m at home.” New York writer and editor Charlotte Rudge, 43, has no plans to return to the office, but she’s shopping as if she is, with some modifications. “I always get excited for fall style…but now it’s much more about finding nice things that are also really comfortable,” she explained.
Though ready to get dressed again, women aren’t necessarily ready to sacrifice the ease that came with dressing down. “[Customers] want easy…but they want to feel good,” said Marcia Patmos of the brand and boutique M.Patmos, who reports that customers at her Brooklyn shop have been buying versatile pieces with a forgiving fit, like the square-necked cotton “Georgia” blouse from her line. Both Ms. McDaniel and Ms. Vinett are gravitating to utilitarian jumpsuits—“They’re an easy way to look chic and pulled together,” said Ms. Vinett. Dr. Deepika Chopra, 37, who holds a doctorate in clinical health psychology and calls herself an “optimism doctor,” has her own formula: “[I’ve] been really into items that are soft and cozy, but structured, like linen blazers and casual suit sets.”
For her new home-to-office lifestyle Dr. Chang has embraced knitwear for its unfussy elegance and, admittedly, its ability to camouflage pandemic weight gain. “No restricting silhouettes,” she said. “I just bought a few knit dresses from Bottega Veneta and knit ensembles from Chanel. [They’re] very fashionable but easy to move in and wear.”
As we continue to conduct most of our work virtually, the Zoom-friendly top’s value hasn’t receded. “It’s important to have something interesting happening on top,” explained Elizabeth Duffy, 42. The Dallas-based attorney with three kids under 10 likes boxy silky tops by Everlane for video mediations, while 27-year-old Morgan Young, a New York producer and photo editor in the beauty industry, prioritizes dresses with an appealing neckline like Co’s tiered midi style (“It’s so good I bought it in multiple colors,” she said). And don’t forget the crisp button-down, a summer go-to for Bo Carney, 41, co-founder of Mohawk General Store in Los Angeles. At peak pandemic, “throw a shirt on it” became the fashion equivalent of the food world’s “put an egg on it”: a quick, surefire boost for anything the shirt tops.
Accessories are resurfacing—signaling a return to normalcy. “If I don’t put on earrings I don’t feel dressed,” said editor Caitlin Leffel, 39, who bought her now-favorite pair, studs by Ippolita Ferrari Ochi, from M.Patmos. The store’s Ms. Patmos confirmed that all the earrings at her shop are selling well, because you can leave them in and they don’t compete stylistically with masks. Professor Edelstein relies on earrings to finesse her teaching outfits: “I’m leaning on accessories—especially earrings—to bring some wit and texture to my Zoom persona,” she said.
Shoes still matter, even for those whose work remains confined to the perimeter of Zoom. But they’ve taken a turn toward Comfyville. “I do not miss wearing heels,” said Dr. Chopra. “I’m excited for boots again this fall, even if I am homebound.” Ms. Rudge agrees; she just purchased Loeffler Randall knee-high boots “with a walkable heel” and Tabitha Simmons beige suede lace-up flats, while Dr. Chang has descended from her former 3.5-inchers to a “more practical” mule or short heel. Despite the fact that only the top quarter of her ensemble is visible, “I still care about what my outfit looks like,” she insisted. “A good outfit still gives me joy.” That joy can be life-affirming—and even generative. “There’s something about looking the part that translates to…feeling more confident and productive,” said Ms. McDaniel.
For those who’ve grown accustomed to being productive with a little bowl of kettle chips by their side, looking the part can involve an elastic waistband. The elasticized waist is not just for leggings; it has shown up in straight-leg, knife-pleated (and, thrillingly, wrinkle-proof) Pleats Please pants and voluminous, swingy La DoubleJ silk skirts in kaleidoscopic prints. Other pieces that look put-together without feeling constricted: Nili Lotan’s drapey, just-structured-enough satin blazer, or Rachel Comey and Dries Van Noten’s upgraded sweatshirts for those who simply aren’t quite ready to part ways with terry.
While dressing with physical comfort in mind may be more important than ever, so too is psychic comfort. “I’m all about wearing a hug, whatever that is to you,” quipped stylist Karla Welch, 45. For Priya Mohindra, 44, associate head of marketing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, that means color. While so much remains precarious, our style is something small we have control over. “It’s an empowering way to put ourselves in a better mind-set,” said Ms. Carney. As we enter a season of uncertainty, there’s reassurance in knowing we can be dressed for wherever the day takes us.
I Don’t Want to Dress Like a Spork!
In which one woman refuses to further blur the lines between her personal and professional lives with ‘best of both worlds’ hybrid work looks
I MISS THE contrast between home clothes and work clothes—my days have been bleeding into each other for months and I’m not interested in prolonging that. If I’m working half at my Brooklyn apartment and half at an office, I plan to fully commit to each half stylistically—not force my outfits into some heinous hybrid like a spork or a car-meets-truck El Camino. As adamant as I am that I will wear heels on my first day back in the office, I’m equally adamant that I will continue to wear a pajama set when sipping pre-commute coffee on my couch.
Melissa Berman, 65, the president and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, is equally stubborn about adhering to proper professional attire. “I really miss my work clothes…I’m still emotionally attached to the clothes that I used to wear. The pent-up demand to wear [them] is absolutely something that I feel.” What’s more, she bought a couple of pieces ahead of the pandemic, including a pair of luxe linen pants, which have not yet left her closet. “I don’t feel like I have to sit down and create a new wardrobe,” she said.
I can relate. On March 9, I started a new job—the first I’ve had where I could wear something other than jeans and a T-shirt to the office without feeling overdressed. I spent most of the weekend before my first day ravenously exploring sections of my closet I’d ignored apart from special occasions, planning combinations of blazers, two-inch pumps and silky slacks. On March 12, my new office sent everyone back to their apartments to work from home for the foreseeable future. Since then, those clothes have stayed in my closet, still untouched and unseen. So why would I spend $250 on a set of professional “polished pajamas” when I already have hangers of chic crêpe-de-chine dresses and checkered trousers begging to be shown off?
So no, I have no interest in cobbling together some Frankenstein wardrobe. Give me sweatpants or give me a full-on skirt suit. I want nothing in between. —Sara Bosworth
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Appeared in the September 5, 2020, print edition as ‘Best of Both Worlds.’