The Pandemic May Have Changed The Dress Code Forever — Even In France
Today, it's sometimes difficult to distinguish between professional and casual wardrobes. Sneakers at the office, double-breasted jackets at the bar. What's the reason for this stylistic and societal shift? A French look at all the mixing and matching in the post-pandemic era.
PARIS — Before the summer, on an official visit to the southern city of Marseille to discuss employment, security and education, French President Emmanuel Macron wore a shirt with rolled-up sleeves and a tie. "A president who doesn't wear a suit jacket? That would have been totally impossible 10 years ago. It's a good sign that the lines have moved," says Pierre Demoux, journalist at Les Echos and author of the book L'Odyssée de la basket.
From Monday morning till Friday evening, all you have to do is look around you, in the street or on public transport, to notice the rarefaction of suit-and-tie ensembles and other associated skirts-suits or pants.
Even in conservative sectors such as politics and banking, the code has changed. Friday wear was the first step in this democratization of business attire, and now the phenomenon has gained momentum.
This is evidenced by the now well-established presence of sneakers in the professional sphere; today, in most representative professions, employees wear sneakers — salespeople, real estate agents, and more.
Suit sales have fallen
In 2019, a study by the Kantar institute and the Institut français de la mode revealed that "formal wear, for both women and men, has lost ground, with declines of 30% to 40% for raincoats or coats. In some cases, the declines are even more pronounced for women's suits. By 2023, another Kantar survey revealed that between 2013 and 2022, sales of suits and tailoring will have fallen by 73% and 38% respectively.
In Paris, at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche, Jennifer Cuvillier, director of the style bureau, notes new buying behaviors in the business segment among both men and women.
"For men, we have a space around suits and more classic pieces, which is important and works very well. Even if, in practice, buying behavior is not so formal. Aside from young people entering working life and creating a wardrobe base of suits and dress shoes, we've noticed for several years that men don't hesitate to mix the business wardrobe, by introducing, for example, a sneaker or a moccasin," Cuvillier explains.
“For women, where we don't have an equivalent space, the wardrobe for a business day will be twisted, diluted. We'll play with beautiful materials, colors and patterns. The right pants or skirt will continue to be highly sought-after, but they will be worn separately from the jacket, for example, and paired with a printed blouse that can also be worn on weekends.”
"Freedom of choice of clothing is a fundamental principle granted to employees.”
On closer inspection, virtually all brands now offer a wardrobe that can be used both at weekends and during the week. "Brands like Ami and Officine Générale, which cover both men and women, are a good example of this kind of all-encompassing proposition.”
A man in a suit stands at the bottom of the stairs.
The legalities of work attire
While it's clear that work attire is becoming less and less formal, what does the French Labor Code actually say on the subject? Do employees have the right to dress as they please?
Article L.1121-1 is quite clear — "Freedom of choice of clothing is a fundamental principle granted to employees.”
However, this same article also provides for a number of exceptions (uniforms, work clothes required for safety reasons in the construction industry or for hygiene reasons in the food industry, etc.).
The Court of Cassation, France's highest civil and criminal court, has already ruled on a number of special cases. For example, in the case of an employee of a real estate agency in Aix-en-Provence, who came to work in inappropriate clothing while in contact with customers — the secretary and tracksuit enthusiast was dismissed. More recently, in July 2022, at the French National Assembly, it was the absence of a tie — which has not been compulsory since 2017 — among elected representatives that made headlines.
The COVID turning point
Looking for comfort or the influence of fashion — what are the reasons for this general wardrobe shift?
"There are several explanations for this phenomenon. Firstly, Covid has made the workplace more open, flexible and agile. During successive lockdowns, everyone was able to dress as they pleased. Rarely has a homebound person donned a suit and tie for a Zoom meeting. This inevitably helped democratize work attire. And this trend has converged with the major social issues of the day: inclusiveness and diversity, which encourage everyone to dress as they please, to express themselves more personally in their clothes, including in the workplace. Even nurses, who are required to wear their medical garments, are increasingly customizing them," says Marie Dupin, fashion and lifestyle business director for Nelly Rodi consultancy.
What's more, since the 2010s, a wind of sportswear has been blowing down the catwalks, naturally infusing our wardrobes.
"When the big luxury brands started making sneakers, jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts and down jackets, this clearly legitimized a more casual style, and encouraged its introduction into even professional wardrobes," says Dupin.
The blurring of boundaries between professional and private wardrobes has also been driven by a search for practicality, particularly among women. "Women's lives, especially those working in large companies, are very busy. They're constantly on the run, and are increasingly abandoning heels in favor of sneakers, which they don't hesitate to wear with a dress."
Mark Zuckerberg giving a talk in a long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans.
Mark Zuckerberg as an example
For men, it has been proven in recent years that the suit and tie combo at the office is not necessarily synonymous with success. Quite the contrary, in fact.
Just look at the attire of the giants of technology to see for yourself. The classic example is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, invariably dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers. He has shown that there is no correlation between professional success and the way you dress at work. On the contrary, he promoted a comfortable silhouette, never bulky, that can be the same from Monday to Sunday.
While the sartorial barriers between private and professional life have largely fallen, the "casualization" of the wardrobe is not yet tolerated in all spheres and situations. Last September, for example, when a rumor spread that the Macron couple had attended the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey wearing sneakers, people on the web were outraged.
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