Style & Substance: These are the new rules for dressing at work

The pandemic didn’t just change how our offices look: it changed how we look at the office.

Dress for the job you want, right?

It’s solid, though perhaps not universal, advice. (Immediate exceptions come to mind: pilot, horror movie victim, Pope.) But even in more typical office jobs, the workplace “uniform” looks a lot different from even half a decade ago. The ties, heels and suits that once worked as hard as we did have all but retired in favour of decidedly more casual attire.

We can thank the pandemic, in part, for that. “I think we were all ‘Zoom chic’ during COVID—business on the top, party on the bottom,” says Ashley Freeborn, co-founder of Vancouver’s Smash + Tess. Freeborn launched her company in 2016, long before shelter-in-place became a thing, but her romper-focused brand happened to be exactly the sort of clothing that many new WFH-ers sought out in 2020. Pyjamas and pyjama-adjacent pants were commonplace, if not expected. And beyond the simple joy of breezing through the workday in athleisure with your cat curled up in your lap, this era of work clothing—or lack thereof—taught us something big. “It really showed us that we can be relaxed in our dress and still get the job done,” says Freeborn.

Style expert: Shadi Ahmadisagheb (co-founder at Poplin & Co.) says that nature-inspired patterns are popular in 2024
Shadi Ahmadisagheb, co-founder at Poplin & Co.

We found the power suit’s kryptonite: a work ethic that transcends style (thanks, capitalism!). But now, in our post(-ish) pandemic landscape, we’ve somehow managed not to devolve our office wardrobes into complete sweatpant slop. “Because of the hybrid work model, people like to ‘bring it’ when they come into the office,” Freeborn explains. Shadi Ahmadisagheb, co-founder and designer at Vancouver-based apparel brand Poplin & Co., agrees. “Coming out of the pandemic, there was a burst of people being like, ‘Okay, I want to look good again,’” she says. “When people are only going into work two or three days, they’re excited to dress up—they put in more effort.”

Poplin & Co.’s bright, patterned button-ups walk a careful line: somewhere between stuffy tailored shirt and goofy tourist garb. Ahmadisagheb and partner Antonio Krezic launched the biz in 2018. “We started the company because we didn’t see a lot of fun prints for men,” says Ahmadisagheb. Now, the pair say that people of all genders are embracing bolder styles at work. “When you’re wearing bright, colourful things, you attract other people,” Ahmadisagheb notes.

Style expert: Amanda Sayfy, executive director of Dress for Success Vancouver
Amanda Sayfy, executive director of Dress for Success Vancouver

Amanda Sayfy, executive director of Dress for Success Vancouver, is constantly considering the relationship between what we wear and our professional achievements. “Right or wrong, style makes an impression that can create or limit opportunities,” says Sayfy, who just started in her role at the 25-year-old organization in March. Dress for Success is a nonprofit that offers interview and employment dressing services to women and gender-diverse people. “Until the rules change, organizations like ours are giving women a chance to play the game,” she says. “When you look good, you feel good, and that confidence is what will take you where you need to go once you get your foot in the door.” Clients aside, Sayfy says she’s noticed promising trends when it comes to her industry colleagues. “Perhaps more so than others, nonprofit professionals—especially our Gen-Z colleagues—recognize the value of being responsible, sustainable consumers,” she says.

Style expert: Gitxsan fashion designer Yolonda Skelton
Gitxsan fashion designer Yolonda Skelton

And shopping responsibly—whether that means buying comfortable, functional clothing, investing in a wardrobe you’ll actually wear or considering the environmental impact of retail—seems to be on the rise across all sectors. “The Indigenous fashion industry has seen significant growth in recent years, with a focus on celebrating and preserving traditional craftsmanship and storytelling,” says Yolonda Skelton, the Gitxsan fashion designer behind Vancouver-based Sugiit Lukxs Designs. She points to 2023’s record-high attendance at Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week, a growing demand for handmade and artisanal wares and Indigenous designs on the red carpet at mainstream awards shows as evidence that cultural appreciation (not appropriation) is in. But unlike skinny jeans or mullets, this isn’t a flash in the fashion pan. “There is a wonderful shift toward more ethical practices, and a greater emphasis on inclusivity and representation,” says the designer.

So maybe, in 2024, style advice shouldn’t be to dress for the job you want, but to dress for you—to keep your body comfortable, to express yourself, to champion the brands you love and to support your community. The old dress code is cracked, completely, and the new one has more possibility and personality than ever before. Work it.