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When sweatpants aren’t a sign of defeat

As we work from home in our most comfortable clothes, what happens to the ideas of power dressing for work?

Going forward, waist-up dressing could become a trend.
Going forward, waist-up dressing could become a trend. (Photo: istock)

On my first day at this job, I remember walking into the glass and steel complex where the Mint office is located and feeling conspicuous. I was wearing a colourful Ikat shirt, black trousers and leather sandals, in contrast to a sea of people dressed in crisp shirts, pleated trousers and formal shoes. It was almost a uniform, at least for the men, and it did seem like the dress code gave them a sense of identity at a workplace where power dressing is associated with success. But today, as we remain physically detached from our workplaces during the covid-19 pandemic, is the definition of power dressing beginning to change? And what will happen when life returns to a semblance of normality?

The late designer Karl Lagerfeld said “sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants." There’s no shame in admitting that life is out of control at the moment. However, even in the middle of a graded nationwide lockdown, when dressing for work may seem like a minor concern, there is something to be said for putting on your game face. Not being in sweatpants helps you do that and it also lets you make the most of your wardrobe.

Workplace dress codes exist for a reason. Harsheen K. Arora, a psychologist and founder of the luxury leather products label The V Renaissance, says: “Workwear has an impact on you. When you dress up for work, your mind gears up as well, preparing you for the workday ahead because dressing for work has been an important part of your daily schedule.

“There’s nothing right or wrong with working in your pyjamas from your bed but you might not feel mentally prepared for work because you are making that your workspace," adds Arora.

Workwear also signals your role in the organization, and, at times, in society. “If you see someone wearing a white laboratory coat in a medical workplace, you will automatically perceive them to be a doctor, not a paramedic or a nurse," Arora says.

In addition, it’s about displaying respect for your work. While style is often about expressing individuality, there is a way to strike that balance at work without looking as though you don’t care.

So, while you may understandably be discarding some of the formality for digital meetings and keeping it completely informal outside the meeting space at home, what will happen when workspaces are again fully functional?

Arora suggests the scales could tip either way. “In the new normal, because people have been working from home in relaxed clothes, they might value dressing for work more. Or they might have become too used to this system." She does, however, believe that “people will want to hold on to what was once normal for them since everything else now will be new".

Sandeep Gonsalves, the founder of menswear label Sarah & Sandeep, says: “Adding a casual jacket on a shirt adds that slight bit of formality in any situation. In the days to come, we will see people experiment with non-traditional silhouettes." The shirt will also become a little more casual. “Lighter materials such as seersucker will become popular, especially because it’s summer."

If you are too comfortable in your sweatpants right now to return to trousers with regular waistbands, here is some solace: Gonsalves says we could see the emergence of “classic formal trousers with elastic waistbands and a lean silhouette".

In terms of colour, even though Gonsalves does recommend juxtaposing summery pastel shades with some darker tones, he says it will depend on the individual—and the work sector.

Everyone is now talking of a more mindful and consciously consumptive future in fashion through sustainable, eco-friendly designs—this is expected to spill over into the marketplace of slick workwear formals too. “There was already a movement towards dressing with ease but it will be more pronounced now. There was growing discomfort around being in formals to look your part (like a stuffy tie or tight clothes) and we will see a gradual shift to more relaxed clothing," says designer Anavila Misra.

Women have so far had more options—saris, salwar-kameez, Western wear. Misra believes that could change. “There’s an undercurrent of supporting Indian producers and that will become a bigger factor going forward to make our own economy robust. In that case, we will need some game changers in corporate structures who might need to take the first steps towards normalizing the kurta as formal-wear for men," says Misra.

We will also see innovations from brands in the up-and-coming category of Work-From-Home wear, which will probably concentrate on keeping styles interesting from the waist-up. “Waist-up dressing will become a big trend, right for working from home, especially those jobs that involve client interactions. This means there will also be more emphasis on accessories such as jewellery—which will be visible even virtually," says Manjula Tiwari, CEO, Future Style Lab.

Above all, people will understand whether they were dressing for themselves or to project an image of themselves. “If we aren’t making that effort at home, then maybe we weren’t ever doing it," says Misra.


Styling ideas that effortlessly add a touch of formality

Pants: Tie the pair up
Pants: Tie the pair up


If you don’t have elasticated formal trousers, you can wear ones with drawstrings, without worrying about how they will fall. Of course, good tailoring makes all the difference.

Necklace: Rise to accessorise
Necklace: Rise to accessorise


A little goes a long way here, like a necklace or a pair of earrings. Anything simple, even completely metallic, can hint at a well put-together attire.

Kurta: Puny prints
Kurta: Puny prints


For visual interest during video calls, a shirt, blouse or dress with delicate, small prints are fun yet acceptable. A natural fibre, as Anavila Misra suggests, is a great base fabric to beat the heat.

Blazer: Trail Blazer
Blazer: Trail Blazer


As Sandeep Gonsalves suggests, a casual jacket or blazer can elevate any look. While most of them are made from woven fabrics, a knitted one can be more flexible to work in.

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