The post pandemic workplace: what to wear?
Isabel Berwick, Jo Ellison and Robert Armstrong
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This is an audio transcript of the Working It podcast episode: ‘The post pandemic workplace: what to wear?’
EmilyMy office wardrobe that I was wearing pre-pandemic is now in a separate room in my house because I just don't feel like I wanna get that dressed up anymore.
ChantalI have completely separate wardrobes for work and leisure, and it really helps me to just demarcate my day psychologically as I work remotely. It really helped me to psychologically go, OK, I’m at work now, and I’m social now. And when you’re working, sleeping, eating, you know, leisure time all in the same area, how do you let your brain switch off? And clothing was one way to have those markers.
Isabel BerwickHello. Welcome to Working It from the Financial Times with me, Isabel Berwick. Those two women who both work here at the FT are talking about some of the things that many of us have to consider in deciding how to dress for the office now. The formal workwear of pre-pandemic days doesn't feel quite right anymore. But what should we put in its place? For the answers for both men and women, I turned to two of the best writers on clothes and fashion. Jo Ellison is the editor of the FT's HTSI magazine and herself a former fashion editor. And Robert Armstrong is the FT's US financial editor and writes regularly about men's style. I began by asking Robert and Jo to describe the outfits they were wearing to work on the day we met up. I’m gonna start by asking you what you’re wearing. Can you describe it to the listeners? Rob, you go first.
Robert ArmstrongOh, I’m afraid I’m working at home today. I’m in jeans and a T-shirt in front of my laptop.
Isabel Berwick Have you ironed your t-shirt?
Robert Armstrong Oh, good heavens. I don't know where my iron is right now.
Isabel Berwick Jo, what are you wearing?
Jo Ellison I’m working in the office today, and I’m wearing a flannel shirt and jeans and sneakers.
Isabel Berwick Have you both changed what you wear to the office since the pandemic? Jo, I feel like you haven't.
Jo Ellison No, I would say I haven't, really. The way I dress for work is according to what I have to do that day. So if I’m working at home, obviously I wear a completely different outfit from what I wear in the office. And what I wear in the office depends on whether I’m going out for dinner that night or I’ve been to the gym in the morning. So sometimes I find I’m wearing a tuxedo at 7am and I’m going out for dinner that evening, and sometimes I’m just slobbing it like today because I haven't got any meetings outside the office.
Isabel Berwick Rob, have you changed what you wear to the office?
Robert ArmstrongMy life is extremely different from Jo's in that in my current role at the FT, I don't have that many public-facing obligations. I’m just kind of in a frenzy writing most of the time and shouting down the phone. And so the reason I dress up when I leave the house is completely for myself as an audience. In other words, I wear respectable clothes because otherwise it seems I’m not a grown-up and everything kind of goes to hell psychologically. So I, like, wear polished shoes and real trousers and a shirt and a jacket just to maintain the illusion of having my life together.
Isabel Berwick So you recently wrote about gorpcore, which was quite intriguing.
Robert Armstrong Yes.
Isabel BerwickCan you explain what that is and why it's so popular?
Robert Armstrong A lot of definitions of gorpcore, but I would say this, it's about wearing what were previously sport clothes and specifically kind of outdoorsy clothes in non-outdoorsy settings. So certain kinds of Arc'teryx jackets or Merrell shoes or Patagonia fleeces in urban settings. I find it, you know, a mild puzzle except for the fact that it's just another way to express a kind of individualism and casualness in a professional or social setting. It's another manifestation of the caring by not caring phenomenon.
Jo EllisonBut having that Patagonia kind of gilet become a kind of semaphore for a certain kind of a tech entrepreneur, VC guy who has a kind of uniform of his own now, which is based on casual clothes, but also signifies to lots of people that you’re a very alpha, high-earning individual.
Robert Armstrong Yes, I think that's right. Although as an American, I don't know what the word gilet means.
Jo EllisonLike a waistcoat.
Robert Armstrong I don't know what waistcoat means either. (Laughs) We call them vests here.
Jo Ellison Oh, a vest. I know. That sounds . . . that's a singlet in our country. It conjures Marlon Brando and On the Waterfront or something, not quite the same vibes.
Robert Armstrong You are talking about the Midtown uniform.
Jo Ellison The Midtown uniform. Exactly.
Robert Armstrong It is a collared shirt with a what I have just been informed is called the gilet in England, probably with some tan-coloured pants of a suspiciously stretchy material. Yeah, that is a special subcategory of gorpcore that exists, as far as I can tell, only to infuriate me.
Isabel Berwick Our colleague Emma Jacobs wrote an article about the slobification of the workplace, and we’ve brought our bad lockdown habits back to work. And Emma's talking about the blurring of home and work. Have you both got separate closets for work and home, Jo?
Jo Ellison I would say probably not, no. I disagree with the slobification of the wardrobe. I think for sure there are certain people who always worked at a desk and never see anybody and never had to kind of do anything where they might need to be in a kind of slightly more formal environment. Probably have allowed the elasticated waists to kind of get more expansive and all the rest of it. But I think by the kind of same token, when people spent money immediately after the pandemic, the first thing they bought was a lot of eveningwear. So I think there was a kind of huge rush towards sort of the new formality or to embrace some sort of professional look again. But I think you’re right, there are a lot of people who do have a work wardrobe and a non-work wardrobe. My shoes probably changed the most.
Isabel Berwick Between home and work.
Jo Ellison Yeah, I mean, slippers on when I’m at home for sure. Birkenstocks out.
Robert ArmstrongI have a home shelf. I mean, I have a shelf of T-shirts and jeans, and then the rest of the closet is nice clothes on hangers.
Isabel Berwick Yeah, I don't doubt it.
Robert Armstrong So it's in the same closet, but it's definitely different sections. I try not to let the two mix.
Isabel Berwick And does formal wear for work still mean a suit? Jo, I’m hoping I get a yes because I’ve just had a suit made. (Laughs)
Jo EllisonI think a suit is the answer to all problems. I think the biggest change for me is not pandemic or non-pandemic. It's whether or not I’ve gone to the gym or not. I think very few people go home between work and doing something else. So the idea of this, you know, 24-hour wardrobe has really become much more of an issue, I think, as we spend longer and longer outside of our houses. And I think the suit is a very useful thing because you can kind of put it on and it works for all occasions. So I think the suit in many senses, especially for women, has become something which has been a real fallback option, actually. I think they’re splendidly useful.
Robert ArmstrongA young FT colleague recently called me and he said, I’m doing this FT event and I need to know what to wear. And I said, do you own a navy blue suit? And he said, no, you know, and I repeated a line a friend of mine said to me a long time ago, which is that, for a man, the navy blue suit is like a refrigerator. You have to own one. And when one wears out, you just buy another one. It's a utility garment that solves a huge number of problems and is versatile across a huge number of scenarios.
Jo EllisonYeah, I’d say the same for me. I wear a black suit, maybe navy, but I wear a black or brown suit or a grey suit for almost anything that requires a degree of formality. And what I like is that I can wear it to a kind of black tie evening gala as well. I don't have to think about ball gowns or, you know, ridiculous skirts or things. Isabel Berwick So you must both hear from readers. What are the fashion questions they ask you most often? What are they most worried or ashamed about? Jo?
Jo Ellison Men often ask about what jeans they should be wearing, I think because as men are kind of increasingly comfortable wearing jeans into the office as well, they want to know what cut and what kind of shape is acceptable. And, you know, a straight indigo jean, I think to sort of stonewashed or whatever, they quite like talking about that. They like talking about polo shirts and what the alternatives to kind of the shirt and tie are if you want to do a kind of more casual wardrobe that isn't a suit but takes elements of the suit. And I think people still wear a lot of I think, as they call it, soft tailoring. But they definitely, they mix and match a bit more. So they’re trying to be a bit more kind of fluid in the sense that they’re not like looking really, really business sharp.
Robert Armstrong And the great thing, I mean, just to sing more praises of the navy suit, you can take the jacket off and then you’re just a person wearing a nice pair of trousers and a white shirt and it's a brilliant garment. But I actually get basically only one question from my male readers, and I get it very often, and it is where the hell do I go to buy nice clothing? And I’m appalled to say in America, it's a very hard question to answer. Let's stick to the blue suit or the dark suit example. There's kind of three options. There's places where the suits are quite cheap and not very nice, and you’re spending somewhere between $400 and $650 on them. You can get a made-to-measure-ish kind of suit for $2,000, or you can spend, I don't know, $5,000 on a bespoke suit, but like it's increasingly difficult for the guy. I was like, yeah, I can manage 900 bucks or a thousand bucks or 1,500 bucks. I don't know where to tell people to go.
Jo EllisonI think men do suffer from having a lack of options, weirdly. I think in a market which is either looking towards a kind of very sort of excessive fashionability, I guess a younger fashion streetwear or something that's just too directional and kind of complicated and terrifying.
Robert ArmstrongIf you wanna buy something that I don't even know how to describe it, like luxury leisurewear, that's much easier. That's what all the big European brands do now. You know, it's like really nice shirt, really nice soft pants that are like half cashmere or something; expensive, glossy-looking trainers, as you English people would say. You know, that is available everywhere.
Isabel BerwickIs that what we might call quiet luxury, Jo?
Jo EllisonWell, quiet luxury has been this real buzzword of this year. I think it's risen in conjunction with the cost of living crisis and it's kind of about these people who are swathed in incredibly expensive fabrics that you wouldn't otherwise necessarily know that they’re vicuña or, you know, the extra triple-ply, whatever it is. And it's sort of grown exponentially with that. But it's, I think quiet luxury is about wearing very expensive labels. They don't have any announcement. There's no logos, there's no kind of obvious branding, et cetera., et cetera, et cetera. And I think that's definitely become a sort of statement. Your workwear uniform for some people has become this sort of expression of self-luxury. But it's very simple. It's quite pared back. There's no bright colours. There's nothing jarring. There's like that Loro Piana, Brunello Cucinelli look that we see in Succession all the time and that Gwyneth Paltrow in court kind of look, the cream roll-neck.
Isabel BerwickCan you spot it a mile away?
Jo EllisonWhat brands they’re wearing or how much their wardrobe has cost? Yeah, I can have a good stab at it, yeah, I reckon, (laughs) because that's the irony of stealth luxury. Obviously there's really obvious visible branding if you’ve got like a massive great big Hermès you know, lock on your Kelly bag. So it's about like weird signifiers that say nothing but actually say everything.
Isabel BerwickI wanted to ask you both what's your advice to listeners who are starting new jobs? Rob.
Robert ArmstrongYou know, the old advice, you’re better off to be overdressed is good advice, especially because jackets and ties can be taken off. So, you know, look pulled together, polish your shoes, keep your eyes open for what your superiors are doing. And when in doubt, dress better.
Jo EllisonIt sounds like you’re working in a sort of Dickensian solicitor's house. Polish your shoes. (Laughter) I love the idea that anyone is going to be looking at your polished shoes, but God bless you son for trying. (Overlapping talk)
Robert ArmstrongThis is wrong. This is like the end of civilisation right here. Am I the last man who polishes his shoes?
Jo EllisonI think you actually might be, yeah. Although didn't that . . . But there was a shoe polishing, Kiwi shoe polish was going out of business and there was like kind of uproar about it and everyone was terribly sad about the demise of the polished shoe. I haven't polished a pair of shoes in 20 years.
Robert ArmstrongWhat are your shoes made out of?
Jo EllisonI don't know. I’ve got a lot of them. (Laughter)
Robert ArmstrongYou just polish them or else they fall apart. You spend a lot of money on shoes and you don't polish them.
Jo EllisonI think if you can rotate 700 pairs of shoes enough (laughter) you don't need to polish them (laughter) for the rest of the year. I think the best thing when you are starting a job is probably just have a good look around you and kind of take the temperature. If, you know, you’re working alongside somebody who cycled in and is still wearing their bicycle crampons at like 2pm in the afternoon, you’re probably safe to know you can wear whatever the hell you like. I think it's always quite nice to look presentable. I wouldn't recommend a huge degree of nudity on your first day, but hey, if by the second day you’re feeling confident, get them out. And then, and you know, I used to get in trouble because I used to wear a tunic dress and my boss used to joke about how I should put some trousers on, which is very Bridget Jones vibes, kind of 1997. But I quite like the empowerment of wearing not very many clothes when I was a young thing. (Laughs)
Isabel BerwickSo I just wanted to wrap up. A lot of our listeners might be wanting a revamp. You know, you’re middle-aged, just stuck in a rut. I’m speaking for myself here. Is there one thing you can do to update your look for the summer? We’re coming into summer here in the northern hemisphere.
Robert ArmstrongHmm. Hard question. Jo, you go first.
Jo EllisonWell, I feel bad because I feel like we’ve sat here and anyone listening just thinks we’re just gonna imprison everybody in this kind of weird, masculine uniform, which doesn't work for everybody. And I think a lot of women feel very, very awkward and uncomfortable about what they should wear professionally because it is a bit of a minefield. But I think just go home and try everything on and have a look at yourself. You haven't worn things in a work environment for a while or you’ve kind of slightly lost your way or you’re used to working at home. Just go and sort of have a look at everything that you have. Put it all on again, try it all on with different jackets and see what you like and what really you’ve grown out of, because I suspect a lot of things you just probably are never gonna wear again. And it's probably worth just doing a bit of a clear-out and then seeing what silhouettes remain and what kind of palette remains and then building out from there rather than going out on a kind of wild shopping spree and buying something completely unlike anything you’ve ever put on in your life, thinking it's gonna solve all the problems.
Robert ArmstrongI mean, I love to wear and I love to look at men in a linen shirt in the summertime, wonderfully comfortable, and a kind of nice soft blue or tobacco brown. I love that material. And you can get one without paying an arm and a leg. The problem with linen, though, is you have to know where your iron is.
Robert ArmstrongBecause it's gotta look crisp to look good. But every man should have one or two really nice linen shirts, I would say.
Isabel BerwickSo you don't go for that kind of rumpled foreign correspondent look, Rob?
Robert ArmstrongOh God, oh Lord, help us. (Isabel/Jo quietly laugh) No. Do not be rumpled.
Isabel BerwickI haven't worn a heel since March 2020. Am I alone?
Jo EllisonI think a lot of people have stopped wearing heels for sure. I personally quite like to pop on a heel every so often when I’m feeling a little bit vulnerable. I love walking into a room and being taller than most people in it. And you’re quite a tall lady as well. So I imagine occasionally it has its uses, but I don't really feel that anyone would be obliged or feel obligated to wear the high-heeled shoe now unless they were feeling it. Very few offices actually insist on a court shoe in this day and age, although I believe there are the odd one. I work with three people who routinely wear heels every day. And I would be very surprised not to see them in heel. But it's very much a personal preference in this day and age, isn't it?
Isabel BerwickI presume so. I just, I’m interested because when I go to events in the evening, a lot of women are in that floaty dress and trainer look which I’m now being told is not a thing anymore.
Jo Ellison(Laughs) White trainers are gone.
Isabel BerwickWhite trainers are gone.
Jo EllisonI have to say I’m feeling the cowboy boot. I think at a certain age the trainer goes and in comes a boot and maybe a bit of a Cuban heel. And I’m beginning to think that it might be the solution.
Isabel BerwickOh, it might be/
Jo EllisonBut I’ve just bought, like, possibly my third pair. I’m a bit worried about where it.s going.
Isabel BerwickRob, have you got a cowboy boot?
Robert ArmstrongI’ve actually worked as a cowboy. Somewhere in the closet there are cowboy . . .
Jo EllisonBut they’re polished.
Robert ArmstrongThey have been worn to wrangle cows. I mean, that was a long time ago.
Jo EllisonThey’re authentic. You’re authentic.
Robert ArmstrongYeah. I’m quite tall to begin with, and I don't find them wonderfully comfortable, actually. If I’m riding a horse, that's one thing. But otherwise, no. I see the sneaker or the trainer for men in urban and workplace settings is firmly in place. The white trainer or the most dreaded of all male shoes, which is the brown, sort of like a shoe, but it has a white sneaker sole on it.
Jo EllisonIt's a Loro Piana shoe and it costs a fortune. It's a real status shoe.
Robert ArmstrongAnd there are a lot of knock-offs floating around and high-cost, low-cost and in between. Looks terrible under all circumstances.
Jo EllisonIt's like the deck shoe of old always had a real . . . I really didn't like the deck shoe.
Isabel BerwickWell, I think Rob's cowboy adventures is going to be another podcast. But Jo and Rob, thank you so much for joining us.
Jo EllisonThank you.
Isabel BerwickSo let's rewind and take stock of our new work wardrobe. Everyone's more relaxed than we used to be in the before times when we spent five days at the office. But the advice to dress a bit smarter than you need to never goes out of date. Especially if you’re starting a new job and you haven't quite got the vibe of the workplace culture yet.
I’m personally pleased that heels are mostly out as well as very form-fitting or we might say bodycon clothes, although again, wear what makes you feel great. And a good suit and a crisp white shirt is never going to go out of style whoever you are. Make the first one blue and after that you could go all the way to black or even grey. And I’m never, ever giving up my trainers, even for fancy events. My thanks to Jo Ellison and Robert Armstrong for this episode. If you’re enjoying the podcast, we’d really appreciate it if you left us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. And please do get in touch. I’m [email protected] or find me on LinkedIn. If you’re an FT subscriber, please sign up for our Working It newsletter. We’ve got the best workplace and management stories from across the FT, plus my office therapy advice column. Sign up at FT.com/newsletters. This episode of Working It was produced by Audrey Tinline. The executive producer is Manuela Saragosa with mix from Jake Fielding. Cheryl Brumley is the FT's global head of audio. Thanks for listening.
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