Throughout the pandemic, there's been this collective agreement to keep sweatpants and activewear as our official uniforms. Most days, it’s a decision I strongly support. Why dress up if we have nowhere to go? Why put on jeans if we are spending the day working from bed? And why purchase a new top or capitalize on a trend when the end date of this thing is still unknown? Other days, I really miss dressing up. I miss getting inspired by my favorite creators and taking the plunge on a new brand or style—just because. Frankly, I miss the compliments from friends and random strangers.
And I’m not alone. Think of everyone you saw dressing up for vaccine appointments or routine grocery store visits. Clothing has always helped to express who we are and how we interact with the world. Fashion historians and experts foresee people clinging to self-expression via their outfits when there's eventually a reason to go outside again. “People seems pretty excited to [get] back out in the world,” says Dr. Sonya Abrego, a NY-based fashion historian. "Shopping can be a social experience too, so maybe we'll see more of it."
However, one question remains: After 18+ months of dressing from the waist up, how do you dress for a world that remains drastically changed? And if you’re eventually returning to the office (we're not there yet, but someday we will be), do the same stiff workwear rules apply? Can we take advantage of the comfort so many of us have adopted over the past year? Let's discuss.
Comfort Will Remain Idolized
Comfortable clothes have reigned supreme because... where were we going? "We saw caftans, sweats, leggings, and comfy pajama pants," Abrego says. "People kind of made a joke about it at first—never having to get dressed—but eventually it [gnawed at us].” To combat this, people injected bright colors into their stay-at-home wardrobes to release some serotonin. It was hard to avoid the tie-dye trend that popped off for months last year. "Cottagecore blew up and there was an obsession with craft and things made by hand," says Virginia Craddock, the co-founder of Untitled in Motion.
Here's the thing: Comfortable clothing will not go away, whenever the "after times" end up happening. It will, however, have a fashionable twist for both inside and outside activities. "In our own collection, [all things] fashionable athletic wear and even matching pet wear flew off the shelves," Dalia MacPhee, the CEO of namesake brand Dalia MacPhee, says. People are mixing and matching formal pieces with casual wear—wearing yoga pants with a heeled sandal or loungewear with a tailored blazer over the top. In short: Dressing for comfort and practicality will take precedence.
When it comes to returning to the office, however, MacPhee predicts there to be an increase in fantastical fashion. "We have all been through something life-changing," she says, "[When] individuals return to work, I believe there will be inspiration to don one’s best threads."
But donning your best threads does not require heavy spending. People have learned how to live with less. Less money. Less social outings. Less physical touch. In many ways, the pandemic allowed us to pause and reinvent the way we shop and reevaluate our wardrobes based on the essentials we need to live and be happy. "The pandemic was a forced reset for people to think about what they consume, and how much of it," Abrego says. "I hope [the pandemic] pushes people away from thinking they can't re-wear items, or that clothing should be cheap and disposable. With more online shopping, it might allow for more opportunities to explore vintage and resale, where you can get better quality items that aren’t always more expensive, and not contribute to new production and the fast fashion cycle.”
According to Thredup, the pandemic birthed 33 million consumers to secondhand for the first time in 2020. And a large 76% of those first-time shoppers plan to continue buying secondhand for the next five years. The stigma around thrifting delicately-worn goods is starting to vanish as a growing number of consumers care more about the quality of clothing and their carbon footprint than they did pre-pandemic.
MacPhee also agrees living with less was emphasized in the pandemic. She predicts there will be an increased support for higher-quality fashion and independent designers who focus on doing good in the world, from sustainability to eco-consciousness.
The Joy of Trying New Trends
I started wearing jeans again six months into the pandemic. Not because I missed the indentation they’d leave on my stomach while I sat cramped over a laptop in my 4x4 New York City apartment, but because they reminded me of life before the global pandemic. They reminded me who I used to be, a fashion editor with a full social calendar of work events and parties from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Jeans made me feel normal. Eventually, I added in more “normal” items—crop tops, dresses, and heels, allowing them to work their magic on my mood and mental state.
“Prior to the pandemic, I don’t think any of us truly comprehended how privileged we were with shopping,” MacPhee says. “The ability to walk into any store at any time, to touch, try, and purchase in a New York minute, was taken away instantly.”
My prediction is that once consumers have recovered from the financial strain of the pandemic, they could be even more delighted to shop. People will be interested in buying clothing that go beyond their living rooms—dresses that play double duty for dining out and couch-based cocooning, sneakers that have some added flair, or stylish jeans that have good elastic bands will all soon trend. Bottom line: this past year offered few occasions to get dressed up, leaving fashion lovers in a state of dressing withdrawal.
Fall 2021 shows suggested a solution: make up for lost time by wearing as many patterns, fabrics, or colors at once, regardless of how disparate it used to be. Both fast fashion and high-end brands are pushing optimism for our much-anticipated return to society. I think people who never cared for trends or style will be happy to try fashion. Being trapped indoors will have created a new awakening in even the most fashion aloof. The good news: there is so much visual content online and social media that the desire for the new, next, and possibility has been enhanced and is easily accessible.
Clothing affects the way we view ourselves in three main categories: the person we want to be, the person we hope to be, and the person we fear to be. Case studies show our relationship with clothing is an enjoyable one because it grants us the power to navigate between these three versions of ourselves.
While some tastes have shifted throughout the pandemic, MacPhee predicts an uptick in designer and dress wear as well as travel and resort wear. "Have you seen how busy the airports are?" she says. It's true travel may be slowing down as the Delta variant causes new spikes, but this relentless pandemic has uncovered "a newfound appreciation for fashion," MacPhee says. We can look to the fashion surge that emerged right after the 1918 pandemic as an indicator. They call it the roaring '20s for a reason."
Case in point: There will eventually be more occasions to break out your favorite pieces. Experts are seeing a growing desire for sultry dresses, crop tops, tailored jeans, strappy heels, and formalwear for all the postponed wedding invites that'll trickle in once it's safe.
"Revenge-buying," or the act of shopping to make up for lost time, is going to be the biggest form of liberation in the "after times." We just have to get there. After months of stifled self-expression, people will use these purchases as a way to explore and showcase their creativity.