Why The Concept Of Workwear Is Dead

If there is one fashion department that seems to shrink, little by little, each season, it's "workwear." It's 2016, and the idea of office-only clothing is becoming more and more outdated. Even the New York Times pronounced it "The End of the Office Dress Code" — an increasingly foreign concept that for many young professionals seems unnecessary, and, well, totally o-v-e-r.

The boundary between work and play used to be clearly delineated, in both life and in wardrobe. By the '50s, female workers were regulars in the office, clad in an unofficial uniform of formal suits (in conservative colors such as racing green, navy blue, and beige), high-necked blouses, and stockings. The '80s saw the rise of power dressing, with badass, boxy "executive" suits for women in similar cuts and constructions to those of their male counterparts. For decades, female "workwear" was defined entirely by what it strived not to be: It was not cloyingly feminine, never casual, on no account sexy, and fiercely non-frivolous. A work wardrobe played a powerful defense, protecting women from the predictable prejudices they faced in corporate settings. These personality-shrouding pieces would also be hurriedly discarded after the work day, and women would throw on something comfortable, colorful, and stylish instead.

Watching my mother and her generation of professional women in the '90s, there was still a clear divide between a woman’s conservative work persona and her after-hours existence; by 6 p.m., most working girls had shaken off the office and were knocking back cocktails in slinky dresses or cavorting with children in Jordache jeans. Like pouring a drink, collapsing on the sofa, or blaring music from the car stereo, changing out of your work clothes was a daily ritual that signified the end of your boss’ hold on you.
But this is a ritual that most of my generation is unfamiliar with. On a positive note, power-dressing became less crucial as women gained actual power in the workplace. Technological advances, slashed budgets, and corporate restructuring have also transformed our physical working environments; in many industries, much of the formality, gloss, and glamour is gone. Coworking spaces and start-ups have spawned environments that feel more like social gatherings. As more interactions take place via email or video-conferencing, there are fewer in-person client meetings, and as social media enables us all to create personal brands, we’re less reliant on Armani suits to make professional statements for us.

Our daily routine has also been turned on its head. We work longer and more variable hours, far beyond the stereotypical 9 to 5. Many of us are biking, walking, or running to work (I, for example, regularly dash out the door at 6 a.m. in my gym gear, and often don’t get home until after midnight), so our workwear also has to function as later-wear. With athleisure trending so heavily, and consumers prioritizing comfort, versatility, and casualness above all else, there is a real opportunity for fashion that nails how we actually live.

Yet, even though our career-oriented lives have changed beyond recognition, the notion of workwear hasn’t really grown up. There has been little innovation in terms of style and functionality. And the "rules" of office-appropriate clothing are a mess: In some industries, anything goes. In others, you’ll still be judged harshly for wearing jeans — or Lululemons, or a pineapple-print romper — to a meeting.

Of course, you could argue that “workwear” as a whole is becoming obsolete. In a world where we’re never off-duty, we don't have different clothes reserved for different situations. Yet workwear still has a distinct purpose, and is therefore worth serious consideration: It’s the "costume" in which we perform one of the biggest roles of our lives. It positions us within a tribe — our industry or our office — and signals how seriously (or playfully) we take that role. It’s a means of communicating with coworkers, bosses, and clients.

Rather than liberating our sense of style, though, workwear now occupies safe middle-of-the-road territory: Breton tops, dark denim, black blazers, comfy knits, pavement-pounding flats. We’re not fierce, immaculate power dressers, but we’re not making a fun off-duty fashion statement either. Workwear hasn’t become bolder, more innovative, more comfortable, or more multi-functional. Instead, it's become a confused category, one in danger of becoming creatively stagnant.

And that's a shame. With employers granting a millennial workforce greater autonomy, self-expression, and flexibility, there’s definitely a place for personal style at the boardroom table. Corporate culture has changed, and employers now want to see evidence of the personalities that they hired. And just as fashion has become more democratic, style has become a universal language — a way of connecting with clients, contacts, and coworkers across the world. In the 1980s, boxy suits were designed to put up barriers; in 2016, a well-chosen print can be an instant talking point.

That's why workwear is fashion’s most glaring failure this century. Because the most maddening misconception about fashion is that it is about strict adherence to a code — that fashion limits, prescribes, and confines us. Done right, fashion does precisely the opposite. Fashion helps us send a message to the world — and ourselves — about the person we want to be, so the world can assist us on that journey. Workwear has serious work to do. It needs to get started.

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