The decline of formality

by Billie Ing
Business & Finance

The year of COVID-19 has also been the year of Zoom, as our behaviours changed overnight. To what extent these changes will stick has been one of the central questions for us this year. Our work suggests that where COVID-19 has accelerated an existing trend, behaviours that stem from it are far more likely to endure.

One such trend is ‘the decline of formality’. This is part of an ongoing relaxation of social conventions, such as less formal dressing, codes of speech and how we socialise.

Look at films and TV from 60 years ago and you will notice far more hats, three-piece suits and ties, no matter where the scene is set. Similarly, the invention of the microwave oven and soon after ‘ready meals’ fuelled a rise in much less formal eating, and nowadays in office culture we think nothing of calling senior staff by their first names. Now one only sees and hears traditional formalities very occasionally, perhaps at weddings or job interviews, but in general we are much more relaxed.

When it comes to dress, many commentators have pointed to the counterculture of the 1960s as the beginning of the decline of formality. In the UK, we have seen a slow shift from formal business wear to the more casual office cultures of the early 2000s, and the more recent growth of ‘athleisure’, a hybrid form of sportswear that you can wear more formally, a trend which has accelerated as part of the fallout from COVID-19.

Informal group video call

“I have argued that formal civic dress was dealt a fatal blow in 1967, making this year the dubious 50th anniversary of the birth of slob nation”

Christian Chensvold, The Rake 1

1967 hippy car filled with flowers

In 2019, the global athleisure market was set to rise 9%, outpacing the total clothing and footwear market beyond 2023

Forbes 2

In October, we asked the British public how they see this trend playing out. Most ‘knowledge workers’ say that working from home means it is easy for them to dress more casually, and that dressing casually lets them exercise their personal choices more.3 A large majority are happy with the situation and confident in knowing how to best dress in a more casual way.4 Six in ten say they rarely see people at work in business attire these days, so perhaps changing ‘social norms’ becomes self-reinforcing, with a bandwagon effect of more people adopting informal styles.5

For some knowledge workers, appearing appropriately for online work meetings is still important. A quarter say they put on makeup and style their hair specifically for video calls with colleagues,6 and more people than seven years ago now say that other people pay close attention to their appearance – despite being dressed in leisure wear!7

 casually dressed tiny toy figure in front of tablet screen

Twenty-nine percent of knowledge workers say they have been less likely to shower for work8

So, what does this mean for the ongoing ‘decline of formality’ trend we have seen for at least 50 years?

There is more informality, but is this liminal space a new normal? People can be truer to themselves on video calls – what we see around us now is likely to be a much better representation of who our colleagues really are. You’ve probably seen more of your colleagues’ children, interior design choices and had more of an insight into their home life than you ever expected.

How long will it last? As formality is a trend we’ve seen declining for more than half a century, the pandemic pushing us towards informality is likely to have some impact on future office culture, but what people wear on screen today may not appear on the office catwalks.

Overall, the next time you are on a call and your colleague rocks up in a onesie, don’t see it as the decline of formality but rather the growth of someone’s confidence and personal choice. Remember, most of your colleagues will have made the effort to shower and put on deodorant for your call, only a minority won’t.9

Billie Ing

Billie Ing

Head of Trends


  3. Ipsos MORI, 1,093 adults aged 16-75 in Great Britain, 21 and 23 October 2020
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Ipsos Global @dvisor, 1,001 adults aged 16-64 in Great Britain, October 2013
  8. Ipsos MORI, 1,093 adults aged 16-75 in Great Britain, 21 and 23 October 2020
  9. Ibid