Is Leisurewear the New Black?

By Shantila Lee

It was the first week of lockdown in New York. Matt Williams, 26, attended his first Zoom company meeting, and boy, was it an eye opener. He is a Business Consultant at a huge multinational consulting firm where day in and day out, the big bosses – CFOs, CMOs and the CEO – strut around the office in their Zegna suits, setting a bar for everyone else. Ergo, Matt and his colleagues, who were suited up as per normal office workwear for the Zoom meeting, were blown away (and delighted) to see the CEO in a sweatshirt and yoga pants.

“Ties off!” the CEO chortled, suggesting that everyone should follow suit and that blazers and button-down shirts were no longer necessary. The next meeting, Williams reports that everyone wore t-shirts, hoodies, sweatpants and all manner of athleisure. One slacker who took it too far, donning a tank top with massive arm holes and shorts, was immediately reprimanded by the CEO: “Cover your tits for God’s sake man!”

As online meetings and working from home become the norm due to coronavirus-mandated social distancing, out goes a big chunk of work dress code culture previously accepted as canon. Removed from corporate office settings and sans close contact, we enter an age of stretchy pants and hoodies as they subvert their way into the fabric of our fashion consciousness.

Young women with laptop in bed

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Some are seeing the change create a positive shift within their companies. “There used to be a divide amongst the have and have-nots in my office,” says Jessica Levine, a 32-year-old marketing manager in a public relations company in New York. “You would know who earned more money from the way they dressed. Example: I wear Zara heels, my supervisor wears Gucci loafers.”

Levine goes on to describe how with online video conferencing – where fashion is no longer a factor – the game has changed, making it an even playing field for everyone. “Attitudes have softened, people are more forgiving, no one looks down on anyone,” she elaborates. Williams concedes: “I used to be so hesitant to speak up. Now, I feel I can be straight up with anyone – we are all in track pants and tees!”

40-year-old New Yorker Mila Thornton says the “fashion revolution”, as she describes it, has inspired in her a spontaneous surge of individualism. “I feel like I used to hide behind my pumps and pencil skirt,” she recalls. “Now, it’s like I can rid myself of this faux person I was trying to project and be who I really am.”

Thornton turned up for a Zoom meeting last month in a bright green, floral print Dries Van Noten shirt that exposed her upper arm tattoos, thick eyeliner and a ra-ra-red hair dye job. She said it was completely liberating, and her fellow office mates were all smiles and pleasantly surprised. What she didn’t like was a following note from her superior, that read: “Love your tats. Ease up on makeup. Good job on brief.”


“Ease up on makeup??” Thornton moaned. “I would rather wear more makeup than look like I just sauntered out of bed.” After a reply to her superior stating that makeup was part of her natural style, Thornton received a wan reply: “We have to maintain some level of etiquette.”

Could a general lax in office etiquette be a negative effect of the leisurewear movement? Williams cites the aforementioned slacker as one example, and another incident where a co-worker wore a Black Sabbath shirt and addressed a senior manager as “dude”, eliciting a mean frown from said manager.

Williams thinks that misstep came from the casual clothes that created an easy, nonchalant feeling, blurring the lines between ranks and seniority. Levine notes that one of her team members showed up in a baseball cap for one meeting, and she urgently texted him to take it off before the senior manager came on. “I think our bosses feel we are one step from ok-casual to being unceremonious,” she surmises.

James Reeves, a 50-year-old entrepreneur, has a different kind of problem. “The mere thought of getting out of my eat-Netflix-nap-eat routine is so frustrating,” he laments. “Let me quarantine in peace!” Reeves says wearing the same clothes, whether working or chilling, makes it super hard for him to get into work mode. He would rather “dissolve into the fibers” of his pajama pants and hit a new level of sloth-like laziness.

Procrastinators with a side of sluggishness like Reeves need that routine of putting on a tie and shirt for work, going to the office, coming back from work and changing into house clothes. Williams and Thornton agree – an addiction to leisurewear can really suck you deeper into a grim pit of doing nothing with your life.

So as Zoom meetings have become a sartorial hodge-podge without a sharp divide between work time and play time, does at-home work wear need a defined dress code?

The onus may lie in how brands like Zara, Everlane and Cos are styling trendy leisurewear. Major purveyors of office-wear pre-COVID-19, their marketing emails have gone from “get ready for front row” to “the new leisure edit” and “four lounge-worthy looks”. In a scramble to amp up sales, with all brick-and-mortar stores shut, high-street brands are exploiting a new market for cool, avant-garde oversized tees and leggings.

A comparison of two marketing emails from Everlane and Cos

Post-lockdown marketing emails from Cos and Everlane

Taking a cue from these new marketing campaigns, what would a Zoom meeting dress code look like? Stylist Cheryl Yeo says the key is to scrutinize how leisurewear evolved through the decades, from Chanel beach “pajamas” in the 1920s that looked like resortwear jumpsuits, to the 70s country club set that moved athleisure into the mainstream. Hence: lounge wear is casual wear, but it doesn’t have to be sloppy; there is another direction people working at home can take it.

“No one sees your pants in a Zoom meeting, so put in a little effort and choose tops that are trendy and well made,” suggests Yeo. A cashmere sweater from Everlane will make a great impression versus an old, overworn knitted pullover that has seen too many winters. Yeo says a top should say “I am up and able to exert minimum effort from my sofa”, not “I don’t really give a damn”.

“Go for crisp lines. The easiest way to look a little put-together is a cotton turtleneck or a ribbed sweater with shape,” Yeo recommends. “If it is too warm, opt for a nicely cut short-sleeved shirt or a fitted sleeveless knit.” She styled her last client in Topshop tapered jersey sweatpants and a Chanel mohair high-neck sweater, and the client reportedly fell asleep post meeting in the outfit. So yes – it can look professional yet feel super comfy all in one.

She also lists some no-nos: pajama tops, band or logo shirts, anything that exposes too much cleavage, and sport tanks. On the other end, Yeo thinks this is not a time for any degree of savoir-faire, so looking immaculately dressed or flashing blingy accessories is not necessary.

As we all tackle the delicate balance of casual attire, Thornton believes she has found the perfect in-between. In her most recent Zoom office meeting, she wore a bright pink short sleeved shirt from & Other Stories, kept makeup to a minimum, and tied up her red hair. She says her tattoos were visible, thus her personality shined through, but keeping everything else simple made her look more laid-back cool than over-the-top.

She says her boss seemed very pleased that she took his note seriously – but little did he know, she was without pants and sat in her undies throughout the meeting. “It’s my own tiny dose of insubordination,” she giggles. “And I have the coronavirus to thank for it.”