When many employees shifted to remote work during the pandemic, their typical style and manner of dress also underwent a transformation. Heels stayed in the shoe rack and the frequenting of dry cleaners was rendered unnecessary by the Zoom mullet era—”business on top, pajama pants on the bottom,” according to the Urban Dictionary definition—as we sat at home, communicating through our computers.
But just as we are revisiting, well, everything we thought we knew after the last few years, let’s consider whether the old rules for dressing professionally still exist, and how they might help you get ahead in your career.
Dressing for work in the days of old
While many recent graduates and job changers may not have had to don a suit to secure an interview, think back to the pre-pandemic days of interviewing for your very first internship or job. If your school’s career center counseled you to play up your professionalism to the hilt, it might have been the first time you bought and wore a suit.
HR operations manager Christina Theine graduated from her college’s business school in 2011, and had purchased new clothes for interviewing. Prior to beginning her job at a big four consulting firm, she remembers going to shop for suits.
“The company had a formal dress code, down to if you wore a skirt you had to wear pantyhose and closed toe shoes,” she says. “Beginning my work life in such a conservative environment really shaped how I have chosen to dress since.”
As she continued to work in the office, she took her cues from other colleagues and leadership and amassed a collection of professional clothes, including suits, silk blouses, pencil skirts and flats.
“I felt it was safer to be more conservatively dressed—like the saying goes, it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed,” Theine says.
When she took a role in Japan with the same company, she found the culture to be even more conservative in terms of dress. For example, women there didn’t wear nude-colored tights, only black ones.
Theine continued working in an office setting for some time—and then came the pandemic. Today, the role she has is fully remote, which has slightly evolved her workwear approach.
Scale your attire
Whether you’re in the office or working remotely, Theine advocates letting the type of meeting or interaction you’re having dictate your dress.
“If it’s an internal meeting, I might dress more casually in a plain T-shirt or a company fleece,” she says. “If it’s a client meeting, I might put a nice cardigan over my T-shirt to take the call. I recently did a demo for executive leadership and wore a suit jacket over a blouse, wanting to look like how I would if I was presenting in an office. I scale my attire from the waist up depending on the audience of the meeting.”
While Theine also takes style cues from clients, she believes that it’s not in poor taste—and can even send a strong, potentially beneficial message—to be overly professionally dressed.
“Even if the client was wearing khakis and a golf polo, if I was in a suit I would never look out of place,” she says.
The messages your clothing sends
Something that’s unchanged in this new hybrid model? That the clothing you choose to wear can send unintentional messages and change perceptions of your character.
“You don’t want anything to take away from the material you’re presenting,” Theine says. “If I was wearing a pajama top, someone might have a hard time listening to me because they’re distracted by what I’m wearing. It’s a level of professionalism and a respect toward others.”
Theine believes that dressing professionally for work can help you be taken seriously and even boost your chances of getting a promotion.
“I was always told to dress for the job you want, so as a female I think it’s better to dress more professionally,” she says. “You want your skirt or dress to fingertip length, and don’t want to wear a stiletto heel. While some people may say that is a sexist way of thinking, those things can be distracting and take away from others being able to envision you as the boss or leader.”
With the interns she works with, Theine applauds those who show up virtually the same way they’d show up in person.
“One of our summer interns wore a suit for their interview, and it showed they put a lot of weight and thought into it,” she says.
She also makes a point of complimenting those she manages when they dress professionally for work in order to boost their self-confidence.
“If a female intern is wearing a tasteful suit jacket over a shift dress, I might say ‘Sally, I love your jacket, it’s really beautiful.’ I’m telling her I see you, I see you trying, and you’re showing up professionally,” she says.
Photo by mavo/Shutterstock
Jill McDonnell is a Chicago-based content writer and communications professional. She has a bachelor's degree in magazine journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master's degree in public relations and advertising from DePaul University. She is currently at work on a psychological thriller novel.