What to wear to go back to the office? Retailers have no idea.

The change is not just a matter of taste – it has ramifications for mass clothing, an important segment of the economy, and the physical face of retail, which is the second largest private employer in the United States. U.S. womenswear revenue was $132.7 billion in 2021, up 7% from 2019, while menswear sales increased 11% from 2019 to reach $76.5 billion, according to data from the NPD Group, a market research firm.

As more of that revenue shifts to denim, sneakers and more, especially for women, retailers need to keep pace. Already, NPD found that dress shoe sales were down 34% last year from 2019, while men’s tailored clothing for the 12 months to February was down 20% from 2019. compared to two years earlier. Mass chains like Banana Republic and J. Crew have reduced the number of their stores while adjusting their assortments.

Meanwhile, Lululemon now has annual sales that exceed the Gap and Banana Republic brands combined and aims to double that over the next five years. Lululemon and Athleta, which is owned by Gap Inc., both promote workwear on their websites. Customers are willing to pay for comfort: Gap said on a September call that across all of its brands, the average unit retail price, a measure of the selling price of a garment, was $12 at Old Navy, $40 at Banana Republic and $60 at Athleta.

The way people dress for work may reflect the job market. Economic downturns, like the collapse of the dot-com boom or the 2008 financial crisis, have often prompted a return to dressier clothes as a form of risk aversion – people want to show the boss they’re doing an effort. In the current climate, as the unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest level since the pandemic took hold, employees might think: my employer is lucky to have me, so why should I wear zipper pants?

Additionally, many have conflicting feelings about in-person work. Future Forum, a research group backed by Slack, recently found that 34% of office workers were physically back full-time and that work-related stress and anxiety were at the worst since the group started survey 10,000 office workers in the summer of 2020.

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