We will not all be wearing T-shirts and sweatpants

Wednesday, August 12th 2020
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Apparently there is a thing called a Zoom shirt. 

It sits on the back of your chair at home, and just before you start a meeting with your boss or colleague, you put on the shirt to look professional. You know, over a T-shirt and sweatpants*.

There has been much hand-wringing in recent weeks over what Covid-19 will mean for menswear, and for tailoring in particular. With increased working from home - the thinking goes - why would anyone wear anything other than the aforementioned T-shirt and sweatpants ever again?

I think this is liable to exaggeration. It is a mainstream news story, not a classic menswear one. The majority of the population already dress as if they don’t care what they look like. Working from home more will make them dress a little bit worse: but that’s not much of a loss. 

I think those that care about their clothes will continue to care. The clothes will change, but they will still want to buy quality, to look put-together, and to enjoy what they’re wearing. 

If it were true that not working in an office made you dress badly, then every stay-at-home parent would look terrible. 

But the parents I know don’t - particularly the women. They still want good clothes, they’re just not a suit and heels. They still want to look good when they go to a cafe, to meet other parents. And they get particular enjoyment from dressing up for any evening event. 

In fact, if anything has happened in menswear in the past 20 years, it might be making middle-aged men like those middle-aged women, and getting them interested in what they put on. Making it acceptable, and interesting, and (that word again) enjoyable. 

Also, if office life were essential to dressing well, every retired person would dress like a slob. 

Yet I know there are many retired readers of Permanent Style (I’ve never asked, or surveyed, but it’s clear from many comments and conversations) who care about their clothes. Indeed, often older men take a greater interest, now they don’t have to dress in one particular way for work.  

In the past I’ve likened clothes to food - as parts of life that can be similarly rich and enjoyable to understand - and I think the comparison is useful here as well.

I have several friends who are foodies, and have sorely missed restaurants being closed. But they’ve responded by cooking more at home, by visiting more local shops and markets. Their interest didn’t fade, it just found a different outlet. 

Getting dressed is a form of personal expression, and a way of telling yourself how you feel about what you’re doing. 

Readers made this point on the PS article back in March, ‘What I wear working from home’.

And more recently, reader Paul contributed a very personal comment: “As a relatively new reader of PS, I have to admit that I’ve historically not been a great fan of clothing in the PS sense, and in fact I’ve spent most of the last two decades in ‘scruff order’ – working for a media company with a very casual dress code, then working from home for the last 10 years.

“I discovered PS around the time that this look started to feel “not me” any more (possibly to do with getting older) and, while I may never invest in a bespoke suit, I have certainly sharpened up my act a bit. Ironically, and contrary to your point about resorting to T-shirts and sweatpants to work from home, since the COVID lockdown I’ve made a conscious effort *not* to ‘shlomp into scruff order’, and have been making sure to get up and dress. 

“Sticking to something a bit sharper, in terms of clothing, has made a significant difference to how I’m coping with the current situation – my partner has been shielding due to health issues, so I’ve effectively been in lockdown since late February; feeling ‘put together’ for work has had a major elevating effect on my mental state. And I’m definitely keen to continue and to ‘up the game’ further as time goes on, even with the current uncertainty, because of how the change in dress makes me feel.”

People discover this every day; and realise they’re too old for scruffy teenage clothes too, every day. 

There are, of course, many caveats to this optimism. 

Some men - even the most dedicated - will make less of an effort sometimes. The economy will prevent some from pursuing their interest in clothes, even if they wanted to. And most brands can’t survive on menswear enthusiasts: they need some slice of the mainstream population as well.

But working from home is not the death knell for good clothes. Like Kindles and books, its impact will largely be on those that didn’t care much about clothes anyway. 

Indeed, again like Kindles, it might remind some people what they valued about clothes in the first place. Most people I know that like books have not stopped buying books. 

It does seem certain, though, that the Covid-19 pandemic will accelerate the trend towards casual clothing. 

Suits will become that little bit rarer, even if just because they’re worn on the two days a week you go into the office, rather on five. 

But even here, I think there are silver linings. I’ve settled into going into town two or three days a week, recently, and I actively look forward to those days when I do, and wear tailoring. It becomes another opportunity for expression, as well as an expression of purpose. 

In the end, reasons to dress up and look better will not go away. Whether it’s to elevate how you feel - like Paul - or to meet friends. Those will require smarter, nicer clothes. 

Those of us that enjoy clothing will enjoy doing it. Those that don’t, won’t. 

*I apologise for having to use the word ‘sweatpants’. Unfortunately the Americanism has almost entirely replaced the English term, ‘tracksuit bottoms’ - as sneakers have replaced trainers.

I apologise both for the American takeover, and because ‘sweatpants’ must be one of the most unattractive words in the English language - particularly given that ‘pants’ in English refers to underpants, not trousers.