Kira Reed used to shop for clothes at places like American Eagle, Gap or Old Navy, taking her time to see what was new and what she might like. But her life has changed since the start of the pandemic, and her views about daily fashion have become more black and white, literally.
Reed used to run her own baking business, but during the pandemic she started home-schooling her children, ages 5 and 7. She doesn’t go out much and doesn’t consider clothes a priority. So now, her clothes shopping often consists of going online and finding a white shirt and a pair of black leggings or jeans she likes, then hitting “5” on the quantity button for each.
Other than that, her wardrobe these days includes some sweatshirts advertising Brunswick-area businesses, bought to help support the local economy during the pandemic.
“Clothes were hard to get during the pandemic. Then I started to think about how much work I want to put into my post-pandemic wardrobe, when most days no one outside the house will see me,” said Reed, 35, of Brunswick. “There’s so much less to think about when I know everyday I’ll wear black pants and a white shirt.”
After nearly three years of upheaval wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, people aren’t dressing for success as much as for comfort and peace of mind. Working from home made a lot of people realize they feel better – emotionally and physically – when not buttoning up their collars, cinching their belts and squeezing into patent leather shoes.
It may not be a drastic change for some people, but fashion experts and retailers say the pandemic has helped accelerate a trend toward people choosing more personal and comfortable attire, no matter where they work or what their daily routine is. At a time when the country’s economy and workforce are drastically shifting – and employees are hard to find – workers may have the upper hand right now in being able put their own stamp on the way they dress.
“People definitely got a little more used to dressing the way they like than to please management, and so things have really loosened up in terms of dress codes,” said Jaehee Jung, a professor of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware. “Because of the pandemic, a lot of people felt pressure and anxiety, and the way they look and feel can help them with that, help their mental health.”
BUSINESS GETS CASUAL
When workplaces, schools and stores closed indefinitely in March of 2020, people in the business of selling or cleaning clothes took major hits. Portland-based Jill McGowan, who sells her signature women’s dress shirts as well as other apparel all over the country, said sales revenue dropped about 30 percent in 2020. McGowan said some wholesale accounts she lost during the pandemic might never be recovered. Overall, sales are back to pre-pandemic levels, but McGowan has noticed changes in customer habits.
“We’re selling things with a more casual feel, though still professional and presentable. Even if they’re just looking for something from the waist-up for Zoom meetings, we can do that,” McGowan said.
Joseph’s in Portland, a high-end men’s clothing store, also saw sales revenue drop at least 30 percent after March 2020 and as much as 50 percent some months for a year or so, said Jeff Lauzier, store manager. But in February of 2021, business started “going gangbusters,” Lauzier said, at least partly because of a wedding and special occasions backlog. He found that men were coming in looking for nice suits for weddings and fancy affairs – which sell for $625 to $1,900, off the rack, at Joseph’s. He has also seen an increase in tuxedo sales since before the pandemic.
“All those weddings that were canceled because of the pandemic were suddenly on again, and we started doing double the number of weddings we’d usually do,” said Lauzier. “When the world becomes more casual, formal events become extra formal. People want to put a little more into special occasions.”
Lauzier has also seen a shift toward more casual yet upscale clothes for daily wear and for work, including for lawyers and other professional people. He’s been selling a lot of jeans from a company called Citizen of Humanity that are made of Japanese denim and cost $195 to $350.
Changes in dry-cleaning habits are another indication of how people are dressing differently. Customers of Maine-based Pratt Abbott, which has 12 locations, brought in 20 percent fewer shirts for pressing and cleaning in 2022 compared to 2019, said Georgia Barnes, marketing director for the dry-cleaning company. They’ve also seen an estimated 30 percent drop in two-piece men’s and women’s suits this year compared to 2019. Pratt Abbott, like Joseph’s, has also seen more casual clothes and more wedding gowns.
“Customers who used to send in mostly business casual clothes are sending in ‘casual casual’ clothes instead,” said Barnes. “This summer, the wedding industry boosted our numbers. We had a big season with wedding guests and wedding parties cleaning suits and fancy dresses, and we also had more bridal gowns than ever. ”
Maine’s most famous retailer, L.L. Bean in Freeport, also saw sales of oxford shirts and other traditional office wear drop during the pandemic, according to an email from the company, which would not quantify the decline. As pandemic restrictions lifted, the company saw its customers move away from sweatpants – a big seller when everyone was staying home – to jeans, sweaters and woven shirts that are “versatile enough to wear for multiple occasions.” The company cited a recent study by the market research firm NPD Group that found 44 percent of U.S. consumers are more concerned about their health and well-being than they were before the pandemic and are therefore more likely to buy more comfortable clothes and outdoor wear.
“Customers still want the comfort they became so used to during the pandemic, so clothing now has to be comfortable with attributes like stretch, easy fits and wider leg pants, while also versatile enough to wear to the office or out to dinner,” the company said in an email to the Press Herald.
SAME JOB, NEW OUTLOOK
This fall, Kelly Barden of South Portland gave away about six bags filled with her former work attire. She still has the same job, as director of corporate communications for MEMIC, a Portland-based worker’s compensation insurer, but not the same needs or attitudes when it comes to dressing for work. Some of the clothes didn’t fit her well any more because she hasn’t been quite as active these last couple of years. At MEMIC’S Portland office, she did a lot more walking to meetings and other parts of the building before the pandemic. Now, she works from home a couple days a week and, even in the office, relies more on Zoom for meetings.
But she’s also changed the way she dresses at work for her own comfort and to fit in with co-workers. Before the pandemic, she said, she and her co-workers might dress down a little on Fridays, but would stick to business attire the rest of the week. Now business casual is the norm, with people wearing nice jeans and dressy sneakers some days. The company has a “dress for your day” policy, in place since before the pandemic, that asks people to dress in a way they think is appropriate for who they will see and what they’ll be doing.
Before the pandemic, Barden said, she wouldn’t wear jeans to work, opting for dresses, blazers and dress shoes most days. Now, her daily work wardrobe includes jeans, dressy sneakers and fashion “athleisure” tops, with an occasional blazer thrown on top for a slightly more formal touch. A lot of Barden’s interactions are with others in the company, and she doesn’t want to be overdressed compared to her co-workers.
“I used to buy more business clothes than casual, I didn’t spend much money at all on casual clothes,” said Barden, 42. “But now I shop for what I like and what’s comfortable. Now the things I wear to work are also the things I wear on the weekend.”
Dress codes at companies had been evolving or enforced only slightly before the pandemic. But because so many people got used to working at home and wearing what they want, companies have made some changes to their stated policies to reflect what their workers have been through these past few years.
During the pandemic, Bangor Savings Bank started letting branch employees wear jeans on Saturdays and that policy is still in place, said Ryan Albert, senior vice president and director of human resources and employee development. The general policy for most employees now is “know your day,” Albert said. If someone’s at their desk all day and wants to wear jeans and a polo shirt to be comfortable, they should feel free to do that.
“We saw that, during the pandemic, comfort was king and that being more comfortable and casual helped people deal with the stress,” Albert said.
But the changes in clothing attitudes are not one-size-fits-all. Thinking differently about clothes now, for some, means buying more versatile, longer-lasting clothes or clothes made with sustainability in mind, said Sara Brown, a partner at David Wood Clothiers in Portland. For others, it might mean dressing the same, but understanding why.
Kira Reed’s husband, Anthony Reed, 35, works in information technology for Bowdoin College and has been working completely remotely since the start of the pandemic. Still, he feels that to get in “the right mental headspace” to do his job at home, he needs to wear what he’s always worn for work, usually khaki pants, a button-down shirt and a sweater.
Nick Morrill, a lawyer from South Portland, continued to wear a suit throughout the pandemic, even though most days he was one of few people in the office, at Jensen Baird in Portland. It was easier for him to go in there because he does a lot of work with paper contracts for commercial real estate closings and other transactions. And wearing a suit had been part of his routine for years, so he wanted to stick to it during the uncertain times of the pandemic. He does wear his suits without neckties, but he’d already been doing that.
Morrill has noticed that, since the pandemic, some lawyers around Portland have been dressing more casually. He’s thought about it and feels that wearing a suit is important to the way he interacts with his clients.
“I know a lot of my peers are dressing down a little bit, jeans and a sweater or a polo shirt are much more accepted,” said Morrill, 44. “From my perspective, if someone is hiring me for $300 or or more an hour, I owe it to them to fit the role.”