Pre-pandemic, business casual dress codes in the workplace, which often required a high or at least a sensible heel for women, were already hurtling toward extinction. About 50% of companies allowed employees to dress casually every day, according to a 2019 Indeed survey. That was up from 32% just five years before.
Experts expect the proliferation of casual workwear to continue now that many workers are returning to the office and brands are marketing elevated sweatpants and T-shirts as professional looks.
Post-pandemic, many women heading back to the office are swapping heels for sneakers and flats. Fashion footwear experienced a 27% decrease in sales in 2020, according to NPD data.
However, just because workwear has shifted away from business casual doesn't mean women are abandoning fancy footwear altogether. Searches for trendy and designer heels have jumped substantially this summer as people resume socializing. Searches for clear heels were up 350% in the last year, according to Google Trends. Searches for Tom Ford heels and Bottega heels were up 500% and 350%, respectively, over the last year, as well.
Lots of women are simply eliminating heels from the parts of their lives where the infamously uncomfortable shoe never really belonged in the first place: work, experts say. But they are embracing that shoe style in other ways.
The decline of heels in the workplace is not solely due to women's discomfort, says Edgar Ndjatou, executive director at Workplace Fairness. It is also a product of companies trying to protect themselves from lawsuits.
"The use of high heels has a pretty fraught history," he says. "The wearing of high heels was connected to many sexual harassment complaints in the past."
Although both men and women had dress codes, unlike men, women were more often treated differently based on their appearance, Ndjatou explains. They were, for example, often expected to wear heels. In recent years, to circumvent lawsuits, companies have attempted to make dress codes for men and women similar or, at the very least, less specific.
For example, when Goldman Sachs relaxed its dress code for bankers in 2019, the company memo read that employees should dress "in a manner that is consistent" with clients' expectations, and added "all of us know what is and is not appropriate for the workplace." Nothing was noted about how the different genders should dress.
"Companies try to make it as gender-neutral as possible to avoid any issues with gender discrimination," Ndjatou says.
These changes left a gap in the market for comfortable clothes that were also professional.
Some designers saw an opportunity in this vacuum. In 2018, Sarah LaFleur, founder of the clothing store M.M.LaFleur, introduced a product category named "Power Casual."
"The increasing casualization of workwear is something that we have been anticipating and designing into for several years now," she says.
The company's Power Casual collection features formal sweatshirts, stretchy slacks, and white tennis shoes. The goal was to provide pieces that were "comfortable and relaxed, yet polished enough to make you feel put-together," she says.
As part of that shift away from office dress codes, some women transformed heels from a sexist requirement into a power statement. Women who embraced a sensible heel did so to show "solidity and tenaciousness," says M.M.LaFleur co-founder and chief creative officer, Miyako Nakamura.
The pandemic forced companies to value different traits, though. "I think that, especially coming out of the pandemic, we've emerged with a different definition of strength, where leaders are equally valued for their ability to be flexible and responsive, at ease in making lots of different decisions and playing multiple roles — caregiver and leader, for example," she says. And while she doesn't think women will altogether stop wearing heels at work, this shift in priorities has made the heel as a power statement that much more unnecessary.
Carrie McConkey of Carrie M. Image Consulting in Knoxville, Tennessee, has been in the workforce for more than 30 years. At age 51, she says she has seen the steady decline in heels at the workplace and in the professionals she styles. She believes it is because younger workers prioritize presenting different characteristics, especially when it comes to first impressions. For many, this means looking polished, but opting out of heels.
"I think as the younger generations move into the workforce, they want to make a good impression, but they are not as worried about their outside appearance as they are worried about their behavior and communication," McConkey says.
As the economy reopens, many women are choosing to wear heels for fun, now that they can go out again after staying in through much of 2020.
Freelance writer Lauren Styx, 27, is more excited to wear heels now than she was before the pandemic. Styx, who lives in New York City, specifically bought some red patent leather clogs a couple months ago "in anticipation of the summer," she says.
"I've worn heels out to dinners and such, but also on random errands, like apartment showings," she says. "Heels felt reserved for more formal or special occasions before, but now every time I go out feels like a special occasion."
Workplace heels, meanwhile, are now more of a choice than an obligation, McConkey says: "Women don't wear heels because they feel they are expected to. They wear heels if they think it will enhance their confidence or mood that day."
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