Ivy Trendwatch: Sweatpants Forever, The End Of Office Clothes, And The New Age Of Ivy Style

Yesterday a reader named “IT” left the following comment:

The panic over “traditional clothing disappearing forever” because of the pandemic is starting to get on my nerves, honestly. Those who’ve always dressed poorly, still dress poorly, and those who’ve always dressed nicely, still dress nicely and can’t wait for social life to come back to normal, to finally start attending formal events.

I thought it would make an interesting contrast with the post planned for today, which points out two pieces in our great/once great newspapers suggesting that corona has killed clothing.

In the New York Times, a piece entitled “Sweatpants Forever” includes the following:

Band of Outsiders was Sternberg’s previous company. He founded it in 2004 as a line of slim shirts and ties. (Remember the skinny-tie boom? That was Sternberg.) Eventually it grew into full men’s and women’s collections that won over the fashion world with self-consciously preppy clothes.

For years, Sternberg had been saying that the fashion industry was a giant bubble heading toward collapse. Now the pandemic was just speeding up the inevitable. In fact, it had already begun. An incredible surplus of clothing was presently sitting in warehouses and in stores, some of which might never reopen. “That whole channel is dead,” Sternberg said. “And there’s no sign of when it’s turning on again.”

Along with brands like Thom Browne, Band joined the wave of the nerdy-preppy resurgence — shrunken blazers, polos, boat shoes — or what Sternberg called “preppy clothes about preppy clothes.” Once he expanded into women’s wear, the brand grew into a $15 million wholesale business, sold in 250 stores worldwide. “It wasn’t by the end all that good for us, obviously, because we weren’t building a sound business,” Sternberg said. “But it’s pretty incredible the power of what that global fashion system could do.”

It’s a lengthy read worth investigating for those interested in the workings of the rag trade. I think you’ll also conclude that traditional clothing is a related though different business.

Next up is the Washington Post, which argues “Summer of Covid Marks the End of Office Clothes.”

Professional attire has been evolving for decades into ever more casual modes. For men, suits gave way to blazers and slacks, then blazers and dark jeans, and then just jeans and a button-up. For women, pantyhose got dumped, skirt suits became a relic, and leggings somehow got reclassified in wardrobe taxonomies as pants.

Now, thanks to this weird, extraordinary summer America is having, it’s finally happened: Office clothes are officially dead.

This mentality has dealt a crushing blow to the cadre of already-fragile mall retailers who make money dressing customers for their nine-to-five life. J. Crew, a bastion of business casual, was the first to succumb, filing for bankruptcy in May. J.C. Penney Co. went into bankruptcy soon after, pledging to close more than 150 stores and thus reducing access points for affordably priced professional wear. By July, things got downright ugly, with a steady succession of stumbles: storied men’s clothier Brooks Brothers filed for bankruptcy and said it would close about one-fifth of its stores. The corporate parent of women’s dress-wear seller New York & Co. filed for Chapter 11 protection days later, saying it may close all of its locations. The following week, the company behind Jos. A. Bank and Men’s Wearhouse announced plans to shutter 500 stores. Next fell Ascena Retail Group Inc., promising widespread store closures including a “select” number in its Ann Taylor chain. The pain continued in August, with Lord & Taylor filing for bankruptcy earlier this week.

And a news roundup in 2020 wouldn’t be complete without a completely contradictory item. Robb Report just posted a piece on white bucks with this rather astonishing opening:

We’re in the thick of preppy this summer, with a plethora of styles—in color, cut and spirit—looking to New England for inspiration. This new age of Ivy Style is a prime time to venture into the wide world of white shoes. And we don’t mean sneakers—real, proper shoes.

Or maybe not so astonishing. Recall that before the virus struck we’d been slowly eking out a series of Ivy Trendwatch posts, and keeping our eyes peeled on another nascent Ivy-prep trend. We all still have our eyes open, I suspect, to see what social role traditional clothing standards hold in the near future. If you have any interesting anecdotes drawn from daily life, please write them up and send them in.

Finally, remember this great quote from composer Gustav Mahler: “Tradition isn’t the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire.” Keep the torch aflame, boys. — CC

22 Comments on "Ivy Trendwatch: Sweatpants Forever, The End Of Office Clothes, And The New Age Of Ivy Style"

  1. Bosses always wear clothes which shows who’s the boss. Without leadership, there is no company to pay workers. Clothing doesn’t make the boss. The boss makes the clothing. Even when I was in the Marine Corps and we all wore same regulation clothes, It was easy from a hundred yards to tell who was on the way up and who wasn’t. “S-Birds” would tip their cover (that’s cap to civilians) back on their heads. Others, one promotion short of a career, would tip their over-starched cover down over their eyes.

  2. Save for a six-month office stint, I’ve only ever worked from home. That fact, coupled with the notion that perhaps no restaurant in Boston has a dress code today, has meant that anytime I’ve worn a suit or sport coat has been by choice, and thus an affectation. Pre-coronavirus, I’d find myself dressing more casually on days when I’d actually have a face-to-face meeting for work, as showing up to a bar or restaurant to interview someone while I wore a suit for no particular reason felt a little too precious. But now that my working life is truly just me, I’ve begun to dress up much more frequently—or, at least until the summer hit and kept me in shorts for the last two months. But I’m looking forward to getting back into suits and sport coats this fall, particularly after placing a few orders at The Andover Shop with some of the money I’ve saved on not traveling or going out to eat or drink.

  3. elder prep | August 9, 2020 at 8:18 pm |

    I think the panic over the impending death of office and related wear is premature. A fashion coordinator I worked for at the late Woodward & Lothrop department store in Washington, D.C. once told me “women wear clothes and men wear uniforms”. I found that an interesting observation, but I digress. Our strength as traditional/Ivy/Prep clothing wearers is that our kind of clothing is the foundation of all men’s wear. Take offs and knock offs will come and go, but eventually, it all returns to the foundation clothing we comfortably wear and enjoy.

  4. john carlos | August 9, 2020 at 9:58 pm |

    Eric-I’m looking forward to the Fall myself to begin dressing up more. I’m a lawyer so when we start going back to the courtroom, it’ll be coat and tie. I can’t wait. As for the rolled up jeans with the white bucs, it’s a look for youngsters in my opinion. The bucs are great. The rolled up jeans not so much.

  5. NaturalShoulder | August 10, 2020 at 12:07 am |

    Based upon my observations of pandemic attire, I will disagree with I.T.’s assertion. I have seen most of my colleagues at my law firm dress far more casually when coming into the office after the March shutdown. T shirts are shorts are commonplace. Now, perhaps, many of them were inclined to dress poorly but felt constrained by expectations of business casual which have now been cast aside. They will, however, dress appropriately for Zoom hearings. I still do wear suit, coat and tie, or coat without tie o office most days even without a client meeting or Zoom call. I like dressing well for many reasons and at almost age 51 don’t care what others think.

  6. I have been going to the office every day (due to the nature of my work) since the first inklings of the lock down here in the UK in March. Mon-Fri I would wear a suit, tie, smart shoes. I manage a team and from day one I told them that I do not except them to wear tie but I want to see some level of professionalism in their dress.

    For me it is how I would get into my work mode in the morning and tried to maintain at least a modicum of normality trough these crazy times. SO people who always enjoyed dressing up will continue to do so and the other wont. Things will change but not for me. To quote a interview form this very site : The world keeps changing, but that dos not mean I have to change with it.

  7. I am always asked, “Why are you so dressed up?” This means I am wearing a shirt with a collar OCBD), khakis, proper shoes (Suede bucks or Pennies). This is my typical day, in lieu of jeans and gym shoes. Ivy-Style Readers won’t see that as a dressy outfit, but the rest of the world seems to think I’m on the way to the opera.

  8. The Robb Report is crazy if they think anyone will shell out $573 for a pair of Alden white bucks in the current economy.

    Also, selvedge denim good, but not skinny jeans and not worn with white bucks.

  9. john carlos,
    Agreed. That’s not Ivy, that’s hipster.

  10. Henry Contestwinner | August 10, 2020 at 12:20 pm |

    The author of the Washington Post article, as is often the case with article-writers (I can’t bring myself to call them “reporters” or even “journalists”), makes a sweeping prognostication/declaration: “office clothes are officially dead.”

    For this instant, perhaps. But what the writers of such grand statements fail to account for is the inevitability of change. The loss of standard business clothing has coincided with a loss of standards, both of which were implemented by the Boomers. However, we see also the rejection of Boomer standards (or lack thereof) by later generations, and at least some Millennials and Zoomers are trying to find a way to dress nicely.

    My crystal ball is broken, so I won’t be so hubristic as to predict what will happen. However, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if reports of the suit-and-tie’s death are greatly exaggerated. The only safe prediction is that whatever the new standard will be, it won’t look like the old one.

    As an aside, I will note that we are at a time of great social upheaval. In such times, change can be rapid and extreme.

  11. My wardrobe is ready for whichever way the world goes – casual, formal etc.

    I think people increasingly will want to look more professional on Zoom and MS Teams – not just clothing but their backdrop, lighting, camera, microphone etc. The standard will be how people on mainstream TV news dress and appear. From what I can tell, people are still dressing up for these shows to appear and sound professional. More and more people will have mini broadcast studios at home.

  12. Charlottesville | August 10, 2020 at 3:30 pm |

    I almost always still wear a suit and tie to the office, when I go, and at home for Zoom meetings, etc. as well. In fact, I have bought two new summer suits at the J. Press semi-annual sale within the past couple of weeks, an extravagance made easier by the lack of much else to spend money on these days. I almost always wear a sport coat, blazer or suit when leaving the house for any reason other than a picnic or yard work or the like, although as a concession to the heat, I don’t usually wear a tie when eating outside at a restaurant, and I may shed the coat as well.

    Why dress up? Because I like to. Will this become standard practice for men post-pandemic? Not a chance. Will professional men return to wearing coats and ties? Some will, but the practice was already on the wane before the plague hit.

    As with the migration away from Ivy beginning in the late 60s, the average guy just looks around and copies what he sees, or buys whatever is on the rack at his local store. Fortunately for me, I grew up in an area where the traditional Ivy look still flourished through the 70s, and when I went to work in Washington the mid 80s classic Brooks Brothers, J. Press and other traditional clothiers were still the norm.

    I imagine a handful of men will continue to dress well, but other than set an example, I am not sure I can do anything about it one way or the other. And yet, I am frequently complimented on my clothing by folks in their 20s, especially women, and I take that as a good sign. Maybe their boyfriends will take note.

  13. Joe G – I have gotten “Wow you’re dressed up today” at work when wearing an OCBD, khakis and boat shoes. No jacket or tie or anything. But I also work in IT where anything other than jeans + t-shirt is an anomaly.

    Also all these ridiculous statements like “office clothes are officially dead” always make me think about the spanish flu in 1918. Was society in 1917 completely different from society in 1920? No of course not, people and society do not change that drastically that quick because of something like this. It’s just a temporary inconvenience for most people (and I do not mean to sound flippant towards those who have had serious issues due to COVID or lost loved ones).

  14. john carlos | August 10, 2020 at 4:35 pm |

    I grew up in a small town in the Texas Panhandle. I discovered trad clothing in high school in the mid 1960’s. Fortunately there was an ultra trad store in the nearby metropolis of Amarillo where I frequently shopped. Also, I ran with a small group of guys that as I look back on it, probably tried to “out trad” each other on a regular basis. Then on to college where we wore a sport coat and tie to football games with an accompanying flask, I might add. Still wearing strictly trad today over fifty years later.

  15. Wow, my clumsy comment was chosen for a quote?! I’m quite surprised and honored at the same time!

    In New York City, where I live, I haven’t noticed a significant change in the way people dress on the streets and in public transportation. It was awful before the pandemic and it still is just as awful. However, the people in my circle have always looked elegant and traditional (even in simple casual clothing) and that hasn’t changed. Most of these people aren’t rich (though some are), but they are well-educated, well-mannered, interested in the arts and classical music, used to going to formal events, and attend church on the Upper East Side. So, it seems that for this kind of people, not much has changed, sartorially, and although there have been few jackets and ties seen in my church this summer, I’m quite sure that in the Fall, more formal attire will make a comeback. I, myself, intend to wear a summer jacket with some bright summer ties a few times before September, and then start wearing jackets and ties to church every Sunday, as I had always done before the epidemic.
    Let’s hope for the best!

    Classic elegant clothing survived through two World wars, the Great Depression, the “cultural revolution” of the 60’s, the Cold War, and numerous conflicts, upheavals, and economic crises, so, it is unlikely that the events of 2020 will have such a dramatic effect on the way people dress, as predicted by so many.

  16. Charlottesville | August 11, 2020 at 10:18 am |

    I.T. – Encouraging words. Glad that you and your circle are continuing to fly the flag in NYC. My wife and I always enjoyed church at St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue on our visits to the city. A mix of traditional dress and casual clothing was normal among the congregants, but the ushers wore morning coats or strollers, which lends a certain traditional formality no matter how the pew-warmers are dressed.

  17. Charlottesville — I love Saint Thomas! Greatest boys/men’s choir in America. And yes, the ushers do still wear morning coats. Where else will you see that outside of the U.K.?

  18. Sometimes you could even see me there!

  19. Charlottesville | August 11, 2020 at 10:35 pm |

    I.T. and Christian – Once the viral menace abates, which we all pray is sooner rather than later, I hope my wife and I can join you there one Sunday. The choir really is magnificent. And, on a less lofty plane, the Modern at MOMA is next door which makes for a rather delightful place to break bread after the service.

  20. Charlottesville — Wouldn’t it be great?! I attend St. Thomas on Christmas Day with friends who can appreciate the singing. After the service we have the habit of going to the Pierre hotel for some fig cocktails.

  21. Charlottesville | August 12, 2020 at 3:45 pm |

    Sounds good, I.T. Or across the street at the King Cole at the St. Regis. Or … . It is fun to think about all of the lovely old places that the city has to offer. I hope and pray they all survive and thrive again.

  22. Thanks for this post! It somewhat calms me down, since I am one of those who is very worried about the end of traditional clothes.
    I wrote a post on my own blog about this: https://iambackonthetop.wordpress.com/2020/07/09/a-preppys-opinion-on-the-brooks-brothers-bankruptcy/

    I know nomenclature is finicky and this is mostly men’s blog, but I am just glad to find other people who love the Ivy Style. Only today I discovered this applies to women too. I’ve been calling myself Preppy the whole time. But when I go to Instagram there is such a difference between my style and most so-called Preppy girls. They are basically either wearing Lilly Pulitzer 24/7 or wearing a modern version of Ivy style. Now I know what term to look for.

    And I’m glad for the comments here too. They give me hope that our style might not be dying after all. Thank God, because, honestly I would never wear Athleisure even if they paid me.

    I’m new at blogging and Instagram, but I would love to connect there if anyone is interested 🙂

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