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Back to the Office: What The Dress Code Will Really Look Like

Javacia Harris Bowser  |  June 8, 2021

After more than a year of working from home and living in leggings, we’re all wondering what our bosses expect us to wear when we return to the office.

For years, the office dress code for many industries has been trending toward business casual. When COVID forced many of us out of our offices and into a work-from-home setup, we suddenly found ourselves conducting business in yoga pants. But now that we’re heading back into the office, will we know how to get dressed for work? While some offices have clearly defined dress codes, others are simply telling employees to “dress appropriately.” But what does that really mean, in 2021? 

Dress Codes Aren’t One-Size-Fits-All 

When it comes to what to wear to work, there’s no one size fits all answer. 

“A dress code is driven by the industry,” says Jacqueline Whitmore, business etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach. 

Financial and legal industries are likely to have more formal dress codes than jobs in engineering or entertainment. 

“It also depends on one’s position with the company,” Whitmore adds. “If a person is out talking to clients, you’ll have to keep that in mind. I’ve always said dress for your client’s comfort, not your own.”

But Elaine Swann, founder of the Swann School of Protocol in Carlsbad, California believes that more companies are going to care about their employees’ comfort, too. 

“Companies now are starting to realize they’re going to have to do quite a bit more to keep folks happy and keep them engaged,” she says. This includes better pay and benefits. 

“And I do believe we will see the same thing as far as the dress code is concerned.” 

Megan LaRussa Chenoweth, a style coach and founder of Style Yourself Chic, works with clients in various cities and in a wide array of professions and she says their work attire hasn’t shifted as much as you might have expected. 

“In Fall 2020, I had a new challenge of helping my professional clients find and style ‘upleveled casual’ outfits that would take them throughout their day of Zoom calls and family obligations,” Chenoweth says. “Now that many are returning to their offices, we are learning that their dress code isn’t all that different from a year or so ago, especially in more traditional fields.”

Her client who is an estate attorney is still wearing business casual most days. Her client who’s a CEO of a construction company wears business professional or business casual, depending on whether she’s traveling for work, attending conferences or in the office. And her client who works in finance is still wearing her go-to business casual for day-to-day operations and business professional wear for important client meetings.  

Across the board, however, Chenoweth says she’s not seeing traditional suits being worn much. 

“Business casual seems to be the dominant dress code, which I saw was trending pre-Covid too,” she says. “This past year just escalated the less formal dress code for some people and companies.”

There’s also a chance you’re bored of living in leggings. 

“I think that in some ways people want to dress up again,” Whitmore says. 

Swann says she’s seeing this in her office, especially with her employees who are mothers and spent the past year at home juggling work with homeschooling their children. 

These women seemed eager to jump back into doing their hair and makeup and dressing up for work again, Swann says. 

“They have on their pumps and they look great,” she says. 

Dress for Your Day, Dress for Your Life

Some companies have a dress-for-your-day policy. If you’re just sitting in the office, you can keep it casual, while if you’re meeting with clients or representing the company outside the office in some other way, you need to step it up. 

But busy women need to dress for their lives, too. 

“I don’t see our world becoming ultra-casual now and forever, but I do see people being more practical,” Chenoweth says. “My clients are busy women juggling work, family and social obligations, and they need a wardrobe that serves them well. They need a business casual look for the office that with a change of shoes becomes appropriate for soccer practice with her kids, or with a change of accessories becomes appropriate for drinks with friends. This past year really highlighted this need, and many companies are following suit in their dress codes.”

Getting dressed for work also is about finding a balance between dressing for the life you have and the life you want. 

“Dress for the job you want, not the job you have,” Whitmore says. 

And Chenoweth has a client who’s doing exactly that.  

“I have a client that desires to make partner at her accounting firm,” Chenoweth says. “So, while she has been very comfortable in her lounge pants and Zoom tops this past year, she knows going back into the office a few days of week means looking the part of partner to help make her professional goals a reality.”

Who What Wear

So, what should you wear to work? If you work in law, finance or other fields that tend to require more conservative work attire, simply follow the dress codes that are in place. 

“At the end of the day, it’s what your employer tells you that you can and cannot wear,” Whitmore says. 

If there are no formal guidelines, opt for business professional or business casual – depending on your office atmosphere. For less traditional fields, Chenoweth says “upleveled casual” reigns supreme. 

“But the key is still looking polished and professional,” she says. 

What should you add to you back-to-the-office shopping list? Swann recommends comfortable but polished drawstring pants. Think linen or another flowy material. 

“We might not all be able to get back into our jeans just yet,” she says with a laugh. 

If the thought of wearing pumps again makes you cringe, opt for a wedge sandal. Add a blazer, roll up the sleeves, and top off the look with your favorite jewelry.  

“It’s a really cute look that can still send a professional message,” Swann says. 

Remember that many companies know that the transition out of work-from-home life may be tough.

“I have been doing lots of Zoom lunch-and-learns for various companies to help their employees get back into the swing of things with their professional attire as they transition back into the office,” Chenoweth says. “It may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be all that different. It’s all about selecting comfortable fabrics in more tailored silhouettes to help you ease back into office life.”


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Editor’s note: We maintain a strict editorial policy and a judgment-free zone for our community, and we also strive to remain transparent in everything we do. This post contains references and links to products from our partners. Learn more about how we make money.
Editor’s note: We maintain a strict editorial policy and a judgment-free zone for our community, and we also strive to remain transparent in everything we do. Posts may contain references and links to products from our partners. Learn more about how we make money.

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