Gross vs. glam: China’s office wear trends reflect work attitudes

    Young Chinese workers are using fashion to express how they feel about office life. From “office siren” to “gross outfits,” here’s what’s trending online.
    Photo: Xiaohongshu @三吉阿花
      Published   in Fashion

    Y2K fashion is back with a vengeance — this time, office edition.

    Inspired by 1990s and 2000s workwear, the “office siren” trend comprises tight pencil skirts, fitted blazers, tailored trousers, and suggestively unbuttoned blouses, complemented by chic glasses and hair pulled back into a sleek bun.

    Popularized on TikTok in late 2023, this aesthetic has made its way to Chinese lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu, where the hashtag “office siren” (#职场海妖风) has amassed over 27 million views. But rather than wear these sexy outfits on the clock, many fashionistas are saving them for the streets.

    The “office siren” style features pencil skirts and fitted blazers. Photo: Xiaohongshu
    The “office siren” style features pencil skirts and fitted blazers. Photo: Xiaohongshu

    “The office siren style pursues a harmonious balance between wisdom and beauty, allowing a perfect coexistence of sophistication and intellectuality,” describes Xiaohongshu user Fashion Editorial Department (@fashion 编辑部).

    With many young Chinese just starting to experience office life, the aesthetic is a romanticization of corporate culture.

    “It is, more than ever, a vision of the life that young people aspire to live; this vision of a powerful woman going to the office with a coffee in one hand, her phone in the other, and living the dream life they have usually seen in movies and popular dramas,” says Anaïs Bournonville, President of French-Chinese marketing agency Reverse Group.

    Bournonville adds that the brand Frey, which specializes in tailored suits for women, has seen its views double in the previous months on Xiaohongshu, with viral videos showing women going to work in elegant and comfortable suits.

    ‘Gross outfits’ and glow-downs#

    But in reality, many people — particularly those well-accustomed to office life — couldn’t be bothered to dress up. Over the past month, global headlines have been buzzing over the “gross outfits” Chinese employees are wearing to work.

    When Douyin user @Kendou S posted a video of herself in February 2024 wearing furry slippers, plaid pyjama bottoms, and a sweater dress to work, it went viral with over 1.4 million shares. Since then, the hashtag “gross work outfits” (#上班恶心穿搭) has garnered over 44 million views on Xiaohongshu, with netizens rolling up to the office in sleepwear, hoodies, and socks with sandals — much to their bosses’ chagrin.

    Chinese netizens compete to see who can wear the most “gross” outfit to work. Photo: Xiaohongshu
    Chinese netizens compete to see who can wear the most “gross” outfit to work. Photo: Xiaohongshu

    Besides being cozy, these unconventional outfit choices reflect a weariness among Chinese youth when it comes to work.

    “This way of dressing — or rather non-dressing — to go to the office is really driven by the post-00s’ new and changing attitude towards work,” says Dao Nguyen, founder of Essenzia ByDao, a boutique marketing creative strategy agency. “Beyond comfort, it has to do with pushing back society’s expectations and going their own way. Not only do they push back 996, they’re not afraid to be vocal about it.”

    It’s just as Xiaohongshu user Xiaozhang’s Commentary (@小张评大学生版) describes, “Behind this self-deprecation undoubtedly lies the work dilemma faced by most young people today: too much work, little pay, long hours. Faced with these challenges, rather than putting effort into dressing up, we prefer to get an extra half an hour of sleep in the morning.”

    “I can only wear the ugliest clothes to match my pitiful salary,” another Xiaohongshu user adds.

    Some employees have gone as far as sharing pictures of their appearance before and after they started their position, highlighting the physical toll it has taken on them. Numerous netizens portray themselves as having gained weight or appearing older due to stress and overtime.

    View post on TikTok

    The bigger picture#

    Naturally, these are two extremes of office fashion. Everyday work attire is what you’d expect: comfortable and largely streetwear, observes Elsbeth van Paridon, a sinologist and editorial consultant at Beijing Review.

    “You have the oversized hoodies, the baseball caps, but you will definitely also see how [young workers] infuse daily wear for comfort with stylish nods. They do incorporate elements from trends at the time,” she says, giving the example of how women would wear brown to match last year’s Maillard style.

    Still, that doesn’t mean luxury and fashion brands can’t benefit from the aforementioned micro trends. When it comes to the office siren aesthetic, recent collections by Sandy Liang, Mark Gong, and Zara all feature alluring corporate looks. Meanwhile, Farfetch has actively promoted the style on Weibo, highlighting luxury products that would fit the bill.

    On Weibo, Farfetch uses the office siren trend to promote pieces from Tom Ford, Saint Laurent, and Miu Miu. Photo: Weibo
    On Weibo, Farfetch uses the office siren trend to promote pieces from Tom Ford, Saint Laurent, and Miu Miu. Photo: Weibo

    “The fashion trends on Xiaohongshu and other Chinese platforms now have a direct impact on the products and brand sales, which Western brands have to follow on a daily basis to remain relevant in the local market,” Bournonville says.

    Even when it comes to the “gross outfit” trend, luxury brands would do well to pay attention because it speaks to the way Chinese youth embrace trends on their terms, Nguyen says.

    “Brands need to revise the way they create engagement; top-down communication isn’t as engaging as before. Besides, as youngsters want to be in command, not taught nor preached, the market is getting more and more atomized. So brands will need to define their offer and communication in an ever more granular and customized way,” she explains.

    Whether it’s mismatched pajamas or sexy skirt suits, mocking or romanticizing, Chinese workers are using their clothes to make a statement about work. These micro fashion trends, while transient, serve as a portal in the psyche of China’s Gen Z and millennials.

    • Characterized by tight pencil skirts and fitted blazers, the “office siren” trend represents a romanticized vision of corporate life, embodying the image of a powerful, stylish woman navigating the professional world.
    • There’s also a growing trend of embracing “gross outfits” among Chinese workers, serving as a rebellion against traditional work expectations.
    • Although micro trends change frequently, they hold significant implications for the fashion industry, influencing product offerings and brand strategies, as evidenced by the rise of Barbiecore and Maillard style.
    • Brands need to revise the way they engage and communicate, adopting a more granular, personalized approach to remain relevant with younger demographics.
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