A simple scroll through Instagram will tell you a lot about COVID-19 and fashion. There’s no lack of sweats sets, but on the other hand, fashion lovers are also dressing up purely for the sake of dressing up, without ever venturing outside (see #QuarantineChic for all you need to know).
At this point, no one really knows how or when the pandemic will end, and the fashion industry, just like every business sector, is scrambling to make it through – one thing is certain though: everyone has changed their daily life and also their fashion choices. It has been proven that major historical events, including pandemics, recessions, and wars change the way women dress. And clearly COVID-19 will also have a substantial effect, perhaps forever, on the way we dress. With celebs such as Irina Shayk leading the way in oversize hoodies and scarves that cover their faces, to others like Bella Hadid donning big, comfy jeans with hand-painted elements and N95 respirators, we can assume that our fashion might continue to focus on comfortable staples even after the pandemic ends.
However, some fashion historians are predicting the opposite: “It is tempting to think that contemporary fashion will continue on its current trajectory of increasing casualness—that somehow athleisure will further devolve into something akin to pajama-like attire, after this prolonged period of ‘comfy’ clothing while in quarantine,” explains Raissa Bretaña, a fashion historian who teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Pratt Institute. “However, I’d like to think that the post-pandemic aesthetic will shift in the opposite direction—that the widespread return to ‘outside’ clothing will inspire a renewed interest in getting dressed up.”
Bertaña links this theory back to wartime dressing, when Christian Dior’s New Look revitalized the fashion industry, reinventing new formalities and femininity in a post-world war II world. During that war, rationing placed serious bans on imported materials. As a result, the U.S. went into production of manmade fibers and new silhouettes of clothing characterized by simplicity and bland colors. Think: easy to wear, easy to wash, simple styles such as the house dress. During this time, women even used feed sacks and flour bags to make dresses, underwear, and household items because of the lack of materials. “During the 1940s, widespread rationing of textiles severely limited the design and production of fashionable dress, forcing designers and manufacturers to adapt to scarcity,” says Bretaña.
“My hope is that post-pandemic fashion capitalizes on the ‘occasion’ of dressing up,” Bretaña adds. “When we are finally able to return to social activities like parties and happy hours and even in-person work meetings, I think that the opportunity to dress up will inspire even the least fashion-forward people to make more of an effort than they did pre-pandemic.”
Along with the nature of pandemic fashion, there’s usually a defining garment or two that comes to visually symbolize the fashion of the time. “Each pandemic is different and affects the body and the industry in different ways,” explains Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, a fashion historian and visiting assistant professor of history at Case Western Reserve University. “Some diseases physically alter the body, or create scars, so the post-pandemic fashion often addresses the need to hide or sometimes highlight the affected body parts.” For example toward the end of the Victorian era, when tuberculosis was widespread, doctors started discouraging women from wearing long skirts (as they were thought to sweep up germs) and corsets (which limited movement and that was also thought to exacerbate tuberculosis).
If there’s one item to come out of COVID-19 and define the aesthetic around the world, it’s the face mask. With the CDC currently recommending that people wear cloth facial coverings in public settings, it’s likely to become the most ubiquitous item, next to sweats and leggings. “I think the face mask will have more presence in our fashion wardrobe, as well as gloves,” adds Rabinovitch-Fox. “As we are going to live with COVID-19 for a while, I think there will be a rise in a ‘fashionable masks’ industry.” In Asia, face masks were already popular, with people wearing them on a day-to-day basis for reasons ranging from protection against pollution and allergens to a responsibility they feel to protect others from germs if they were not feeling well or the fact that they didn’t feel like wearing makeup or didn’t want to talk to anyone while out and about. The mask is now worn worldwide and is becoming more and more a part of fashion.