Athleisure defined the pandemic. How do we dress for the office now?

When John Meegan gets ready each morning, he thinks about the most important customers he’ll see that day.

He carefully selects a tie from his collection he thinks might put a smile on their face. Looking professional and well-dressed is non-negotiable.

“It’s like artwork to me,” he said.

These days, wearing a suit and tie every day makes him stand out in Minneapolis, as more professionals opt for casual looks rather than traditional business outfits.

“Right now, I look like an outlier,” said Meegan, who owns Minneapolis menswear store Top Shelf Inc. “I wear a tie 60 hours a week. I always have. … It’s a finishing touch that adds color and expression.”

Meegan is an exception to the trend local stylists and workplaces nationwide are seeing: Work wear is shifting from traditional suits and tailored dresses to polo shirts, jeans and sneakers.

Comfort is at the top of workers’ priority list, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased popularity of working from home.

The sometimes-unspoken etiquette of dress codes in workplaces can be difficult to decipher, especially in a new position, early in your career or once you return to the office after working from home. Even those who are already back in the office are toning down their traditional “business professional” for a “business casual” look. Even — somewhat controversially — in the Oval Office, where some congressional leaders wore dressy sneakers to meet with the president.

To help you navigate this changing dress code, here are some style tips for revamping your work wardrobe:

Changing expectations

For some, work wear means finding whatever pair of pants and shirt are clean and in the front of your closet. But Sara Rogers, an independent wardrobe consultant and Mall of America personal stylist, said truly dressing for success takes more effort.

“There’s an art and a science to dressing well,” Rogers said. She’s seeing more and more clients who are going back to the office after working remotely for years and are seeking a wardrobe refresh.

The yoga pants and elastic waistband sweatpants that were acceptable while working from home probably won’t cut it, even as corporate expectations are trending toward more casual outfits.

“People still judge a book by its cover. I’m not saying it’s right,” Rogers said. “But people do, and it just implies that you care about yourself.”

Traditional suits, coats and hats for men and conservative dresses or pantsuits for women began to fall out of style with the development of “business casual” in the 1980s. These days — with the exception of some more strict corporate environments — business casual is now the norm in Twin Cities business districts.

Meegan said at Top Shelf Inc., which specializes in custom suits and dress shirts, he’s seen a 15% decrease in revenue since the pandemic.

“Customers would say to me, ‘I haven’t worn a dress shirt in a year or two years,'” Meegan said.

Around half of his clientele now is between the ages of 20 and 35, he said, who are looking for high-quality suits that will last them decades. It’s a worthwhile investment, Meegan said, and clients bring their custom suits back for tailoring to keep up with trends.

“You’re going to be buying something that you’re going to have to live with for a while,” Meegan said. “And people do treat you differently when you dress nicely.”

A confidence boost

Rogers helps clients plan work outfits to give them a sense of courage for a big presentation, interview or special occasion.

“It sometimes can give you a little bit of authority and authoritative image when you look polished and pulled together,” Rogers said.

Some female customers come to her for help putting together a wardrobe to give them confidence in a new job or if seeking a promotion.

“They’re climbing the ladder for success and wanting to be taken seriously,” Rogers said, adding this is particularly true for her female clients that work in a male-dominated industry.

For a more formal office environment, Rogers recommends classic necklines, small prints and tailored silhouettes. If business casual is more fitting, knit fabrics, button-downs or polo shirts can be an easy solution to keep comfort while adding a collar and some structure.

Independent stylist Melissa Hernandez tries to bring in a pattern or color for clients who are looking for more energy or life in their day-to-day outfits.

Her ideal business casual outfits for women include a nice blouse paired with work pants or jeans. If you are going the denim route at the office, consider a darker-wash jean with a clean cut. And if you need to dress it up, add a high heel, Hernandez said.

Yana Dolokhanova, who works in tech sales in Minneapolis, said what she wears elevates her confidence when she’s pitching to clients.

“Your energy introduces you before you introduce yourself,” Dolokhanova said. “And I think if you’re wearing the right outfit, it’s just so empowering. You feel competent.”

She relies on a foundational wardrobe of high-quality staples her sister — a local stylist — recommended, featuring a crisp white button-down, fitted blazer and good pair of jeans.

Don’t overpay

The price of traditional professional clothing can be a barrier for those just starting that part of their wardrobe. For example, a single men’s suit easily costs upward of $300.

But completely revamping your closet isn’t always necessary for recent graduates or people starting a new job.

Hernandez focuses on office-appropriate looks on a budget by shopping at thrift stores for statement pieces. Outside of her personal styling business, she works as a complementary stylist at Arc’s Value Village.

“Not only is it sustainable but also they’re not breaking the bank when we are going through that discovery process,” Hernandez said. “I love consignment shopping because I feel like you can see those things that maybe you found in the store last year, but there’s a lot of unique pieces.”

After you figure out what colors and silhouettes at a cheaper price-point work best in your office environment and on your body type, you can gradually choose to invest in newer or higher-quality pieces.

Dress for success

Which scenario is more nightmarish: To be the only one who dressed formally for a meeting or to be the person wearing jeans when your boss pulls you in for an important conversation?

If you’re not sure how you’re expected to dress, follow your boss’ lead, Rogers said. Dressing for the job you want, not the one you have is cliché but true. And if you’re nervous about being too casual, keep a blazer or jacket at your desk or in your car just in case.

“Would you have to go into a meeting excusing yourself for how you look or could you hold your own?” Rogers said. “You always want to be prepared.”

For Meegan and his customers, a confidence boost at work is worth investing in, even if the general population moves toward the casual.

“They’re not necessarily buying suits because anybody’s making them [do it]. They’re not doing it because an employer tells them to,” he said. “But people who buy dress clothes today do it because they want to feel better about themselves.”

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