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Enough with the WFH sweatpants. Dress like the adult you’re getting paid to be

Enough with the WFH sweatpants. Dress like the adult you're getting paid to be
(Lauren Martin / For The Times)

I’ve waited, watched and bit my tongue during the last month of the pandemic-induced work-from-home era but I just can’t take it any more. Please, can we all put away those sweatpants, ratty, gray, decades-old collegiate sweatshirts and obscure minor league baseball caps and start our workdays looking like we deserve the paychecks we’re lucky enough to be earning while the world around us burns? Especially, for the love of all that’s holy, if there’s a group video conference involved?
How to dress for work when you’re working from home has been written about a lot over the last four weeks — including in the pages of The Times, where an early take on the topic suggested that you don’t really need to dress as if you’re going to the office. I couldn’t disagree more. For me, the WFH wardrobe is all about the three Rs: ritual, respect and reality. (Let me say at the outset that I don’t consider myself any kind of fashion plate. My personal sense of style falls somewhere between Vermont rural casual and West Coast preppy, but after 13 years of writing runway reviews for this paper, even I can tell when someone needs to switch up their style game.)

Ritual


There’s something inherently grounding about the daily ritual. I won’t even consider punching the virtual time clock until I’m showered, shaved and fully dressed. This includes shoes — especially shoes — even if I don’t intend to leave the house. (If I do end up breaching the perimeter, there’s an elaborate protocol involving a second pair of shoes and a period of porch quarantine). Today, for example, I’m wearing a black-and-red check Brooks Brothers non-iron, button-down shirt, a pair of black Levi’s 559 five-pocket jeans, Stance socks and black Adidas Samba AV sneakers. I wore some version of this yesterday, the day before that and the day before that. I’ll be wearing some version of it tomorrow too and every work day until it’s time to return to the office, at which point I’ll probably kick it up a notch — by wearing a hat. (Everyone knows you shouldn’t wear a hat indoors.)

Ready, set, reframe: Instead of stressing out about coronavirus and the shutdown, let’s use this time of social isolation to prioritize self-care and mental wellness.

You’re more than likely laughing at me right now, sitting there in your yoga pants and your zip-front Patagonia faux fleece thrown over a circa-2000 Coldplay concert T-shirt sourced from the bottom of the hamper — your bare feet swinging wild and free under your Ikea Skarsta worktable. Your slouchy henleys, underwire bras, nice jeans and dry-clean-only designer tops are now shunted to the back of the closet like enriched polonium. If this sounds somewhat familiar, you probably don’t need the structure and reassurance of the daily armor donning to mark the start of your work day. Good on you for not being so rigidly ritual-bound.

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But think ahead, just for a minute, to that day, weeks or maybe even months away, when it is finally time to put away the stretchy pants, find a pair of socks that match and feel the burn of re-entering the workplace. What masochist invented the collared shirt? Where did you even put those belts? Who knows? What I do know is that I’ll be all armored-up and ready to go, and you’re probably going to feel like you’re shrugging into a straitjacket you won’t be able to take off for five days.

Respect

Remember how shocked everyone was in June when then-candidate Andrew Yang turned up at the first Democratic debate without a necktie? Or how bonkers people went on that fateful day in 2014 when President Obama had the audacity to wear a tan suit? Your muscle-T-and-dolphin-shorts look — the one you wear as you’re trying to navigate Zoom from your home office — is kind of like that. It doesn’t matter, but at the same time it kind of does. (Not to mention that these lackluster clothes pull focus from whatever message you’re trying to communicate.)

In a best-case scenario, deviating from your expected workplace dress code will lend you an air of calculated insouciance and devil-may-care individuality, but we all know those cargo shorts, second-skin jeggings with the ripped knees, camouflage-print “Duck Dynasty” hoodies, sports bras and NSFW T-shirts (yes, even that one with the photograph of Johnny Cash flipping the bird) aren’t exactly going to telegraph calculated insouciance.

Andrew Yang without a necktie
Andrew Yang’s decision not to wear a necktie for the July 31, 2019, Democratic presidential primary debate might have been part of his signature style, but it also caused a stir.
(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

And if your job came with an explicit dress code, it stands to reason that you should adhere to that dress code when you’re doing your job — whether you’re going to be visible to your boss, your coworkers or customers or not. It’s not only a sign of respect. It also demonstrates your ability to follow the rules even when no one is watching. (If you disagree with this, you’re probably the kind of person who, late at night when no one is around, doesn’t wait for the stoplight to change before driving on.)

Reality

Maybe what bothers me most about the enthusiastic embrace of grubbing-about-the-house clothes — particularly in instances where we’re brought face to face with our bosses through the miracle of video teleconferencing — is that each time the camera goes live, another tiny crack appears in the carefully constructed facade of our day-to-day reality; we’re given another inadvertent glimpse behind the curtain and see that the great powerful Oz is but an old man pulling levers and making noises. This extends not just to our own bosses but also to those who pull society’s greater levers of power and influence.

Scrolling past a photo of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour sitting in her home office in sweatpants or turning on the TV to find CNN anchor Chris Cuomo hunkered down in his basement recovering from COVID-19 and clad in a casual shirt instead of a jacket, dress shirt and tie is as profoundly unsettling as is the black-and-white photo of Jim Henson holding a hand aloft, up to his elbow in the green felt undercarriage of Kermit the Frog.

From watching an NBA game to going out to dinner, so much of what we took for granted back in early March has been ripped away from us. Must we also suffer the indignity — right now — of knowing which of our co-workers prefers to plod around the house in a fishing vest and pork pie hat? What is seen cannot be unseen, and some day you’ll all be back together, clustered around a conference table. And everyone there will know exactly what you’re going to change into when you get home.

Sure, you can wear whatever you want when you’re working from home. However, I really wish you wouldn’t.


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