Work and weekend wardrobes – do we need boundaries?
Leisure and office clothes are becoming increasingly interchangeable.
Boundaries are important for children, friendships and work. Before the pandemic, they were vital for my wardrobe too.
Back then, my clothes were earmarked either for the office (a smart dress, a pencil skirt), dossing about at home (jeans), or going for Saturday drinks (a silk top, maybe). Wearing the same floral blouse at a midweek meeting and the weekend felt wrong, as if I was sullying my professional persona or tainting leisure time with work. Then lockdowns happened, and I just gave into The Great Slobification.
When the world opened again, I assumed wardrobe divisions would return, perhaps even strengthen. For some, they have. Polly McMaster, chief executive and co-founder of women’s workwear label The Fold, says that many of her customers in professional services are buying suits and smart dresses: “We’ve seen a strong uptick in tailoring and bold colours [as well as] form-fitted dresses.” The outfits reinforce their professional identities – “It is part of their presentation,” she says. Other office workers tell me of their delight at returning from the workplace, shrugging off their trouser suits and changing to relax in their jogging bottoms.
Yet for me, the blur has continued. I earmark a jacket or smart trousers for formal events, interviews or meetings, but my weekend clothes are increasingly interchangeable with work ones. I wear white Nike high-top trainers to the office and a smart BA&SH floral blouse for a coffee with friends. This has been aided by the relative informality of the FT’s office. No one expects high sartorial standards from a journalist (apologies to chic colleagues I may have maligned).
The broader casualisation of office-wear also plays a role. “Since the 1970s, there’s been a constant move to allow for more personal expression in attire,” says Richard Ford, a professor at Stanford Law School and author of Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History. “At first, this was countercultural, but it is now an established part of the corporate ethos. Tech’s increasing influence has meant that others have followed its dress code.”
Yet this blurring of dress codes irks me, the latest sign that the distinction between the two worlds – work and private – has collapsed. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg saw this coming more than a decade ago, when he made an argument for “one identity”: “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” he told David Kirkpatrick in an interview for Kirkpatrick’s 2010 book, The Facebook Effect. Had it come to this? The Meta founder had become my style guru. Surely I needed to resurrect some wardrobe boundaries?
Some industry experts are unconvinced by my nostalgic hankering for a bifurcated wardrobe. Amy Smilovic, founder and creative director of Tibi, is horrified. “It encourages overspending, overcrowding and overpacking,” she tells me over Zoom. “This concept of having different closets for different needs is a made-up marketing need. So much of this is [about] getting people to spend.”
Most items of clothing are adaptable, she maintains: a blazer can be worn with running tights to travel to the gym; there’s no need for a special hoodie. Shirts should be worn both at the weekend and at work, but styled in different ways.
Lee Woodruff, an author and presentation consultant, agrees: “I can walk into a private equity firm [in] black pants and a blazer; I will wear Nikes but rock the jewellery.”
Versatility is more important than ever, according to John Lewis which has observed the increasing demand for clothes, including trenchcoats and Mary Jane flats, that can be worn at the weekend and at the office. “Things are merging more,” says Queralt Ferrer, the department store’s fashion director. “People are wearing denim with a blazer to the office.”
My latent yearning for an outfit divide is a backward step, says Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School and author of Redesigning Work: How to Transform Your Organisation and Make Hybrid Work for Everyone. “We have multiple selves. Each could have their own outfit,” she says. “The main differential is not home versus the office but client-facing versus non-client-facing,” she says. As she points out, the office is just one element of work.
This perspective is backed by personal stylist Henry Wilfrid. When he meets his clients, who predominantly work in professional services, he asks them to fill out a pie chart to determine what proportion of their days are spent at a desk, presentations and meetings. Typically only a tiny amount requires a “killer look”, which might come down to styling with jewellery, a smart jacket or immaculate hair. “Polish is not so much the clothes but grooming and care,” he says.
One aspect that his clients are reluctant to give up is comfort. “We’ve become used to not putting on a narrow pointed shoe or a piece of tailoring that cuts you at the waist when sitting down,” he says.
Reflecting on my former work-home wardrobe divide, I realise that it was wasteful to segment, and left so many clothes unworn. If I could learn to switch off from work at the weekend – difficult with a smartphone always at hand – then maybe I could overcome my rigidity about my outfits divide. Just don’t let Zuckerberg know he was right all along.
Emma Jacobs © 2023 The Financial Times