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COVID-19 upended fashion trends, but will they last? History offers some clues

For a peek into fashion’s future, look to the past.

COVID-19 upended fashion trends, but will they last? History offers some clues
[Souce Images: VisualSuite/iStock, Wacomka/iStock]
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For years, I’ve resisted the lure of the sweatpant, from the velour Juicy Couture sweatsuits of the 2000s to the Lululemon joggers of the 2010s. But 2020 broke me. When the pandemic hit the U.S. and it became clear I’d be confined to my home, I stocked up on the softest, comfiest sweatpants I could find. I’ve stayed wrapped in their cosy embrace for nine months straight.

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And I’m far from alone. The pandemic has transformed consumers’ relationship with clothes. For one thing, we’re buying fewer garments. Fashion industry revenues are expected to drop by a third this year, the equivalent of $640 billion in lost sales. When we do shop, we buy the most casual clothes we can find, like pajamas, loungewear, and, most notably, sweatpants. Purchases of sweats increased by 80% in April, and Google searches for the garment hit a 14-year high.

As 2021 approaches, there are big questions looming over the fashion industry. Will Americans give up their sweatpants when the pandemic is over? Or has fashion permanently shifted? The answer is still unclear, but for a hint at what we might wear after the crisis, we can look to the past.

The backlash vs. the lasting effect

Many designers—including Prabal Gurung, Tracy Reese, and Thakoon—have told me they expect fashion to come back in a big way after the pandemic. They believe people will want to shed the drab, shapeless loungewear and return to the world in glamorous, trendy outfits once more. “Fashion is a pendulum,” says Steven Kolb, the head of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. “It goes from one extreme to another and that will happen again here.”

[Photo: courtesy Thakoon]
This has happened before. During World War II, for instance, women wore jeans and overalls as they took over men’s jobs. Then, in 1947, Christian Dior unveiled his debut collection, which featured figure-hugging jackets, fitted waists, and A-line skirts. It was a radically feminine look that repudiated the utilitarian, masculinized garments of the previous years—and that was the point. Around the world, women swooned over this style, dubbed the “New Look,” which became a dominant fashion trend of the late 1940s and early 1950s. “Suddenly everyone was wearing corsets and full skirts because they could buy fabric and be fashionable again,” says historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, author of the forthcoming The Way We Wed.

On the surface, it looked like the pendulum had swung in a big way. But Chrisman-Campbell says that when you look closer, the story is more complicated. The war years normalized women wearing pants and other garments that were previously reserved only for men. That trend persisted in the decades that followed. “After a crisis, there is a backlash, but there is also a lasting effect,” she says. “Both of these can be true at the same time.”

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In the aftermath of this pandemic, it’s likely that some people will reject the ultra-relaxed lockdown look, but the shift toward comfort may endure. “People are likely to really enjoy dressing up when they can go to weddings and parties after having been deprived of them,” Chrisman-Campbell says. “But at the same time, a lot of these changes will stay with us.”

The lockdown look isn’t new

Part of the reason casualness is likely here to stay is because it’s an extension of an earlier trend. We can see this in what’s deemed appropriate to wear to the office, from suits in the ’90s, to khakis in the 2000s. In recent years, some workers—particularly white men in the creative or tech sectors—have felt comfortable wearing hoodies and joggers to work.

During the pandemic, it makes sense that we leaned into this look, as many people wanted comfortable outfits to wear as they worked from home. Crucially, the supply chain was already set up to easily churn out more of these garments. When designers like Misha Nonoo and Thakoon realized consumers wanted sweats, they were able to pivot to making them because the materials were widely available and factories knew how to manufacture them.

It’s not the first time this has happened. During moments of crisis, fashion pivots to meet the needs of the moment, but it tends to draw from trends that already existed. In the French Revolution, for instance, you could be attacked for dressing like a wealthy aristocrat, so women shifted toward wearing simpler white gowns. These looks actually first emerged in the 1780s, the decade before the revolution, but it suddenly became more politically expedient to wear them. On top of that, it was harder to get the materials needed for more lavish gowns. “If these historical examples are useful to us, then we would not expect a completely new fashion once we come out of COVID, but rather an exaggeration of trends that were already in existence before March,” says Valerie Steele, director of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

More sustainable clothing

Historically, major world events have changed aesthetic preferences, but they’ve also shaken up manufacturing. During World War II, for instance, women simply couldn’t make the same dresses because manufacturing plants were deployed to produce cotton uniforms and silk parachutes.

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[Source Image: Leon_Cheung/Blendswap (globe base mesh)]
We’re seeing a similar disruption take place now. The lockdowns forced factories and stores to shutter for extended periods of time. As a result, many designers have chosen to make fewer collections and to stretch out a single collection across many months. Consumers, for their part, just aren’t buying as many clothes. Chrisman-Campbell believes these shifts might hasten another trend that was emerging in fashion: sustainability. “A pandemic, like a war, will accelerate trends that were already underway, and also disrupt the normal workings of the fashion industry,” she says. “A few years ago, we were all talking about how fast fashion was bad for the planet and workers. These issues have been heightened and focused by the pandemic.”

Achim Berg, McKinsey’s head of the global apparel, fashion, and luxury group, says the fashion industry has been working to become more sustainable over the last decade, but there’s been a narrative that big change takes time. The pandemic has upended this argument. “Industry experts have said we can’t force consumers to change their behavior and we can’t count on the government to provide support,” Berg says. “Look outside: We can do a lot.”

All of this is likely to affect how fashion plays out over the next few years. It’s possible that consumers will adjust to owning fewer clothes. And those who want to wear more dramatic, glamorous pieces might choose to use clothing rental sites or buy secondhand, two business models that have emerged over the last decade.

But ultimately, FIT’s Steele says the next phase of fashion’s evolution will really come down to our individual choices. Moments of global crisis create the opportunity for major change, but how it plays out depends on the values of everyday consumers. If the pandemic puts an end to the wild overconsumption that has been a hallmark of the fashion industry, it will be because you and I make the deliberate choice to buy less. “In a funny way, it’s us, the ordinary people who have more power in the fashion industry than celebrities, designers, or those who decide whether we go to war,” Steele says. “It really comes down to what consumers are doing. If they happen to have money to buy clothes, the future of the industry depends on the values that matter to these people.”

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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