Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Michelle Michaud, manager of marketing and communications at Assemblers Inc., in her home office.

As an attorney for an insurance company, Bart Mathews owns plenty of suits. These days, though, he's only wearing the top half of them. With Crocs.

"They're very comfortable and they have great arch support," says Mathews, who works from his home on Chattanooga's Southside.

As working from home moved into the mainstream this year, and many of us adjusted to Zoom life, dress codes have taken a decidedly hybrid turn. Whether it's the coat-and-tie-with-shorts-and Crocs look, or the fancy-blouse-with-kitty-cat-socks move, working half dressed has become a new kind of normal.

Michelle Michaud, manager of marketing and communications at Assemblers Inc., has seen her work-from-home dress code evolve as the pandemic has persisted. At first, she says, it was kind of fun to spend half the day in her pajamas in her home office on Signal mountain.

"The first week I was at home, it was roll out of bed in my jammies and really not change until noon," she says. "That went on for like a week or two, and then it started to feel uncomfortable working in my PJs."

For a while, Michaud went back to her original dress-for-work habits.

"I swung the pendulum and said, I'm just going to dress for work — head to toe, makeup and hair, the whole thing."

But that eventually started to feel like a bit much.

"Now I do this hybrid thing — I'm very comfortable from the waist down, and I'm definitely not wearing shoes, but with the tops I try to look very presentable and do makeup and hair. It helps me be more productive and keeps me on task."

For some people, though, half-dressed doesn't cut it.

Gable Eaton, the founder and CEO of Teq Touch, is a Marine Corps veteran and a creature of strict habits.

"I have a routine I follow religiously," says Eaton, who invented a fingertip barrier to thwart the germs on shared touch screens. "I get up, get my meditation in, get a small workout in and I get dressed. I don't change that routine even though we're going through this pandemic."

Eaton is working hard to get his product in front of the right people, and that has become a real challenge when he can't meet anyone in person, he says. Sticking to his business attire routine from his North Georgia home helps him stay motivated and focused.

"I have a product and I am relegated to Zoom and email, so by keeping my routine of getting up, getting dressed it keeps me in that frame of mind," he says.

According to a Gallup poll in August, one in four U.S. workers reported they were working from home exclusively. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in June that 31 percent of workers who were employed in early March had switched to working at home by the first week of April.

And enough people have embraced new work-from-home and quarantine sartorial habits to deal big blows to the apparel industry. Companies including Brooks Brothers, Neiman Marcus and J. Crew have filed for bankruptcy. A December report on the state of the fashion Industry by McKinsey & Company estimates the industry's profit will fall by 93 percent in 2020 after rising 4 percent in 2019.

Pressure is particularly intense on brick-and-mortar retailers, with some 20,000 to 25,000 stores expected to close in the U.S. in 2020 — more than double the number that did so in 2019, McKinsey reported. Chattanooga-based CBL, one of the biggest mall operators in the country, filed for bankruptcy in November.

Even for those who have always worked from home, pandemic life means there's almost nowhere to go. Mathews already had a work-from-home gig when the pandemic hit, so he was accustomed to the quirks of home-office life.

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I was the only person in a group of like 100 or so across three states who worked from home before all this, so it wasn't much of a transition for me," he says. "There was a lull before everyone else got up and running."

But with courts closing and his colleagues all adjusting to Zoom, his routines have changed a lot, Mathews says. His work happens across multiple counties, and there was a time when he'd have to suit up to appear in court for just a few minutes, which was a lot of time and effort.

"Since a lot of proceedings have gone virtual, I haven't had to do that, which is nice," he says. "Some of that is probably going to stick around, especially for a minor settlement where it's not an open court issue. There's not a good justification to pay an attorney to drive three counties to something that can be done on the phone in 10 minutes."

Now, on the days he's in court, Mathews suits up his top half and rocks shorts and Crocs on the bottom. On non-court days — which is most of them — he wears a more casual shirt for meetings with clients and colleagues. But he isn't compromising on the Crocs. That arch support, you know.

Mathews has also seen his colleagues start getting more casual during meetings online, he adds.

"It definitely seems like I've noticed lawyers who might have been wearing the full suit are losing the tie and the jacket," he says. "That's only from the waist up, but I have no idea what else they're wearing."

Michaud suspects looser dress codes are here to stay, even once it's safe to be out and about again, she says.

She's in the office two days a week now, with social distancing and masks in place, and she's noticed that the dress code there has become a little more casual, Michaud says.

"I think that people are dressing more casual now that they've been home and are coming back — I think things have changed permanently," she says.

In her previous jobs, she has worked in more formal corporate settings, and she doubts she'll ever need those clothes again, she says.

"When I was younger going into the office, it was suits," she says. "I haven't worn a suit in years. What am I going to do with all these nice suits?"

She's a dedicated thrift shopper, and she's been adding to her casual, at-home wardrobe.

"I've been buying stuff that doesn't even have a button on it," she says. "That's the best."

It's not just the suits, she adds. Even when she dresses for work or for Zoom, she has fallen out of the accessory habit.

"I have all this kind of cute jewelry I used to wear with these outfits," Michaud says. "For me, the difference is instead of wearing an outfit with like jewelry and it matches, as long as it's clean and somewhat professional, it's fine."

Eaton, meanwhile, really only dresses down one day a week. His typical workday outfit is a dress shirt and khakis, but he does make sometimes allowance for Fridays.

"If it's a casual day on Friday, I put my Teq Touch T-shirt and my sweats because I'm going to work out," he says.


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