I like working, but I don’t like work clothes. If I can’t wear my standard uniform – sweatpants that the Salvation Army threw in their dumpster; a ratty Eagles t-shirt; half a shoe – I can’t concentrate. This is largely why I work at home.
But sometimes I toy with getting a conventional, office-constrained job, and seriously, one of the reasons I don’t is due to a major intolerance for discomfort: When I was in the corporate world, the combination of tight waistbands, nylons, and heels drove me to itching, fidgeting distraction every day. Fortunately, office dress codes are now less formal, and there are new high-tech fabrics that promise to hug you like one of Temple Grandin’s cows.
To get an idea of what’s new in the world of business and comfort, I spoke to James Krohn, the manager of personal shopping at Neiman Marcus San Francisco. “It’s an interesting question,” he said, “and one that designers are addressing more than one would expect.” As dress codes relaxed in the 1990s, designers had to figure out how to adapt or risk losing the whole category of “office” clothes.
The solution, says Krohn, is elastane, which stretches up to three times its original length and recovers rapidly when released. He instructs the comfort-seeking shopper to look for a per cent of spandex or elastane in the fabric mix.
He recommends one of his top sellers, the Akris Punto “Mara” pant: “It gives the comfort of a legging with the polish of a structured pant.” He suggests pairing it with an elongated jacket that covers the rear for maximum comfort.
Another bonus: Elastic waists are no longer just for pregnancy or Thanksgiving dinner – Krohn tells me that designers have started putting elastic waistbands at the back of suit pants, which are not only more comfortable but also allow the wearer to gain a few pounds without feeling like a magician’s assistant being sawn in half.
For more casual office wear, I’m intrigued by Betabrand, whose whole raison d’etre is work clothes as comfortable as yoga clothes, especially the palazzo dress pants and the navy pin-stripe skirt. The Betabrand office clothes sport hidden pockets and include skirts with built-in shorts so you’re not flashing anyone if you cycle to work, or, you know, bend over to pick up a paper clip.
Men have also benefitted from the stretch fabrics in suits: This Theory blazer is knit instead of woven and has a bit of stretch, which means less feeling like you’re being squeezed like a boa constrictor when you shrug; this wool suit from H&M includes a bit of elastane if your paycheck is more teacher than banker.
Slouchy clothes are in right now – suits that are cut loosely, and there’s even a full-on trend for pajama-like clothes that designers are showing on the runway. Now obviously this isn’t going to fly if you’re Gordon Gekko, but if you’re in a creative field and can get away with what can only be called aggressive whimsy, pajama-inspired outerwear might just get you through the day without feeling like you’re need to claw your way of shrink wrap.
(And if you’re tall. Because I’m short, I can’t wear drapey clothes – I look like I’m crouching in a garbage bag.) If I had the nerve, and if I were ok with looking a little eccentric, and if I worked in a field that’s more Devil Wears Prada than hunted, crumb-covered writer, I’d choose these from Zara. (I would button the top.)
If you’re in formal corporate environment and have the scratch, bespoke is the way to go. If I ever go back to a corporate job, I’m going full-on menswear, because I don’t love women’s suits, stockings, and heels. Bindle and Keep makes custom suits for men and women, both trans- and cis-, and if you want a suit that fits you well in all the right places and maybe even has a little stretch, you need to go bespoke.
The cheaper version of bespoke is off the rack with alterations. Brian Sacawa, who blogs about menswear at HeSpokeStyle, wrote in an email: “If someone complains that an article of clothing is uncomfortable, it is generally because it does not fit properly. A suit jacket that is too small in the chest or armhole, a button-up shirt with a neck size half an inch too small, trousers you thought were your waist size but run small. These small fit issues can create a lot of discomfort.
“Fit and comfort go hand in hand and the best weapon a guy has against this is to find a quality tailor. Almost all ready to wear clothing will require some sort of alterations for a proper fit.” I can vouch that this goes for women too – I have even my t-shirts tailored for maximum comfort.
I sometimes prefer dresses to pants, because the right dress totally eliminates any waistband pinching, which is probably the number-one sensation that makes me want to chuck myself out the office window. I’m intrigued by the frocks on offer from Ernst Reiko.
A fashionable friend who works in media recommended them, noting that they are not only pretty and professional but 1) have pockets and 2) are cut loosely enough that one can eat a big lunch and not have to suck in one’s stomach for the rest of the afternoon. They’re all modelled with heels, which are a no-go for me, but I bet I could find a way to make them work with flats or boots.
A dress more in line with a writer’s paycheck is the the Lands End “fit and flare dress,” which a couple of lawyer friends in business-casual offices recommended. It’s linen and spandex, and the waistband is loose. They pair the dress with a cardigan to combat freezing office air conditioning.
Shoes, tights, maybe two pairs of underpants
My internet searches revealed a huge variety in what people define as comfortable, so your mileage may vary on these suggestions: One woman says she wears two pairs of underpants, one over and one under her tights, to prevent crotch sag, which for me is at least two too many layers of clothing; I’m picturing a woman with basically an inner tube of fabric around her hips.
Other women prefer garter belts or knee highs or even nude socks to regular tights; I would kill a man to never wear any kind of tights, each to her own.
Shoes are another wildly individual thing: Some people like thin ballet flats; others suggest any kind of Cole Haan, Dansko, Merrell, United Nude, Seychelles, or Clarks, depending on the formality of your office and your taste.
Custom-made insoles can make a huge difference in how far you can walk comfortably and eliminate the temptation to rock the whole Working Girl sneakers-and-a-suit look.
For men in a formal office setting, you might have to suffer for beauty, at least for a little while: Brian Sacawa tells me that “a well-made pair of leather shoes will almost always be uncomfortable in the beginning. It takes time to break in quality leather, but when those shoes are broken in, they will feel fantastic.
It’s a trade-off. You could spend less for a pair of lower-quality shoes that feel good right out of the box, but they certainly won’t last as long as the pair that maybe cost twice as much, and over time you’ll end up spending more to continuously replace those lower-quality shoes.”
So that’s a calculation only you can make, kind of like the two-underpants gal. Bottom line: No matter how sensitive you are to itchy fabric and tight armholes, there’s a professional wardrobe out there that will get you through the day in comfort.