Leave Loungewear at Home but Not Comfort Clothing: An Update on the Apparel Market

Venturing out after months at home could be a problem for those accustomed to loungewear. The good news is that comfort still rules in today’s fashion.

https://tickertapecdn.tdameritrade.com/assets/images/pages/md/Shopping bags: Apparel market update
4 min read
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Key Takeaways

  • Is it “wear absolutely anything you want” back to the office? Not exactly
  • The old is new again, and the “new old” is old again
  • Retailers and apparel makers look to tap into trends, but they’re not all playing the same angles

If you’re attempting reentry into the outside world, rethink your fashion choices before you walk out the door—or you may find yourself looking sideways in a store window to see you missed the memo to catch up with the times.

The “times”—and we’re not quite sure what to call this period yet because it’s clearly not “post” pandemic—are about going back to the office, out for dinner, and back to school. We’re reentering a world very different from the pre-lockdown one.

After months of video calls with friends, colleagues, and business associates, the work-from-home mullet-style riff—business on the top, party on the bottom—is thankfully giving way to something more acceptable at the office or an in-person social gathering. And really, was it even acceptable at home?

That’s true even though a New York Times opinion piece in June declared that the fashion trend of today is “wear absolutely anything you want.” The rules are changing quickly. Social media platform TikTok, for example, is becoming more of a fashion trendsetter than Paris couture and runways.

“Designers and editors are no longer the gatekeepers they once were, and the people pushing the sartorial conversation forward are just as likely to be high schoolers in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as New York fashion editors,” wrote Toronto fashion and lifestyle journalist Isabel Slone.

But opinions on what’s fashionable and what’s not have long contradicted themselves, so there’s no sense in fighting that trend now. Fashion, for example, has often been touted for its ability to let individuals express themselves. But jumping to purchase popular styles promoted on TikTok by Lululemon (LULU), Nike (NKE), Urban Outfitters (URBN), Vans (VANS), and even Walmart (WMT) seems to smack of conformity, not independence.

Keep It Simple

The good news: Comfort still rules. Phew! “This doesn’t mean we will live in yoga pants,” according to a Stitch Fix (SFIX) blog post about 2021 trends. “... but we will see more everyday and work clothes made with stretch (fewer buttons and zippers please?).”

Let’s admit it, the “Covid 15,” like the Freshman 15, was unavoidable for many after fitness centers went dark and one of the few socially acceptable forms of indoor aerobic activity—for those without a Peloton (PTON)—was running 40 flights of stairs. And it doesn’t take nearly as much time and effort to put the pounds on as it does to take them off.

That might explain why the online personal styling service, which doesn’t exactly set the fashion quotient but certainly has the pulse on how consumers are reacting to it, claims it was “early to the trend” of comfort stretch by responding to SFIX client requests for stretch fabrics.

“Even before COVID, our bestselling workwear pants incorporated stretch fabrics and comfort was the number one thing that women were looking for in work clothes,” according to the blog. Like many other trends already underway, such as online shopping and working from home, COVID-19 accelerated the comfy-works-best carryforward.

That’s probably been most prevalent in fast-fashion retailers such as H&M and Zara (ZARA), which have churned out clothing-for-the-moment as part of their business model, rather than the seasonal buying most other retailers follow.

Brandwatch, the industry tracker, noted consumers are choosing usefulness over chic when talking about fast fashion on social media. “It turns out a lot of online conversations around fast fashion were related to practicality: ‘looked both couture and sporty,’ ‘hands-on sensibility and ready-to-wear,’ ‘streetwear,’ ‘street style,’ and ‘easy to wear around the house’ were all key phrases used to describe fast-fashion items,” Brandwatch wrote in a recent report. “While fashion isn’t always known for practicality, it seems that there’s been a shift in consumers’ attitudes towards garments that serve multiple purposes as opposed to clothes that are ‘trendy.’”

We Wear What We Live

Fashion has always been evolutionary and a social reflection of the times. Wartimes, for example, led to an abundance of jungle-fatigue prints. After WWII, we saw growth in what was known as “utility” clothing—unadorned yet refined with boxy, padded shoulders, cinched waistbands, and straight skirts. We’ve seen many variations of that in recent years.

This year’s significant event, of course, was the pandemic and the long hours spent in loungewear. So, it should be little wonder that comfort is here to stay, only now we’re going to give it a more stylish bent than the T-shirt-and-sweats look.

“We adjusted products accordingly, with more knits and less fitted cuts that still look tailored, stretch linings in blazers, and wedges and flats (over heels) that continue to match our lifestyle today,” SFIX wrote in its blog post.

The billowy look is apparent in the clothing hyped by the likes of Macy’s (M), Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom (JWN), and Anthropologie, a division of URBN. Flowing maxi dresses, puffy sleeves, wide legs with drawstrings, and loose layers that have a strong resemblance to fancy bathrobes are all popular.

As back-to-school shopping moves into full gear for the first time in months, big-box retailers are looking for partners who resonate well with the young TikTok crowd. WMT, for example, is carrying tween brand Justice, whose short shorts and tie-dye sweatshirts are favorite classroom fare. Formerly known as the Limited Too brand that went kaput in 2020, Justice clothing can be found in Walmart’s brick-and-mortar stores or online.

JCPenney, on the other hand, launched its own tween brand called Thereabouts. It’s an inclusivity-focused brand that caters to an “activist generation” in Gen Z that “aligns to their beliefs in diversity across sizes and abilities,” Modern Retail reported. That means tag-free, sensory-friendly fabrics and seams with easy-access openings and adaptive features for children with disabilities. Sizes run the gamut too, from 2T to 22. 

Men’s Comfort Suit

On the men’s side, double-breasted suit coats, sans ties, are back, along with the preppy look—only polo shirts are a little more edgy these days.

Fashion magazine WWD called “comfort suiting” this fall “a perfect blend of coziness and function that works equally well in Zoom meetings as in our new everyday lives.”

In contemporary men’s clothing, “the double-breasted suit leaves all other styles languishing for fall,” WWD declared, detailing the look that also leaves room for those wanting to conceal their “Covid 15.”

“Traditionally a more structured piece, this season the staple is shown in a more relaxed fashion, often in an oversized silhouette, worn with matching trousers, paired with baggy denim or even infusing a touch of leather,” the report stated. “A mix-and-match philosophy, it gives way for a new take on the menswear essential.”

But never fear, the old does not go out with the new or the “new old.” GQ magazine devoted an entire article this month to the ultimate in men’s comfort clothing—T-shirts, underwear, and sweatshirts. From New York designer Tom Snyder’s sophisticated basics to the macho-man workwear of Carhartt’s, an old standby is, well, still standing tall: Champion (CHMP).

“Champion got it very right when it invented its durable—and shrink-proof!—reverse weave fabric in the ’30s,” the men’s fashion magazine wrote. “We’ve been wearing their hoodies since high school and don’t intend to quit.”

Comfort clothing is one of those things that never seems to change.


Key Takeaways

  • Is it “wear absolutely anything you want” back to the office? Not exactly
  • The old is new again, and the “new old” is old again
  • Retailers and apparel makers look to tap into trends, but they’re not all playing the same angles
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