Discover more from Adventures In "Journalism" by Sari Botton
What I wore to work in the late 80s and early 90s.
Recently I rummaged through boxes of old photos searching for pictures of myself in my 20s in work outfits. I wanted to illustrate something I’d been thinking about: how remarkably my work apparel game (and everyone’s, really) has devolved since the late 80s, when I got my first journalism jobs at trade publications.
Of course, in the past two years, working from home has turned just about everyone into perfect slobs. But the trend toward ever-more-casual was already in full swing long before the pandemic reduced our commutes to the few steps between our bedrooms and our “home offices,” (in many cases, other rooms, and even closets, doing double duty).
My rummaging yielded a single photo, the one above (which I used in another installment of this newsletter in 2019). I searched for others on Getty Images and Patrick McMullen’s site, to see if there were any shots of me covering entertainment and society events for WWD/W, or Rush & Molloy, or The 411—a New York Daily News gossip column I co-wrote with three other women for a little while. (Cringe.) Not a one. (It did unearth some old business cards, though.)
Anyway, all this to say, once upon a time, early in my career, I somehow wore skirt suits and pant suits to work almost every day. Sometimes it was more of a mix-and-match situation (“sportswear” according to the WWD Fashion Bible, which we were each handed when we were hired), not an actual suit, sold all on one hanger (“ready-to-wear”). But either way, my outfits almost always involved blazers with big shoulder pads, over a serious blouse or a “shell,” which was like a satin tank top. I wore those all with pantyhose and pumps. I traveled an hour-plus each way in those high heels—never once switching to Reeboks for my commutes like all those other “career women” in “power suits” from that time.
Most of my clothes were shitty “fast fashion” knock-offs of brands like Tahari that I bought on my lunch hour at sample sales, or Gap, or Bolton’s, or Strawberry. If I had a big interview at a Conde Nast or Hearst title (I never got those jobs, although I did my share of freelancing for both big publishers), I’d go nuts and splurge on a suit from J. Crew or Banana Republic, or on one occasion, Ann Taylor. (I still have two of those, from a spate of interviews in 1996.)
Even though most of my wardrobe was absolute schlock, I brought it to a dry cleaner. Dry cleaning bills were a constant in my life until the late-mid-90s, when I took a bit of a breather from journalism to ghostwrite. That marked the beginning of the end of my time dressing up for work.
Years later, now and then I’d take on months-long writing stints at newspapers and magazines and news shows, but each time it became clear that the bar for formality was being consistently lowered. My colleagues at those gigs wore khakis, then cargo pants/skirts, then “nice” jeans, then not so nice jeans, then leggings…and now, we all wear sweats and other “soft” pants most days.
I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing that we all now work in glorified pajamas (and sometimes actual pjs). I just think the contrast is interesting, especially as someone who in my 20s cosplayed as a Real Grownup Lady most weekdays, and in my mid-50s hustles from my dining room table in moth-bitten Old Navy leggings I got five years ago.
Lord knows I don’t feel like dressing the way I did in 1987, when I started taking the LIRR to jobs in office buildings in Manhattan. And I can’t imagine what it must be like for people who are suddenly having to return to the office and make daily choices about how to costume themselves for their work roles, following two years of just being themselves all the time in their homes. But a few weeks ago, during a four-day stint at my friends’ apartment in Brooklyn, when I had a chance to meet up with various friends and colleagues, it did feel nice to invest even a modicum of thought in how I put myself together.
I hope this next covid wave will be short-lived (and, of course, not so deadly!)—that soon, I’ll get out more to be with people, and maybe even dress up a little.