Fashion of the Future: The Impact of Covid-19 on Fashion and Dress History

As we enter a brave new world, we arrive at a time and place where there is an opportunity for transformation, a chance to remodel, rebuild, and consider what will happen next.

Some may think that it is wholly inappropriate to discuss the nature of fashion and the way we dress in the midst of a global pandemic, harking back to the enduring notion that fashion is a frivolous subject matter. However, fashion is a key reflection of the world we live in. It echoes history and events that defines generations. The clothes we choose to wear and the outfits we pull together indicate economic, social, industrial, cultural and political change, as well as our own personal histories.

What we choose to buy, what trends we follow, how we express our identity through dress, including our beliefs, opinions, morals and values, and which clothes we select to imbue with value and meaning, all work together to tell the story of who we are and where we were, within a single moment in history.

Clothing reveals us what is happening at a specific moment, what has happened, and what could potentially happen in the future. Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik in their text Thinking Through Fashion: A Guide For Key Theorists, rightly suggest that fashion is a:

‘socio-cultural force bound up with the dynamics of modernity and post-modernity […] through practices of production, consumption, distribution and representation,’ an interdisciplinary field ‘covering many areas of research […] from history […], philosophy, sociology, anthropology through to cultural studies, women’s studies and media studies.’[1]

 

The choice of our materials may be dependent on technological and industrial factors, our income, our preference for high-quality or disposable fashion, our occupation, our practical needs, and our desires. Our consumer behaviour, the clothes we choose to buy, denotes what we think or believe we need or want, what we may prioritise as we move through seasons and environments, where we live or travel, work or rest. Of course, the factors of gender, age, ethnicity and class, all inevitably weave themselves into our clothes.

My point is – we all engage with fashion and dress to some degree, with intent or on a subliminal level. Appearances can mean everything to some and at the same time simultaneously irrelevant to others. Either way, for the large majority of us, we live in a dressed or adorned body.

Fashion and dress will transform due to Covid-19 through indirect or direct means. To investigate how, and in which ways, I asked followers on the whatgrandmawore Instagram and Twitter channels for their opinions, using the 1947 ‘Bar’ suit designed by Christian Dior after World War Two as a prompt for discussion. Followers responded with a broad range of opinions. I have collated some of the more universal ideas and have chosen to document them in this post.

Perhaps we can reflect on the relevance of this post in months and years to come!

 

  1. A Change in Pace

A largely shared opinion by followers, is that the fashion industry may at last slow down processes of production and distribution, a topic regarded by many as a beneficial impact (if any) of Covid-19. We have already seen the impact lockdown legislation has had on our environment. It appears that in some locations of the world, nature has been observed to bounce back, with air pollution levels lowering and animals returning to habitats previously dominated by human activity. We know the fashion industry is amongst one of the most polluting in the world, and the environmental and human cost is enormous.

The impact of Covid-19 has already had an unprecedented impact on garment makers in Asia, with global brands halting millions of pounds worth of orders, leaving those in countries such as Bangladesh with no prospect of income for many months to come. This consequence of the pandemic presents the fashion industry at its worse. Those in the garment industry will continue to work in poor conditions with minimal pay, without unions or insurance for some form of income, since the prospect of no work will lead to poverty.

Will the industry shift from producing garments overseas, instead choosing to produce items in domestic factories? Will we see a decrease in how far our clothes have to travel in order to reach our wardrobes? If so – this will undoubtedly change the cost of clothes and changes in labour forces.

Some followers have suggested that many big brands will collapse after this pandemic. Not all can endure such change. Already, some fashion retailers have stopped operations, leading to redundancies. Others, determined to survive this economic blow, have turned their attention online as shops on the high-street shut their doors, enticing consumers with heavily discounted clothing and free delivery costs.

Many consumers have chosen not to take advantage of these offers, citing pressures on postal services and the risk of infection as major concerns. Others, currently furloughed by their companies, unable to work, or now unemployed, simply cannot consider purchasing new clothes when wages are now uncertain or have disappeared in their entirety. A lack of disposable income to spend on the way we look, has become increasingly apparent, an unsettling reminder of past economic recessions.

For others, there has been a refusal to purchase new clothing due to moral and ethical inclinations. There has been a big backlash against clothing brands deemed as selling ‘non-essential’ items (particularly in the UK), with consumers expressing concern over the welfare of staff and delivery drivers.

Some followers have cited a growth in the second-hand and vintage clothing trades, which has flourished in recent years. There appears to be a sentiment towards a ‘Make Do and Mend’ attitude, a topic covered by Owen Hatherley in his text The Ministry of Nostalgia: Consuming Austerity. A rise in dressmaking tutorials and videos may appear online, as people look to make use of their time during lockdown by learning new skills such as knitting and crochet.

A large majority believe that fashion will slow down, with change deriving from both the top (luxury designers and couture houses, who hold several shows a year), and the bottom (consumers who demand disposable and cheap fashion). However, some followers believe that fashion may rear its ugly head fourfold after the pandemic, in the desire to boost the economy, reconciling a decrease in sales and predicted profit. From a consumer perspective, there may be an overwhelming desire to ‘return to normal,’ with visits to the high street as an activity of leisure, echoing the 19th century development of department stores, which allowed consumers to spend all day enjoying their time within a world of commodities. However, the act of travelling to busy high streets for some may be unthinkable, since the risk of infection and transmission may continue to linger for some time.

 

  1. Fashion as a Physical Barrier (Masks and Gloves)

The facemask has become the ubiquitous symbol of the fight against Covid-19, with healthcare professionals and the public alike donning the mask for protection against an invisible enemy. As PPE grows in demand across the globe, the public have responded by creating their own masks at home, using patterns shared online by and videos filmed by DIY makers.

Some have chosen to ingeniously produce masks decorated to their own tastes. Although most do not adhere to the medical standards required by healthcare professionals, those making masks for their own use have chosen to express their own identities through their use of material, decoration and adornment.

Echoing back to the ‘Make Do and Mend’ sentiment, some are choosing to create masks from their favourite materials, with preferred patterns and colours, recycling garments and home furnishings to produce masks which reflect their own tastes in design.

Some have produced masks that resemble works of art, highly impractical to wear but an aesthetic statement, nevertheless. Some are covered in sequins, gems, and consist of different fits around the face. All you have to do is search for #facemask on Instagram and a whole array of homemade designs will appear. It is fascinating to see how people are channelling their artistic talents and tastes into facemask designs. Personalisation of the facemask is a reflection of identity, whilst protecting the wearer from potential pathogens. I expect to see many facemasks entering museum collections as representative of times we currently live in.

 

alexander_mcqueen__2004__6425_north_545x

Fig. 1: Alexander McQueen wearing a facemask for V Magazine. c2004. Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. Alexander McQueen edited by Claire Wilcox. Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2015).

 

Facemasks produce a symbiotic relationship between reveal and conceal. In order to build relationships with their patients, some healthcare professionals have chosen to attach personal photographs of themselves onto their hospital gowns and hazmat suits, to reassure their patients by revealing the face concealed behind the mask and copious layers of PPE.

Gloves can be used to create a physical barrier. Touch is a part of human nature, how we learn and interpret the environments around us. Yet we are now being advised by governments not to touch; the most innocent touch of our face can potentially expose us to harm. Gloves can be used to prevent us from coming into contact with harmful viruses, providing us with peace of mind when we venture out of our homes.

 

1969-232-55d,e-CX

Fig. 2: 1969-232-55d,e. Elsa Schiaparelli gloves c1936-37. Philadelphia Museum of Art Collection.

 

Gloves and masks may infiltrate future fashion collections, as well scarves, particularly as the industry moves from Summer to Autumn/Winter collections. There may be an increase in the accessory industry, with a more mainstream acceptance and culture of wearing facemasks in the West, which has already been assimilated by a large quantity of consumers in Asia.

 

  1. Changes in Material

Some followers have cited new advancements within the textile industry, with brands looking to use more antibacterial or eco-friendly fabrics to produce garments. Equally, there may be an increase in fabrics that are deemed ‘healthier’ for our skin and bodies, echoing back to sentiments surrounding dress reform as advocated by Dr. Jaeger in the 19th century and his sanitary and breathable clothing.

 

jaeger dress reform

Fig. 3: Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System, c1883. Catalogue, including actual cloth samples pasted in on page 17, advertising Jaeger’s new, healthier clothing, including an explanation of how “health is prejudiced by the material and form of the ordinary clothing of the present day”. It includes underwear, coats, bedding, sleeping garments, jackets, scarves, dresses, corsets, shawls, hats, shoes, socks, stockings, gloves, rugs and “abdominal belts” (girdles). Wellcome Collection, London.

(You can download and read Dr. Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System from 1883 from the Wellcome Collection here, if you are interested.)

 

Materials which are easy to clean, maintain, and have a long lifecycle may see an increase in usage. Furthermore, textiles and materials advocated by the medical professions may also experience a surge in demand.

Minimalism and utility may permeate fabric collections, with marketing campaigns enticing consumers by using phrases such as ‘clean lines,’ and ‘clean cut.’ If, as implied by some, fashion is impacted by a decline in interest, then perhaps clothing will streamline, practicality becoming a major marketing tool, with designers avoiding any use of unnecessary decoration or adornment.

I did consider whether spikes or studs may become popular, a form of amour, the implication of ‘stay away from me’ which again links to dress and fashion as a physical barrier. Punks have long used studs and spikes as a form of intimidation. Could skirts also swell, creating a sense of personal space, and shoulders/collars continue to grow, protecting or hiding the face?

 

  1. Change in Societal Codes Around Dressing

As self-isolation and social distancing sees us spending more time than ever in our home environments, there has been, of course, a shift in our dress codes. Moving from smart workwear to leisurewear and athleisure, dressing up has been pushed to the side, for now.

That is not to say that people aren’t dressing to and for occasions; some prefer to adhere to the dress codes they are used to following in their places of work. Office or workwear has the psychological effect of making us feel ‘dressed to work,’ albeit from home. It maintains our typical routine of dressing, improves our focus and concentration, and may help us feel more at ease in the face of profound change.

Others have also used this time in in lockdown to explore their fashion choices; researching, experimenting, purging their wardrobes, and maintaining or in some cases exaggerating their signature looks and styles. Fashion is meant to be seen, and for some, visiting the supermarket or walking the dog during lockdown is a way to present valued and precious clothing or outfits to the world (or more likely, your neighbours).

Vloggers and social influencers are also using their time to fill our social media platforms with even more content, moving from streetstyle, to fashion within the boundaries of their homes. Perhaps the end of the pandemic will see a surge in dandies and a swell in the desire to ‘dress up,’ with a desire to be ‘overdressed’ for the occasion rather than to arrive in casual attire, or to blend in.

However, for others, leisurewear has become a new uniform, praised for its comfortability and practicality. Since many individuals continue to work from home, some argue that when the pandemic ends, societal codes surrounding workwear should change. Those working in pyjamas argue that if their change of environment and uniform has not affected their work output, perhaps workwear will become more informal once workers return to their offices and daily commutes, with trends such as ‘dress-down Fridays’ becoming more universally accepted throughout the working week.

This post was not intended to be as long as it has evolved to be, however the responses from the whatgrandmawore followers were so intriguing and comprehensive, it became increasingly difficult to condense ideas without omitting key details. Hopefully, this research will be of some interest to those reading from home, recording how many feel about fashion and dress during a time of change, a document to reflect on once the pandemic begins to slow.

There are several articles in circulation attempting to navigate the current changes to the fashion industry due to Covid-19. Here are some of the ones I have found online if you are interested in the subject:

 

‘Fashion Forward After Covid-19 May Take a Dressier Turn,’

https://www.barrons.com/articles/fashion-forward-after-covid-19-may-take-a-dressier-turn-01586606034

 

‘As Masks Go Mainstream, Fashion Designers Sense an Opportunity,’

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-09/where-to-buy-a-coronavirus-mask-designers-sense-an-opportunity

 

‘The Untold Origin Story of the N95 Mask,’

https://www.fastcompany.com/90479846/the-untold-origin-story-of-the-n95-mask

 

Footnotes

[1] ‘Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik, ‘Introduction’ London: I.B Taurus & Co (2016), 2.

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