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Well, That’s a Look … Not sure What Look, But It’s Apparently Here to Stay

April 11, 2022 | Letters

Authors: Nicole Olynk Widmar, Associate Head and Professor, Purdue University, Department of Agricultural Economics, and Dr. Courtney Bir, Department of Agricultural Economics, Oklahoma State University

Recall in 2020 I (Nicole) suggested that we redefine the standards on what looking ‘awful’ means in order to avoid admitting that my then Zoom-chic self was really falling short of any pre-Covid-era standards. We think the time has come to revisit our discussions from 2020 with the new lens of 2022. We already agreed that 2019 normal is never coming back, so it’s probably time to simply live in 2022, knock it off with the ‘return to normal’ and start planning for the future instead of hoping for a return to the past.

Revisiting 2020: Alright Zoombies, The Gig is Up…

Whelp, you look awful. And I am judging you with cat hair on my pants and a stain of unknown origin on my shirt. My kid wiped something (food item, I’m choosing to believe) on me earlier, and it’s still there. Once we worried about “accessories”, we now have cleared the bar if we’re indeed wearing pants. When is the last time you saw a zipper, let alone used one? Wow — we’ve come (fallen?) a long way in home-meets-work-space quarantine life working attire. There’s an entire revolution coming in retail with respect to clothing, accessories and especially formal wear. Truth be told, the massive reshaping of retail stores was underway in the U.S. long before COVID-19 hit, but we certainly seem to have accelerated it.

Lessened concern on appearances makes sense in light of the weight of an anxiety-inducing health pandemic and economic crisis on people’s minds. How long have you gone without a haircut? That look is now socially expected, maybe even positively perceived at some points in time. Will our new casual approach become the new norm? Society has gotten more casual (slowly) over time anyway, with many office settings adopting more casual attire than the once-expected suits and ties. What will come over the next few months? Yet to be seen…but an interesting question that will impact a large variety of markets from clothing and accessories to personal grooming to basically all of retail in one way or another.

2022 Update

We asked U.S. residents in the winter of 2021 to report on their personal care, clothing, travel and food expenditures. We obtained a representative sample of 751 U.S. residents and have summarized some key clothing spending responses in consideration of our revisiting the new work-life attire questions facing all of us in 2022. For starters, we inquired about spending on casual clothing in the fall of 2021 relative to pre-pandemic times.

The majority of respondents indicated that they were spending about the same, but for those who said they spent more, we delved into the reasons why (allowing respondents to select more than one reason). Top reasons included wanting an update (22% of responses), existing wardrobe being too small/tight (21%) and needing clothing that wasn’t previously needed (15%). The fourth most selected reason was that their existing wardrobe no longer fit because it was too large (12%), and 11% simply reported a change in preferences/style.

Given the massive shift in working environment and progression towards casual and Zoom-on-the-top, pajamas-on-the-bottom, we also examined the responses to this question according to whether respondents’ jobs could be done remotely or not. Responses included yes, sometimes/partly and no. Responses to the same question about changes in casual clothing spending in the fall of 2021 compared to pre-pandemic are presented below according to remote working capabilities.

Interestingly, those who were able to work from home reported near-equal proportions of those spending more and less on casual clothing. Those who were not able to work remotely reported spending less on casual clothing. Of course, what constitutes casual remains in the eye of the beholder (in this case, the respondent).

In the same structure/format, we asked our same sample of respondents about spending on “suits, dresses and professional clothing” in the fall of 2021 relative to pre-pandemic.

More respondents indicated having never spent on professional clothing and about the same is still the most popular response; however, only 7.6% of respondents reported spending more for professional clothing and 24% reported spending less. The top reasons for those few who did spend more on professional clothing in the fall of 2021 than pre-pandemic were due to a need for clothing they didn’t previously need and changes in styles and preferences.

Again, breaking out responses about spending by the ability of the respondent to work remotely, we found that a larger proportion of respondents in all categories of remote work spent less on professional clothing than the proportion who reportedly spent more.

A variety of explanations for the lack of variation in spending by remote work status exist, including overall progression towards more casual wear in and out of the office environment and/or requirements of uniforms or specific attire for in-person work (i.e. medical professionals wearing scrubs or other professionals donning specific at-work attire potentially not captured here as professional wear of suits/dresses). Of course, just as with the definition of casual clothing, what respondents included as professional clothing remains a personal judgement call.

Spending on personal goods and clothing remains an area of interest for economists and market analysts, but one must also consider household spending in light of supply chain challenges and inflationary pressures forcing tradeoffs in spending on household essentials like food, utilities and transportation (GAS PRICES!), in addition to outfitting oneself appropriately for your work environment. Speaking of work environments, next week we’re revisiting what that environment is in the future … is society ever returning to the office full-time? Because if not, we have more economic and market questions about downtown restaurants, caterers, coffee shops … next week.