This article was published online on May 5, 2021.
On a Friday afternoon in early March, I felt an urge I hadn’t experienced in more than a year: I wanted to buy new clothes. Outside clothes. Clothes in which I would be perceived, by others. Clothes to wear to a party. The late-winter sun had started to warm things up a bit, I was a week and a half removed from my first Pfizer shot, and those two facts combined to cause a flare of optimism so intense that I needed to express it in what has historically been my preferred manner of celebration: by buying some stuff on the internet.
The first order of business was remembering where I had bought my outside clothes before everything went to hell—ASOS? Madewell? Nordstrom? As I dug through my brain, past all the recipes and the opinions about lesser Netflix shows that I had accumulated in the past year, I opened browser tabs. I was ready to be sold on the possibilities of the year ahead, and I wanted them to include sweaty crowds and recreational drugs and other people’s hands. I wanted to take as many steps as I possibly could toward the person I might be by July.
For this foolish optimism, I was greeted with leggings. Row upon row of black leggings, and then some sweats, and matching sets of sports bras and (more) leggings, and finally, once I scrolled far enough, some sweaters and jeans that clearly had been hanging around for months. Not for the first time during the pandemic, I stopped to consider whether I was wrong about what month it was, or even what season. Fashion is an industry built on guessing what people will want to buy months in advance and serving it up to them before they even realize they want it, yet everywhere I looked, there were no guesses at all about spring. Instead, there were hedged bets, of which leggings are the official garment.
The pandemic has been tough on many types of businesses, but particularly on those peddling clothes. In normal times, when people’s lives change—when they start a job, end a relationship, move somewhere different—they buy new things to wear. But in the past year, we found ourselves with few occasions requiring new outfits, and even fewer requiring high heels or hard pants.
Sales took a nosedive, and what money was spent rewarded the brands that were pivoting to elastic waistbands. Tie-dye enjoyed a brief resurgence as people searched for activities they could do in the safety of their driveway. The most viral garment of 2020 was the “nap dress,” which is just a nightgown putting on airs. As adorning the body got boring, the fashion industry went from making billions of dollars a year predicting what people would wear in the future to anxiously studying what little clothing people were buying in the never-ending present.
But now Americans’ lives are about to start changing again—profoundly, and outwardly. For some people, especially those of us lucky enough to have been able to work from home, parties and dates and social novelty of all types will be suddenly possible. Those who have lost loved ones or had a brush with mortality may have a particular urge to grab life with both hands. (This may be accompanied by an urge to look hotter while doing the grabbing; research finds that after intensely stressful life events, people are more likely to make big changes to their appearance.) All of which suggests that millions of people will soon be searching stores and their own closets for an answer to an unfamiliar question: What do you wear to reenter society?
Pestilence has a long history of influencing how people dress. The bubonic plague killed as much as half of Europe’s population in the 1300s, leaving survivors with hefty inheritances and higher wages. Some historians credit the plague for sparking demand for finely tailored clothing and luxury goods—clothes became tighter, decorative features like buttons and fur trim became more common, people got really into grand headdresses. In this way, the plague gave rise to the Italian fashion industry, which still helps set global trends.
Later Europeans enshrined disease in their wardrobes a little more directly. By the end of the 18th century, Europe’s tuberculosis epidemic had been thoroughly romanticized, the emaciation it caused reflected in the age’s wasp-waisted corsetry. A century later, people became nervous that ground-dragging skirts kicked up filth and disease, and in the early 1900s, women began hitching up the excess material with handheld grips, which eventually led to shorter skirts and the beginning of the end of Victorian aesthetics.
But for historical clues about how Americans might dress after the pandemic, Valerie Steele, a fashion historian and the director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York, says that the most compelling comparison is probably to the Roaring ’20s. That period followed an extended flu pandemic and the First World War, both of which had exhausted and disillusioned many Americans. “Young people were like, This was just handled so badly. It was a debacle. How can you expect us to follow your rules? ” she told me. Sound familiar?
When the flu subsided, the country exploded into rebellion and exuberance. People danced to jazz and drank in speakeasies and smoked opium; the whole thing was unrepentantly lustful, a backlash against the sexlessness and deprivations of the preceding years, as well as against Prohibition, which tried and failed to head this hedonism off at the pass. Young women unlaced their corsets and opted for still-shorter hemlines. They didn’t just reject the previous era’s rigidity, though; they embraced libidinous pursuits, adopting makeup techniques previously associated with sex workers and short hairstyles that could be more easily smoothed into place after an active 15 minutes in the back room of a club. People who had spent years of their youth staring into the abyss wanted to have some fun.
This pandemic’s end might similarly light a fuse on a powder keg of frustrated desire. Sexiness isn’t the reputation-ruining taboo it was in the early 1900s, but it is fraught in new and different ways. As social norms around sexuality, consent, and gender have evolved at a breakneck pace in recent years, fashion has grown cautiously chaste, according to Lauren Sherman, the chief correspondent for The Business of Fashion. Trends have lately tended to obscure the body with volume instead of finding freedom in its shape. “The way our culture has moved—I don’t want to say it’s become more puritanical, but it’s become more politically sensitive,” Sherman told me. “People have overcorrected because they don’t know what is appropriate sexiness.”
Even before 2020, sexual frequency in the U.S. was decreasing, and celibacy was increasing. Add in a year of self-abnegation for singles and libido-killing co-confinement for couples, and we may well be looking at an unprecedented supply of horniness. Pop culture, in fits and starts, seems to be picking up on our looming lasciviousness. (See, for example, the biggest musical moment of the pandemic: the enthusiastic reception of “WAP,” Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s gleefully raunchy ode to female pleasure.)
But for many people, the quest to act on that pent-up desire and once again feel like a sexual being has at least one big obstacle in its path: a year-long pileup of stress and isolation. Nichole Perkins, a writer and podcaster whose work frequently focuses on sex and relationships, told me she doesn’t know how to dress going forward. “I don’t want to say I’m dreading it,” she told me, sounding very much as though she was dreading it. “I am having a difficult time imagining getting back out there, especially as a single person getting back into dating.” These anxieties go beyond clothes, but clothes may be where they manifest most acutely. Do you remember what you used to wear to feel cute? Have those outfits retained their magic? Do they still fit?
In Perkins’s worries, I saw my own—so frequently in the past year, I have felt like a brain floating in a jar, disconnected from my corporeal self and its needs. I’m not sure when my body will start to feel like mine again, and not some alien thing my consciousness has to drag from room to room. The urge to shop feels, at least in part, like an effort to reconcile my physical alienation and the version of myself I need to be in a couple of months. If I can figure out what I want to wear, maybe I can be a coherent person again. Or maybe, at the very least, I can get laid.
For the luckiest Americans, the past year has been marked by soul-deadening tedium and loneliness. For those who have lost jobs, homes, or loved ones to the virus, or have been pressed into dangerous working conditions, fear and grief have been more likely to predominate. The joy that might be possible in the near future for some people will, for many others, be disorientingly incongruous with the pain of the recent past.
Still, for people in both groups, the next few months will be a slow-rolling reunion. At last, I’ll get to see friends again, and I’ll also get to see the people I don’t like, which is nearly as thrilling. I feel the same mixture of anticipation and anxiety that I used to feel on the first day of school: The future is beginning! But, oh God, the future is beginning.
The comparison to the start of school is obviously imperfect, but our circumstances do have some of the essential characteristics that make back-to-school shopping so lucrative for retailers: Reuniting with your extended social circle after a lengthy disruption is as close to a clean slate as most people ever get. But even if others are as ready as I am to go shopping for cute new dresses, finding them won’t be as easy as an end-of-summer jaunt to the mall.
Four to six months ago, when most retailers were buying the inventory that populates stores right now, planners had little idea how vaccination efforts would unfold or what frame of mind the nation would be in come spring, let alone summer. After an extraordinarily lean year, many of them were shy about taking on more risk. The Business of Fashion’s Sherman told me that over the winter, a number of brands and stores said warm-weather options would start popping up for purchase around May 1, months after they would normally fill retail racks. Others are choosing to play it safe by waiting even longer. (Fast- and ultra-fast-fashion brands such as Zara and Boohoo will be able to react more quickly to sudden surges in demand, because their infrastructure is built for short turnarounds—which FIT’s Steele worries will push even more business toward a sector of the industry rife with labor and environmental abuses.)
Further complicating efforts to predict the mood of the country, designers are as isolated as the rest of us. “Everybody in fashion has been in a real funk,” Sherman said. “There isn’t a ton of creativity there.” Top fashion brands, whose designs are often copied by mass-market retailers, have stuck to playing the hits. And while some designers are clearly betting that the future will be more fun, or at least sexier—Givenchy’s most recent collection, for example, includes bralettes that lack fabric, serving not to cover but to frame the boob for viewers—others seem less sure. The French brand Celine, which is led by Hedi Slimane, a designer previously known for his ultra-sexy, ultra-glamorous aesthetic, is running an ad campaign featuring a model in a cropped logo sweatshirt, jeans, and a baseball cap.
As long as customers remain sequestered from the situations in which clothes matter, designers will be stuck making these sorts of weird, disparate bets on the future. People decide what they want to look like by being out in the world among their friends and colleagues, and seeing how the people around them dress. Maybe that’s why I’ve always liked clothes so much, and why in the past year getting dolled up at home hasn’t felt like a reasonable way to scratch my fashion itch. Clothes are a language we use to tell others about ourselves; fashion is a conversation. If there are no other people to talk to, then what’s the point?
Following our return to sociality, Sherman thinks that it will take a while for this dialogue to unfold—for designers to divine what this new world will require, and for people to decide what it is they actually want. Which is probably as it should be. The Roaring ’20s were a decade, after all, not a few warm months in 1920.