December 1, 2023


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What if Working in Sweatpants Unleashed Your Superpowers?

What if Working in Sweatpants Unleashed Your Superpowers?

Bill Hall has 50 French-cuff dress shirts, twice as many cuff links, 100 ties on motorized racks and at least 40 pairs of suspenders, most of them silk. He hasn’t touched any of them since March 2020. 

Instead, his uniform has been a T-shirt, slippers and pajama pants, or baggy jeans when carrying his phone around in the pocket of his PJ pants started to bug him. Occasionally, he’ll indulge in a pair of silk pajamas—dark blue with white pinstripes—he received for Christmas. 

“Why get dressed up at home?” asks the 70-year-old Mr. Hall, who works in procurement from his Frederick, Md., home these days. 

What do we wear while working remotely? Whatever we want. Even as we are called back to the office, we might take some of our new sartorial selves with us.

We’ve gone casual, yes—goodbye hard pants—and we’ve also gone weird, authentic and free. Our hair is gathered in messy ponytails, left to its natural colors or textures, or hidden under beanies and ball caps. We’ve ditched makeup, razors, deodorant. A January survey from a consortium of academic researchers found that commuters spend an average of 27.8 minutes grooming and getting ready for the day, compared with 19.1 minutes for telecommuters. The latter are less likely to shower daily and put on fresh clothes, too.

Freed from seeing patients in person, psychologist Lane Vander Sluis has whittled his wardrobe down to three pairs of shorts and six T-shirts. Shielded from the elements in a forever 68-degree home office, several remote workers told me that it can be springtime all year long.

(Don’t worry. Dr. Vander Sluis, of the Vancouver, Wash., area, says he keeps an emergency stash on hand: a single pair of jeans, in case of an emergency such as an earthquake, tsunami or wedding invitation.)

Karah Preiss, a New Yorker who runs a website for book lovers, dons baseball hats and overalls.

“I dress like a middle-school baseball player!” she wrote me. “I’m not sure why…”

In the Seattle area, Guinnivere Rincon began her WFH journey by dutifully pulling on her office slacks and skirts. Slowly she slid into yoga pants, a pink fuzzy bathrobe emblazoned with cats, and finally broke into her stash of theater costumes. Occasionally dressed as a witch or werewolf, a ghost or Greek goddess to switch things up, she found she could fully concentrate at her computer.

“When you’re in your office you’re so focused on: Is my slip showing? Are my shoes OK?” says Ms. Rincon. “With a costume, all that stuff’s out the door.”

Forget dressing for the job you want—dress for the environment you’re in, says Erica Bailey, a doctoral student in organizational behavior at Columbia University and the lead author of a recent paper about remote work attire and productivity. Researchers assigned hundreds of participants, all remote workers, to various states of dress: formal, casual or “Zoom mullet”—business on top, stretchy pants below. Researchers confirmed compliance through photographs of the outfits participants selected, and measured the impact of the clothes through surveys.

The big reveal: wearing business attire didn’t consistently increase participants’ feelings of power. Throwing on comfies while working from home, however, boosted the workers’ feelings of authenticity and engagement, indicating that they were more immersed in their tasks and more present.  

“People could get more out of their employees if they let them express themselves in a way that’s relatively costless to the employer,” Ms. Bailey says.

Back at the office, Heather Jameson, an underwriter for a mortgage lender, often felt irritable, as if she had to play a part.


What do you wear when working from home? Do you feel like office dress codes are changing? Join the conversation below.

“OK, you’re making me come here. You get me from 8 to 4. That’s it,” was her attitude, she says. 

Since November 2019, she’s worked from her Little Rock, Ark., home. She slips out of bed, wearing soft shorts and one of 30 bodysuits she’s collected in various colors, grabs coffee and heads right to her computer.

“I work all the time now, and it doesn’t bother me one bit. It’s not a stressful thing,” she says. Wearing her work-from-home uniform, she has noticed that her Southern accent, camouflaged at the office, has re-emerged. She feels more like herself, and happier. The number of loans she finishes a month has increased to 80 from 40, she says. 

Tech companies figured this out long ago, says Richard


a Stanford Law School professor and author of a book on dress codes. Silicon Valley behemoths long attracted prospective talent with bountiful buffets, on-site salons and the ability to do it all in a sweatshirt. 

No wonder many of us are working longer and harder now that we’re comfortable at home, without the bookending ritual of peeling off our black pants and blazers at the end of the workday. 

As we head back to the office, a few days a week or all the time, Prof. Ford believes the standards will change. 

“The kind of clothing you see people wearing on Zoom is just going to become understood as professional clothing,” he says. Tailored sweatshirts, tennis shoes and some athleisure wear will be fair game at the office, he predicts.

Within limits, that is. Pajama pants, he notes, are still a no-go. And some bosses will bristle at the shifting norms. One manager at a tech company told me he can’t help but judge workers who wear baseball caps on video calls; they don’t seem like leadership material, he says. Other employees confessed that they just feel weird not slipping on a jacket for presentations.

But for most, there is a specific thrill in throwing dress codes out the window. 

“I’m going to start my day and do it a little bit more on my own terms,” says Alexander Lyle, a financial-services worker who sometimes wears his old soccer uniforms while working from his sunroom. “I’m in my own clothes and don’t have to fake impress anybody.”

Still, when he went back to his office on a hybrid schedule earlier this month, he was ready. He had been periodically trying on his old work wardrobe during the pandemic to make sure it still fit, so he was able to pull his suit pants, jacket and a button-down from the closet, despite relaxed dress codes. 

“I just feel a bit more prepared,” he says.

Write to Rachel Feintzeig at [email protected]

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