Last year my back muscles made their presence felt rather painfully, as a result of a minor mishap. Subsequently, I had to relook at the torture I subject them to by walking in high heels and carrying a heavy tote handbag (read imbalanced load), all day and almost every day, in the name of confirming to the dictates of fashion and portraying a sense of professionalism at work.
A chat with my physiotherapist led me to realise their negative impact and so switched to backpacks and low-heeled shoes. They made a world of difference and I felt my back thanking me for it. However, what amazed me was not my medical recovery but the world of convenience and comfort it opened up.
When I had got my first job, I had reluctantly traded my comfy rucksack and jeans for a posh leather handbag and office wear, to create a “grownup” professional look. How have the wheels turned over the last decade? My search for office-appropriate gear led me to realise that people have already started to move back to the comfort zone.
Call it the necessity to fit in a laptop along with an environment-friendly refillable water bottle to those gym wear for an after-office workout, now one bag could get rid of a huge tote or multiple bags, while being body and travel friendly, is a no brainer for everyone.
Whilst there are pockets, especially in traditional financial and legal professions where conventional dress codes are still followed, the majority of the workforce across the world have moved towards a more casual dressing. It is geared towards our comfort and convenience rather than complying to conventions. This means women carry backpacks to business meetings and a tie is on the verge of disappearing from the corporate realm altogether.
Meanwhile, all major designers and high street brands, sensing the demand for comfortable attire and accessories, in and out of office, have already jumped on the bandwagon. With just the global handbag market being over 50 billion USD, keeping up with changing customer preference is a must, to be able to survive and thrive in the fashion industry. It is no wonder that top sportswear companies like Nike and Lululemon are now collaborating with fashion houses and walking down the ramp at top fashion shows.
The move away from conventional dressing to convenient dressing is a reflection of a deeper change in social attitudes and behaviour too.
The first is around the importance of taking care of oneself. Not only does your mind and body need TLC (Tender Loving Care) but wellness is considered to be the ultimate luxury. It is led by the rich and famous and followed by the rest of us. It is socially acceptable, in fact, cooler, to take care of yourself and takes precedence over other social commitments or expectations. A Facebook or Instagram post of a 6 am Peloton bike ride showing your healthy body is way better than a drunk late-night snap now. So, if it means you miss going out with friends to exercise, eat healthy, go vegan or wear trendy trainers to work to prevent foot ache, it is perfectly reasonable and acceptable.
The next social change is around people expecting you to look at results instead of methods. In this context, your choice of attire does not affect your ability to work. The idea is to appear smart and presentable and to be able to perform, not dress elaborately for a performance, unless if you are actually performing somewhere. In addition to this, it is considered discriminatory to judge a person’s choice of attire if it is presentable and does not impact their capability to execute the job.
Does a person wearing a suit perform better than someone in ethnic wear, just because of it? The answer is no. Then how does wearing heels over flats make any difference but it was till recently and is still frowned upon in some regressive pockets.
This feeds into the next behavioural change about people no longer caring about conforming to conventions. There is always a social pressure, through stated or unstated expectations, to look or dress a certain way but the extent of what’s acceptable is a lot more liberal now. Women more than men, who were disproportionately impacted by social expectations, are taking it upon themselves to redefine their choice of fashion based on their individuality, need and comfort.
Leading this revolution are people at the very top of the fashion food chain, the Hollywood stars and the supermodels. It is common to see them out and about in Athleisure and others imitate. Self-made successful entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg, who regularly wears grey t-shirts and hoodies to office, have made an impact on our fashion choices too. They set the trend from the very top for acceptable office wear.
Pandemic and working from home have magnified this trend, making athleisure the fastest-selling style. It helps us strike a balance between being presentable yet comfy, be it in our Zoom/Hangout meetings, a trip to the supermarket or coffee with friends. Athleisure is basically casual wear that combines high-quality athleticwear with versatile leisurewear to offer comfort whilst maintaining the style, so has the ability to be worn anytime, anywhere.
You are seen as taking a stand for your wellbeing and against the outdated patriarchal expectations, by going with comfort. So, comfort is definitely the new cool.
As for me, while I am not planning on donating my carefully curated but mostly impulsive bought handbag collection in the near future, I am judicious in using them based on my convenience rather than convention. A long journey, even for a work meeting, begs a backpack. Of course, the old collegiate canvas version or the hiking backpacks won’t cut the mustard but a posh leather designer version matched with an appropriate attire would fit the bill. The fashion industry is bending over backwards to cater to my needs.
However, with 2020 being the year of working from home I have packed away all my suits and designer laptop backpacks and bought some more athleisure along with a mini backpack for my occasional trip to the supermarket. After all, we still need to pack the tissues and hand sanitizers somewhere, don’t we?