Skip Navigation

Produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications

Subscribe Now

Is ‘Relaxed’ the New ‘Business Casual’?

Post-Pandemic, Office Attire Might Look Very Different, Says UMD Expert

By Sala Levin ’10

GIF of woman working from home, in office

Animation by Valerie Morgan

Comfortable clothes that employees got used to wearing while working from home might make their way into the office post-pandemic, a UMD researcher says.

Gird yourself—or, actually, don’t: The new office dress code is here, and it’s very stretchy.

After nearly 18 months of widespread telework, many office workers gearing up to head back in are first revisiting their dresser drawers, where they may have to dig past piles of the comfortable yoga pants, cozy hoodies and ratty cargo shorts they’ve become accustomed to. But once back at their desks, they may stick with some of the sartorial choices they’ve been making at home.

“Many companies are trying to get their employees back to the office,” said Jie Zhang, University of Maryland professor of marketing and Harvey Sanders fellow of retail management. “To offer more incentives … many companies are relaxing their dress codes to make it easier for people to transition back.” 

Retail trends show that “athleisure”—leggings worn to the grocery store, basketball shorts sported on a date—has dominated the market since the COVID-19 pandemic began. According to a May article in Forbes, athleisure sales increased 84% from the onset of COVID-19. 

“Many people preferred more comfortable clothing during the pandemic, and they’ve figured out that there’s actually a way to still dress properly—especially on Zoom meetings—while in a much more comfortable style,” said Zhang. 

Employers may still be expecting employees to come to work dressed appropriately—but the definition of “appropriately” has shifted, said Zhang. Clothing that incorporates more spandex, more relaxed styles of sports jackets and dress pants with elastic waistbands are all part of the new work clothing paradigm, she said.

People are also eager to express their individuality through their aesthetic choices, said Zhang—especially women. “There’s always been more focus on dress codes for women,” she said, “but we are also seeing a counter trend in our society: the push for real beauty and authenticity.” That means that women are styling themselves in ways that “represent their true selves,” said Zhang, from clothing to hair to makeup. Boldly patterned tights, bright eyeshadow or multi-colored fingernails might become de rigueur at the office. 

“With relaxed dress codes, this could be a positive force to further encourage women to be more free in the way they choose to dress and express themselves,” Zhang said.



Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.