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Covid-19 freed us from the tyranny of workwear

Kenneth Paul Tan | Updated on August 14, 2020 Published on August 14, 2020

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An ode to freedom from formal wear, expensive labels and matching outfits in a post-pandemic world

* Working from home makes available another freedom whose significance not many people realise — the freedom from the tyranny of clothing

I always looked forward to a time when more people would be given the choice of not having to travel to a workplace for a fixed number of hours every weekday.

Many have dreamt of such a world, but questioned its practical feasibility. This year, Covid-19 forced it into reality. In Singapore, where I live, students and their teachers had to adjust to home-based learning in a hurry. Their parents, who now were asked to work from home, suddenly experienced the freedom from rather dreary rigid routines.

 

This is not to say that working from home is always liberating and productive for everyone. Without structure and routine, one can lose control, become overwhelmed, and not know where to even start. Without the proximity of colleagues, one can feel socially isolated and not be able to collaborate meaningfully despite online communication tools. Being surrounded at home by other members of the household all the time, each competing for limited space, facilities, and privacy to do their own work, can be stressful.

But working from home makes available another freedom whose significance not many people realise — the freedom from the tyranny of clothing.

First, we no longer need a variety of clothes. We don’t have to think too hard about what to wear every morning or look frantically for that matching piece that might be in the wash. We can focus exclusively on dressing the upper half of our bodies, giving new meaning to dressing “up”. Videoconferencing tools such as Zoom, Skype and Webex release us from these demands. And there might even be days when we don’t need to be seen by anyone.

Second, we no longer need to wear expensive clothes. Through video, one can hardly tell how well tailored someone’s clothes are or be impressed by their fashion labels. Working from home has a remarkably egalitarian effect. And quite a lot of money can be saved by just buying less expensive clothes that are not dry-clean only.

Third, we no longer need to wear uncomfortable clothes that are formal and office-appropriate. Technically, we can wear one set of clothes each day, thus saving time and money on washing. A whole range of versatile loungewear and activewear has emerged, offering reasonably priced, attractive, and comfortable clothing that can be worn while working, exercising, doing daily chores, relaxing, and even going to sleep, without having to change.

Working at home in comfortable clothing also offers people like me, who live in the tropics, the freedom from climatic extremes. While the outdoors are hot and humid all year round, step inside any office building and you’ll experience temperatures that are practically Arctic. It is ironic to see otherwise casual tropical citizens dressed in layers of warm clothing, tyrannised by centralised air-conditioning.

My wife, a school principal, tells me that I have become a slob. She may have a point. As a former academic dean of a leading public policy school, I used to wear well-cut suits to work as, nearly every day, there would be formal meetings with rather formal people.

These days, I wear a t-shirt and shorts at all hours of the day, sometimes repeating the same clothes for a couple of days. When there is a meeting to attend or a webinar to present on Zoom, I throw on a shirt or a jacket for just those hours.

In contrast, my wife still dresses up during “office hours” on work-from-home days, believing that there should be a sense of occasion and decorum where social and official contexts are concerned. Some, like her, still dress up for work to demarcate a boundary between “virtual office” and “home”, so that work does not pervade every part of life, including those parts that should be reserved for rest, leisure, and self-care. Still others enjoy the freedom to express their individual personality, creativity and identity through their clothes, even if only virtually.

How then, does the freedom from the tyranny of clothing fit in with these other freedoms to protect and project the self in the virtual company of others?

Perhaps we should develop better technology to produce virtual clothes — a dematerialisation of fashion that improves range and ability to customise, while reducing material waste and unnecessary spending. Imagine, if we could dress ourselves using Zoom’s virtual wardrobe ahead of a videoconference? And imagine if we could also purchase additional customised virtual fashion items to expand our wardrobe for a small price. Communication technology platforms already provide virtual backgrounds. It’s time they consider helping us dress “up” too.

Kenneth Paul Tan is a professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

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Published on August 14, 2020
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