From epaulettes to athleisure, the best and worst workwear in history


As more women entered the workforce during and after World War II, hems rose just below the knee and dresses came loose.

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Fit, formality and function. Over the past 120 years, these three aspects of workplace fashion have changed as much as the social norms and demographics of office workers. From French cuffs to athleisure, here’s a timeline of our ever-changing sensibilities when it comes to our clothes at work.

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Early 1900s

Before World War I, women could do odd jobs, such as typists or in mail rooms. But during the war, while the men were away, women worked like everything, from railway guards and bill collectors, to train conductors and bank tellers. Still, whatever the job, they would don a skirt, high collar, and rib-cracking underwear, always with a bun and covered from head to toe lest their bodies be blessed by the sun. Meanwhile, before and after the war, the average man was buried in a three-piece suit all day, complete with a pig hat and long sideburns for a pinch of fun. It was the height of desexualization so you could, you know, focus on your job rather than the secretary’s bare ankles.

1920s – 1940s

The men stuck with the same heavy uniform for a good five decades, rubbing shoulders with jewelry for the first time – cufflinks to be exact, something an executive would wear as a status symbol. Hats, however, were still all the rage among women, especially the bell-shaped bell, which depending on the bow it was adorned with could send a message: a firm knot meaning she was married, a whimsical one meaning that she was single and looking.

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1950s

As more women entered the workforce during and after World War II, hems rose to just below the knee and dresses came loose. A woman’s hair was almost always short and parted to the side, curly or in waves so as not, presumably, to interfere with her banging. The nude took its first steps, in the form of stockings, while the plaid has become a staple of men, just like the overcoat hugging the ground.

1960s

In the days of the first feminist movement, equality could be evident in style, which was becoming considerably less formal for women. Suddenly, a woman in pants was acceptable. The kitten’s heel, too, made its way, adding the smallest sparkle to the feminine mystique, in place of the sensitive flat. For men, the collared shirt was more than just a bowling alley; polo shirt too. And the hair all around has thankfully discovered the abundant joys of the product – hairspray and mousse, to be exact.

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1970s

The formality of previous decades sparked a counter-culture, aka the hippie movement, which preached a sense of community, artistic expression, social experimentation, and an unfortunate lack of grooming. With her, like a real Pleasantville, color and personality came to North America, as did bold stripes and polka dots. It was a boisterous time, not just for protest against conformity, but for style. The ties were out, the top buttons were unbuttoned, and the hair was long, sometimes even to the waist.

1980s

A hard worker was the vibe in the ’80s as the hippies slowly died out, but not without some final statement looks. Forget the cleavage or the waist, an epic perm resting on a pair of shoulder pads was your source of money. The trend didn’t stop there, with chunky jewelry for women and bold stripes, crossover suits (back from the 1930s) and suspenders for men. The skin was finally in and the pipe was finally out (unless it got ripped by chance).

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90s

The angst was so strong in the ’90s that grunge traveled from the streets to the office, as the color faded and conservative neutrals returned. The fit was a non-concept with oversized khakis (Dockers was the word), loose pants, and relaxed fit sweaters. Pencil skirts, neckline, and thumb rings were as bold as it gets for women, while oversized blazers over tees were great for men.

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Early 2000s

Business casual continued to get a little too comfortable with perpetually rolled up button-down shirts and neutral cardigans. Women eventually established their own powerful dress code as hats rolled out and heels and pumps made their way, alongside the jumpsuit.

2010 – present

Style has become an afterthought in the office, with flip flops, shorts, and hoodies no stranger to the cabin. Athleisure, denim and sneakers are the unspoken uniform, with the cigarette pants for women and the fitted and / or khaki chinos for men becoming the new basic look.

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