HAVE YOU finally embraced your work-from-home look? The sweatpants, the hoodie you occasionally swap with a lightly wrinkled Zoom shirt for the 3 o’clock call with your T-shirted boss? Well, don’t purge your closet of suits and button-downs just yet: The pandemic-era professional landscape is shifting and, with it, the rules for acceptable workday attire. Sweats alone no longer suffice. Yet suits might seem unsuitably stiff. This fall, as the banks start calling their associates back into the office and law firms prepare to conduct their annual recruiting blitzes entirely over videoconference, we find ourselves in a bizarre, unprecedented WFH-office hybrid. What does one wear to a Zoom job interview? Must our beloved quarantine beards vanish as we re-enter civilization? And when—when!—will the American workplace again demand the sartorial formality that some men cherished before the pandemic?
Though the future of workplace fashion might remain foggy for a while, we decided to focus on seven Covid-era men’s style questions that can be cleared up in the short term.
1. I have a big interview coming up over Zoom. Is a suit still appropriate or should I dress down knowing that the interviewer probably will too?
It wasn’t appropriate to dress down for interviews before Covid, and it still isn’t. Putting on a suit for an interview is a sign of respect. Christopher Gardephe, 56, the chief professional resources officer at New York law firm Proskauer, said his firm has conducted about 225 lateral-hire video interviews since the pandemic started. Almost everyone dressed up, he said, even though his firm is “pretty business casual” across the board. “You don’t want your attire to be the thing that people remember about you. Taking a conservative approach is a no-brainer.” That goes for the tie question, too—in a suit without a necktie, you look like you’re going to Buffalo Wild Wings at happy hour, not trying to get a company to hire you.
2. My masks aren’t exactly work-appropriate. One features a cow print. Do I need a somber style or will anything do?
The American man’s working wardrobe is traditionally rooted in blues, blacks, whites and grays. To be safe, stick to solids or subtle prints in those color families. If you’re feeling confident, flair can be welcome—if it won’t embarrass you in front of clients. “There is absolutely wiggle room to show your personality,” said Los Angeles style consultant Andrew Weitz, 46, but not if it “does you a disservice”—so that goofy cow-spot motif has got to go. Ask yourself: If this mask were a tie, would I wear it? If the answer is no, pick something more subdued.
3. I love my bushy quarantine beard, but now that I’m going into the office, it feels too rugged. Should I shave it off?
Not entirely. Most employers are fine with manicured facial hair—something no one told Jack Suominen, a 22-year-old finance professional in New York. Mr. Suominen started a mustache-growing contest with his brother during lockdown but recently shaved off his efforts—not because (as his brother contends) he was losing, but because he had a Zoom interview. “I just thought, This can’t be my first impression,” he said. Tom Quinn, 82, a senior law partner at Venable, asserts he’s not judgmental. “As long as it’s not scraggly, a well-maintained, well-trimmed beard is always acceptable,” he said. “But I will say, the razorblade business probably isn’t doing great these days.”
4. My new work life is erratic. I have to schlep the kids’ backup PPE and lug my computer to the office for a day here or there and to socially distanced meetings. What bag will carry me through it all?
The age of stiff, multi-compartment bags is over. “We’ve seen the formal, structured bag go by the wayside,” said Bloomingdale’s men’s fashion director Justin Berkowitz. Flexible, simple totes have emerged as the solution. A quality leather one—like Bellroy’s “Melbourne” iteration with a magnetic top closure or Lotuff Leather’s supple, monogrammable option—is substantial enough to carry your computer, blazer and gear for the kids yet elegant enough to project panache. “A tote needs a long handle so you can put it over your shoulder,” said Patrick Janelle, 38, the founder of New York talent-management agency Untitled Secret. He favors durable styles from the brand Cuyana and insists in-bag organization is key. Mr. Janelle tucks his chargers, an external battery and earbuds in a small Topo Designs pouch, which he can easily toss in a tote, then find without commotion.
5. I used to set the tone for office underlings by wearing Savile Row suits. Should I readopt this formality even though just a few team members are coming into work?
Bad news for the custom-suit set: Few experts foresee a return to the five-days-a-week bespoke suits soon. Mr. Quinn, the law partner, maintains a collection of 25 suits, most custom-made by tailors in Washington, D.C., but during lockdown, he’s split his time between his homes in the capital, Newport, R.I., and Palm Beach, Fla., and has rarely seen a suited man—save members of Congress. Mr. Quinn’s suits will bide their time in his closet until further notice. “When I visit the office now, I wear a blazer and khaki pants,” he said.
6. If I walk to work, can I keep my sneakers on all day at the office?
Depends on your sneakers. Turquoise Yeezys or Balenciaga’s space-age Triple S styles don’t scream professionalism. Court sneakers, on the other hand, are sleek and straightforward enough for the office, said Mr. Berkowitz. Inspired by classic tennis shoes of the 1970s, thick-soled court sneakers from such brands as Common Projects, Diemme or Cole Haan are often made in high-quality white or neutral leather. With their clean profile, they stylishly pair with everything from wool trousers to jeans. “They’re polished [and] don’t bring any design element to the forefront that might be distracting for the workplace,” said Mr. Berkowitz. Mr. Weitz advocates for the more polished sneaker-soled dress shoe, citing examples from Berluti, Santoni and Scarosso. “These are often a brogue or a monk-strap, so you can dress them up for work, but that layer of sneaker sole means you can wear [them] all day comfortably.”
7. I’m considering biking to work, but I sweat a lot. How do I avoid looking like a wet, wrinkled mess?
You needn’t ride in full-on spandex and stickily change in a bathroom stall at the office to slip into your cubicle looking presentable and unmoist. Adam Johnson, 47, an in-house lawyer for an asset management firm in New York, often bikes to the office. To keep his look fresh and dry, he opts for a “slow crawl” instead of “hot-dogging it through the red lights,” he said. “Biking is by far the fastest option to cross town…and I know if I go carefully I’m still going to get there faster than anybody else.” To detour around the risk of dampness, Mr. Janelle relies on breathable, office-ready clothes cut roomily enough for air flow “in the waist, thigh and crotch.” Skip the backpack—anything too close to your body will trap perspiration—and add a bike basket instead. Mr. Janelle suggested packing a knit, unstructured blazer which can be folded and stuffed in your basket and will still arrive wrinkle-free.
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Appeared in the September 26, 2020, print edition as ‘Back-to-Work Style Dilemmas, Solved 7.’