Will I ever wear shoes again? Dressing for work post-pandemic

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By Audrey Atkins

Shoes! I’ll have to wear shoes…

As a native Alabamian, I know I’ve just lived up to a popular Southern stereotype. But the fact that I’d have to start wearing real shoes every day was really the first thing I thought when I got the news that I’d be expected to return to work full time in August.

Now for those of you reading this from outside the South, let me take this opportunity to dispel the myth that Southerners don’t wear shoes. I’ve actually been asked that question in real life, You’re from Alabama? Uh, do people wear shoes down there? The answer is Yes! Just like everyone else, we wear shoes at all appropriate times unless we’re at the beach or at home. But therein lies the rub. I’ve been working from home for the past thirteen months.

I’ve come to realize that I regularly only wear two pairs of shoes — my Authentic Van’s and my Birdies, which are really just slippers disguised as shoes. I’ve had no reason to wear heels or dressy boots or even fancy flats. And I’ve tried to wear mules or loafers a few times just to see if I could. But the hard soles just seemed so … hard and the leather stiff and unforgiving.

After a few minutes, those stiff old shoes were right back in the closet and I was right back in my comfy, cozy Birdies.

This is a weird revelation for me, that I’d be resistant to dressing up.

When I was fresh out of college, my daddy offered this piece of advice: Dress for the position you want, not the position you have. And I took his words to heart. I had entry-level jobs in industries where business attire was required — banking, engineering, and legal — so, pencil skirts, shoulder pads, and sky-high heels were my uniform. Some days my feet would hurt so bad at the end of the day, I’d drive home shoeless, but I was going to look professional no matter what.

Over the years, though, I’ve watched office wear trend from business formal to business casual, even in some of the more conservative sectors. Dresses and skirts have given way to slacks and blazers which have yielded to dressy jeans with a top and a “third piece.” That’s what fashion industry folks call statement items like a cardigan, belt, or scarf. Pantyhose, which were actually required in my first job, have long since gone the way of the dodo. So too have work shoes gone from pretty and painful to practical but still cute (thank you, Jesus!).

And even now that I work in public radio, which is a decidedly casual industry, I’ve still followed Daddy’s advice and dressed more up than down. That is until I was sent home to work on March 13, 2020. But even then, I still got up early every day, fixed my hair, did my makeup, and tried to wear decent clothes, especially since I spent the better part of every day in Zoom meetings. But I just couldn’t bring myself to wear what I consider to be “real” shoes.

It was Van’s or Birdies all day, every day. And it still is thirteen months later.

The pandemic has changed us all in many ways, and it’s definitely changed what we wear. But according to Megan LaRussa Chenoweth, Style Yourself Chic Founder and Style Coach, “The fashion industry was already making a shift towards more comfortable shoes pre-pandemic. Stylish sneakers, anyone?!” But this past year sealed the deal for sure, she says.

Even Vogue, which has been dictating women’s fashion for more than 100 years, says “If you’ve been working from home, it’s unlikely you’ll be stepping back into heels any time soon.” I surely don’t think I will be. After all, we’ve been getting our work done in slippers just as well as we got it done in heels. Gone is the pressure to “dress for success.” We’ve been successful and comfortable all at the same time.

Across the board, workers will be loath to go back to the old days of binding, stuffy clothes and shoes, and offices will have to seriously consider what they think “work appropriate” means for them in the coming months. According to SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, “nearly half of people working from home said they don’t adhere to a defined dress code for remote working” even though “80 percent of the more formal dressers said they felt productive throughout the day, compared to just 70 percent of those in gym clothes and 50 percent of those in pajamas.”

“I think we will be seeing more ‘high low’ fashion which means people will be wearing their ankle length work trousers with a nice sneaker,” says Chenoweth. But she still thinks people will go back to dressy, dressy office attire with time and when appropriate. “It’ll be more occasion specific,” she says, “instead of a daily occurrence.”

As far as I’m concerned, I think I’ll be so happy to see my coworkers again I won’t care if they’re wearing shoes or not. And I hope they feel the same way about me.

Audrey McDonald Atkins is the author of They Call Me Orange Juice, a collection of essays about growing up and living in the south, and the creator of Folkways Nowadays, a popular blog about southern culture and whatever else comes into her mind. Born and raised in Citronelle, Ala., she now lives with her husband in Birmingham where she is the Director of Community Engagement for WBHM, NPR News for the Heart of Alabama.

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