Young Chinese Embrace ‘Gross Outfits’ at Work

Young Chinese Embrace ‘Gross Outfits’ at Work

When the weather turned cold in December, Cindy Luo started to wear her fluffy pajamas over a hooded sweatshirt at the office. Wearing cozy sleepwear to work became a habit and soon she didn’t even bother to wear matching tops and bottoms, selecting whatever was most comfortable.

A few months later, she posted photos of herself to a “gross outfits at work” thread that had spread on Xiaohongshu, a Chinese app similar to Instagram. She was one of tens of thousands of young workers in China to proudly post pictures of themselves showing up at the office in onesies, sweatpants and sandals with socks. The just-rolled-out-of-bed look was shockingly casual for most Chinese workplaces.

“I just want to wear whatever I want,” said Ms. Luo, 30, an interior designer in Wuhan, a city in Hubei Province. “I just don’t think it’s worth spending money to dress up for work, since I’m just sitting there.”

Defying expectations for proper work attire reflects a growing aversion among China’s youth to a life of ambition and striving that marked the past few decades. As the country’s growth slows and promising opportunities recede, many young people are choosing instead to “lie flat,” a countercultural approach to seeking an easy and uncomplicated life. And now even those with steady jobs are staging a quiet protest.

The intentionally lackluster outfits became a social media movement when a user named “Kendou S-” posted a video last month on Douyin, the Chinese sibling service of TikTok. She showed off her work outfit: a fluffy brown sweater dress over plaid pajama pants with a pink, light-quilted jacket and furry slippers.

In the video, she said that her supervisor at work told her several times that her outfits were “gross” and that she needed to wear better clothes “to mind the image of the company.”

The video took off; it received more than 735,000 likes and was shared 1.4 million times. The hashtag “gross outfits at work” spread across multiple Chinese social media platforms and it unleashed a competition of whose work dress was the most repulsive. On Weibo, China’s version of X, the topic generated hundreds of millions of views and sparked a wider discussion about why young people are not willing to dress up for work nowadays.

“It’s the progress of the times,” said Xiao Xueping, a psychologist in Beijing. She said young people grew up in a relatively more inclusive environment than earlier generations and learned to put their own feelings first.

Mr. Xiao said the outfits may be a form of responsible protest, because people are still doing their jobs. It’s also a sign of how countries re-evaluate values and priorities when they reach higher levels of prosperity.

People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s main newspaper, criticized young people for “lying flat” in a 2022 editorial, urging them to keep working hard. Since then, it has echoed the advice of Xi Jinping, China’s leader, who urged young people to “eat bitterness,” a colloquial expression that means to endure hardships.

But People’s Daily has refrained from scolding young Chinese for what it called “being ugly” at work. The publication said that the trend was a form of self-mockery, and that it was “unnecessary to magnify it to become a problem of principle” as long as the employees dressed appropriately and had a good work attitude.

Working from home during the pandemic changed workplace dynamics around the world. In the United States, many companies faced resistance to a return-to-office push, and the five-day-a-week commute is no longer a given at many companies. After three years of living under China’s stringent Covid restrictions, Chinese employees don’t mind going to the office — but many want to do so on their terms and in their comfy clothes.

Most of the responses to the “gross outfits at work” posts came from women. In China, like many places around the world, women are held to a higher standard for office wear, while men’s outfits often require less thought. For the almost entirely male top officials of the Chinese Communist Party, the choice of what to wear is pretty simple — “ting ju feng,” or “office and bureau style.” It’s the bland and understated look of a typical midlevel bureaucrat, a style preferred by Mr. Xi.

A colleague of Joeanna Chen, a 32-year-old translator at a beauty clinic in Hangzhou, posted pictures of her wardrobe to social media with the caption: “Guess how long it will take for the boss to speak to her?” (Ms. Chen’s colleague had her permission to post the photos.)

Ms. Chen was wearing a mango-yellow, hooded down overcoat with a white knit hat that covered her ears. On her arms were mismatched blue and beige sleeve covers adorned with cows. She wore black pants and pink-and-blue checkered socks with furry, granny-style loafers.

Ms. Chen said she recognized that the outfit, her usual office attire, wasn’t very stylish, but she didn’t care because it was comfortable. The sleeve covers were made by her grandmother. The sweater was a hand-me-down from her mother, and the hat once belonged to her son.

She said that her boss once asked her to wear something sexier to work, but that she had ignored his request. In addition, she has for the first time started to turn down work assignments she doesn’t want to do.

After going through years of unpredictable lockdowns, quarantines and the fears of getting sick during the pandemic, Ms. Chen said all she wanted now was to live in the moment with a stable job and a peaceful life. She is not worried about promotions or getting ahead.

“Just be happy every day and don’t impose things on yourself,” she said.

For Jessica Jiang, 36, who works in e-commerce sales at a clothing company in Shanghai, her “gross” look is more about her messy hair and lack of make up.

Ms. Jiang said she didn’t have enough time in the morning to get ready because of her hourlong commute. She said she dressed by throwing on clothes randomly. On a recent day, the result was a sweater that was too short to cover her thermal undershirt. “Everyone is focused on their work — no one cares about dressing up,” Ms. Jiang said. “It’s good enough to just get the work done.”

But Lulu Mei, 30, a bank clerk in the eastern city of Wuhu, said she had to wear a uniform everyday: a navy blue blazer, matching slacks and a button-down light-colored shirt. She said that without the requirement, she too might eventually stop dressing nicely because “all work is tiring.”

Ms. Luo, the interior designer who wears the fluffy pajamas to work, said there were days when she dressed more conventionally — like when going out with friends after work, or when her pajamas were in the laundry. She loves fashion, she said. At work, she listens to the runway music from the most recent Chanel show from Paris Fashion Week.

When she joined her company three years ago, she wore overcoats to look more mature and prepared her outfits the night before. Over time, she got tired of it and started to question the practice.

“I feel like I don’t know what I dress up for,” Ms. Luo said. “I just want to live a little more of my own way.”