In a global pandemic which has affected nearly every industry, the world of fashion has been no exception. From Saint Laurent dropping out of fashion week for the foreseeable future to larger questions about the modes of retail through which we encounter fashion, it seems doubtful that anything will be the same again.
Yet we can be comforted in the idea that in considering fashion trends themselves, the industry has not only survived but successfully adapted to many world-altering events, from plagues to wars, and each event has left its own mark on the style of an era. Crisis fosters extraordinary creativity, whether due to necessity such as resource availability or as the result of safety measures. Sometimes the influence is even stranger, such as the Victorian tendency to romanticise the effects of tuberculosis as a disease affecting beautiful women, making its symptoms – extraordinary skinniness and pale skin – the goal of fashion and makeup in the early nineteenth century. According to the Smithsonian, this contributed to the popularity of voluminous skirts paired with stiff pointed corsets that emphasised the waifish thinness of womens’ waists, at the ironic health risk of crushing their internal organs.
But fashion is nothing if not a mirror for social trends, and so with the advent of germ theory in the mid-19th century and consequent public health campaigns, those very large, trailing skirts that had once been in vogue for their creation of the ideal feminine figure were quickly avoided as potential carriers of disease. The same might happen with coronavirus. As we renew our consciousness of disease spreading through clothing, fashion might turn toward the easily disinfected. Washable fabrics like cotton, linen and certain kinds of silk might be favoured over what we can’t shove into a washing machine at the highest setting. It was wartime rationing that forced not only Coco Chanel but individual dressmakers to change their stylistic output: from wedding gowns made of parachutes to novel silhouettes for ‘utility clothing’ that required less material. Covid-19 will stimulate, if not rationing, but adaptations to the contactless world. Online runways, FaceTime photoshoots like the one Bella Hadid recently participated in for Jacquemus mean customers aren’t limited by geographical proximity. As a result their choices become limitless, and intra-industry competition increases. No longer will copy-cat designs pass as acceptable in a world of unorthodox fashion experimentation and evolving aesthetics. Take, for example, the eerily similar designer monograms, like the confusingly similar B logos of Burberry, Balmain and Balenciaga, or Topshop adding a label to the same dress Primark and charging an extra £15. Hopes for a kind of fashion that thinks outside the box and is unafraid to take risks could be realised by designers desperate to highlight their relevance when modes of shopping and fabric preference alter.
Combined with the possibility of the shopping sprees which follow a time of scarcity, fashion in the 2020s could witness a market taking an interest in the elaborate as well as the inventive. Some have advocated a post-corona turn away from fast fashion and frivolous consumerism in favour of sustainable and durable clothing made only for practicality. But this does not take into account historical precedent. It is well-documented that society tends to not only return to normality but to indulge following times of perceived sacrifice, such as rationing or isolation. After all, it was the uncertain interwar years and the austerity after the Great Depression which saw Dior’s flamboyant and maximalist New Look revolutionise fashion forever, in addition to the extravagance of Madeleine Vionnet’s bias-cut skirts requiring extra yards of fabric, or Schiaparelli’s collaborations with surrealists like Dali making intricate clothing bordering on artwork.This may have reflected the conservatism of the era in comparison to shorter, tighter silhouettes of the 20s, yet fundamentally these were styles that deliberately ignored the pragmatism of the crisis years – hence the term “escapist fashion” used to describe such trends from the 1930s. Designers and their industry provided increasingly ostentatious ways for customers to use fashion as a stylistic shield from their frugal and utilitarian circumstances.
Similarly, when this particular pandemic ends, climate consciousness and the practical necessity of hygiene might be sidelined by a world desperate to forget. It is difficult to imagine that after months of wearing pyjamas people will continue to languish in clothing that reminds them of lockdown. A trend in utilitarian or comfort-oriented clothing after the pandemic therefore seems questionable. Narratives from public health campaigns credit those who stay at home as doing so for the greater good. That sense of accomplishment will surely encourage us to treat ourselves by purchasing clothes that are unnecessary and impractical, paying little regard for the less-tangible environmental crisis that will continue long after the pandemic ends. Even if we learn to patch our worn elbows or stitch scarves into skirts out of boredom, we need to be honest with ourselves in considering how far we will carry our newfound hobbies into post-quarantine lifestyles. Why not instead use a torn pocket as an excuse to leave the house again and visit the newly-reopened shops? Catalysed by an audience hungry to indulge in the world they have so long been denied, the boom in fashion’s sheer creative power will no doubt be commercially rewarded after lockdown is lifted.
And yet, this crisis can still be considered as a possible fount of innovation. The fashion industry will have to make accommodations for products that become fashionable due to necessity – think specifically of the mask, beginning with the bird-beaks worn by plague doctors during the Black Death. Dismissed as virtually ineffective by most historians, they have nevertheless become a cultural symbol for disease resistance. Over time, masks were incorporated into contemporary social sentiment – in seventeenth century Paris, women wore lace masks ostensibly to protect themselves from the unclean streets but also to mark themselves as rich enough to afford the fabric. Women in photos ostensibly from the Spanish Flu-era were actually wearing masks as early as 1913, due more to the fashion influence of veils from Turkey following the Balkan War. This fine line between ubiquity, utility and fashion continues in today’s production of luxury face masks. Businesses have taken the upsurge in use of masks in their stride, from Louis Vuitton to Chanel’s face visor. Fashion after Covid-19 will likely do the same, making room for services that are essential: women’s fashion finally having pockets for hand sanitiser; the return of gloves as daily wear in a curious historical reversion. But these are likely to be assimilated into the trend toward maximalist aesthetics for a world that will refuse to stick to workaday style rooted in the social consciousness of a pandemic past.