Does the COVID-19 pandemic spell the end of professional work attire as we know it?

Healthcare worker. Restaurant owner. Movie theater operator. These are unfortunate jobs to have during the coronavirus pandemic. According to a recent AARP report, in 2020 approximately one-third of all workers in the aforementioned fields have dealt with reduced hours.

Now you can add another profession to the endangered species list: suit maker.

As the coronavirus pandemic stretches into its ninth month, some industries are thriving. Other businesses, like upscale clothiers, aren’t as fortunate. Many Americans are working remotely these days and, as ties, business suits, and high heels have given way to sweatpants, hoodies, and sweat socks for many, retailers who sell formal work attire are largely struggling. For example, Tailored Brands, which owns Men’s Wearhouse, recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The list goes on. Neiman Marcus, a venerable department store and designer clothier filed Chapter 11 back in May. Competitors J.Crew and Brooks Brothers suffered similar fates in September. Theladders.com reached out to several upscale clothiers, seeking comment about the state of the industry, and many declined. HUGO BOSS, however, commented following the release of its quarterly statement for Q3 2020.

HUGO BOSS spokesperson Yves Muller noted the company’s encouraging signs, while also acknowledging that “business with tourists continued to suffer from international travel restrictions.”

The company indicated in its quarterly report that its group sales decline was “limited to minus 24%,” though revenues in China were up 27%.

Just think about all those Zoom meetings you’ve been a part of since last March: Did you spot any coworker wearing a business suit? Not likely.

And that begs a question: Are the days of professional attire over for good?

Changing habits

Demand for professional attire had already waned in recent years, as many companies began allowing casual dress in the workplace. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, leaving upscale clothiers reeling.

GlobalData Retail recently reported that year-over-year sales of men’s formal clothing had taken a 74% nosedive during the spring. According to a New York Times report, the fashion industry has been saddled in recent months with a significant surplus of clothing sitting in either warehouse or in stores that may never reopen.

In April, clothing sales fell 79% in America, representing the largest dip ever.

Yet, some casual-wear companies, like Entireworld, had record-setting sales shortly after the pandemic’s outset, as shoppers filled their online carts with sweatsuits, T-shirts, and socks.

Signs suggest that the days of business professional attire — items like tidy dresses, skirts and blazers for women, and button-down shirts, dark suits, and loafers for men — may be numbered. In 2020, casual clothing choices like pencil skirts, khakis, and lifestyle sneakers are viewed as appropriate in many office settings.

Regan Gurung, a psychology professor at Oregon State University, notes that, these days, once an employee proves their competency, most employers aren’t too concerned with how they dress.

“As long as you don’t draw too much attention to yourself for being bad at your job or making your co-workers miserable,” Gurung told The Atlantic, then “you can safely start wearing that one sweater you love that’s sort of like a fancy bathrobe.”

An uncertain future

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many retailers to largely shift to a DTC (direct-to-consumer) model.

Some forms of clothing items cater to online sales, of course. For example, Adore Me, a company that specializes in lingerie, has thrived during the pandemic by adding home delivery. Last year, overall, DTC online retail sales reached $14.28 billion according to pymnts.com, and that figure is expected to grow more than 24% when all is said and done in 2020.

A glimmer of hope for upscale clothiers: Some, like Nordstrom, saw stocks briefly rise as much as 20% in early November according to the Wall Street Journal, as news of an effective COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer led some to project a return to offices for much of the workforce.

Still, many workers remain bunkered in at home, as COVID-19 cases surge throughout much of America. And a cold truth remains for upscale clothiers: It’s not easy to get a business suit tailored over the internet.

An old axiom suggests that you should “dress for the job you want to have.” But what happens when many bosses are working remotely, wearing UnderArmour T-shirts or Athleta leggings? One thing’s for certain: it spells trouble for many upscale clothiers.