Fashion in an Age of Pandemic

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As I have grappled with how to modify my typical routine to a new rhythm of teaching and communicating with my students on Zoom and hanging out with friends through video calls, I notice the way that I dress is changing. I still dress for my classes, carefully putting together ensembles as I would if I was going to campus, but now the palette has narrowed. The space I have to adorn myself is really from the shoulders up. In some ways this is freeing. I don’t have to worry about what the back of my hair looks like, or if my top is “flattering.” But it’s also a bummer. I miss my shoes, though I love my slippers. Skirts hang sadly in my closet unworn, tights are carefully folded in my bottom drawer. I have thought about rearranging a capsule wardrobe of head and shoulder looks, scarves and statement necklaces, tops with fun prints or interesting necklines. I don’t have the heart to do it though. I remain hopeful that I’ll soon start using the rest of my wardrobe before too long. 

The changes in my own way of dressing have led me to wonder about how fashion will change more broadly in the wake of this strange and frightening moment we find ourselves in. I study the history of fashion, so that’s the space I look to in order to try and make sense of the present.

Fashion is a thin boundary we erect between our bodies and the world. What happens when that world becomes increasingly threatening, when those threats are from invisible particles that are 70–90 nm in size? How do we outfit ourselves for these threats to our body? How do we use fashion to bolster our sense of self and safety? What happens to fashion in an age of pandemic?

Respirator (civilian)/Handbag combination (EQU 3967) Respirator and carrier: standard civilian pattern respirator with a black rubber mask and metal filter contained within the base of a black leather lady's clutch handbag. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
Guenther, Poster for the New York State Land Army Membership Committee, The American Lithographic Co., c. 1918

Here’s the thing, if you take a look back at history, a lot of pretty significant shifts in fashion happened in the wake of moments of crisis. Take World War I for example. Many men and some women wore uniforms on the front lines, other women took on factory work or farm labor that required donning coveralls or trousers (often borrowed from fathers, brothers, or husbands). While the majority of women didn’t continue wearing trousers post-war (despite what you see in period pieces) they didn’t go back to the elaborate pre-war looks either. Styles for both men and women in the 1920s were increasingly casual, and sportswear became a much more important part of the average person’s wardrobe, whether or not they were actually wearing it on the tennis court or golf course. 

As many of us who are lucky enough to be able to work from home sit at desks or on couches in leggings or sweats, I wonder if we are headed for a similarly casual future. I talk to friends who, like me, are halfheartedly window shopping for clothes, but not buying because where would we wear them? More significantly, many of us are also not buying because of the economic uncertainty we are experiencing. I have seen many folks on social media learning to mend clothes. Old skills for mending clothes like darning socks and sweaters are being relearned, and many people seem to be taking out sewing machines either to make masks or experiment with making their own clothes. Many, many people have been doing these things for years, particularly those interested in issues of sustainability, but quite a few newcomers seem to be using extra time and easing jangled nerves by focusing on these kinds of activities.

At the same time, fashion brands are being forced to slow down. Some, like the Maryland-born Christian Siriano, have shifted gears into making personal protective equipment for hospitals. While Siriano appears to be manufacturing masks with a small team in his New York City atelier (according to Robin Givhan’s reporting), other fashion brands that have touted their shift to manufacturing PPE are relying on low-paid workers laboring in unsafe factory conditions.

These dangerous conditions are no different from those the mostly female workers labor under making the clothes we wear. Demand for most of those clothes dries up as malls close and disposable income disappears. Many of these workers all over the world—including in the US—have lost their jobs, often without a safety net. Writers and scholars like Elizabeth Cline and Minh-Ha T. Pham, who have been working for years to draw the public’s attention to the labor conditions of those who make our clothes, are now calling attention to the crisis that is occurring as major fashion brands withdraw orders from factories in places like Bangladesh and Cambodia and refuse to pay for garments already made or materials already purchased by factories. 

Will this be the moment that companies are finally held to account for these labor abuses? Perhaps a more realistic hope is that as consumer spending decreases and as stores close and shipping slows, we are forced to think more about where the stuff we buy actually comes from and the many people involved in getting it to us. When we start adding to our closets again I hope it will be more thoughtfully and with more attention to who made our clothes and under what conditions. In being forced to slow down, perhaps the breakneck pace at which the fashion industry has been moving over the last few decades will shift into something that is sustainable. Even when stay-at-home orders lift, it will be impossible for fashion brands to refresh stock with new designs every couple of weeks as they have been, and elaborate fashion shows will likely be hard to stage in a world where travel will probably continue to be restricted.

Looking back at the Paris Fashion Week at the end of February, as some brands canceled or held virtual shows and others passed out designer face masks to attendees crammed into spaces in ways that are now unthinkable, many designers already seemed to be preparing for dark times ahead. Looking at Balenciaga’s flooded runway at the end of February, there was a clear sense of foreboding—though then it seemed to be about climate change. Rick Owens, who always seems to be preparing us for the apocalypse, offered strong shouldered coats, puffer capes, and platforms that look like what I might want to wear to remind people to stand six feet away from me right about now. 

Demonstrators marching against the New Look during Christian Dior’s visit to Chicago in autumn 1947

I do hope that our consumption patterns change as a result of this moment. I hope that we will think of fashion waste in the same way as many people are beginning to think more about food waste since trips to the grocery store are filled with anxiety. I wonder how those who previously put stock in fashion as a status symbol—the “it” bag, designer shoes—will fare now that they are mostly showing only their head and shoulders to the world.

The post-World War II period offers an instructive example. When Christian Dior launched his first collection in 1947, the French fashion industry and France itself were trying to recover from the trauma of the war. Dior offered a romantic vision that returned women to silhouettes reminiscent of the mid-19th century: long, full shirts—a full foot longer than those women had been wearing—and corseted waists with gracefully sloping shoulders. Carmel Snow, then the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, coined it “the New Look,” and American fashion magazines touted the style in their pages. In 1947 the UK and France were still under rationing, and in the US food prices were rising as the government lifted wartime price controls, sparking protests by female consumers. For many women who had spent their war years in trousers, suits, and uniforms working in factories and other essential jobs for the war effort, the prospect of donning corsets and yards of fabric seemed absurd. There were protests of the New Look, and “Little Below the Knee” clubs sprouted up across the US, including Baltimore, to preserve shorter skirts and more practical fashions. 

I wonder if we will preserve our more comfortable fashions and thrifty habits too. Will those of us who wore high heels on a regular basis to work keep wearing them once we return to our routine commutes? I don’t think they will ever go the way of the dodo, but sales of high heels have already been falling. In 2017, high heel sales decreased by 12 percent and sales of sneakers rose 37 percent. The last few fashion seasons have seen clunky designer trainers stomping the runway, Serena Williams attending Prince Harry and Megan Markle’s wedding reception in sneakers, and remember all those celebrities protesting the Cannes red carpet shoe code in 2018? History shows that critical mass builds up to create change in fashion, but a significant inflection point like a major social or political change can push a trend into something more permanent. It’s hard for me to imagine that millions of people will go from months of bare feet and fuzzy slippers back to stilettos. I see us returning to public life in flats, mules, moccasins, and kitten heels. Perhaps certain fields will relax the demand for neck ties and business suits as well, although it seems that those requirements have already been significantly relaxed over the last 30 years or so. 

While there was certainly a boom in consumption in the post-World War II period, and Dior was one of the most imported French designers to the US, many women embraced sportswear and more casual styles in their everyday lives including trousers, capri pants, pedal pushers, and rompers. Athleisure is already a substantial part of the fashion marketplace and sales are on the rise so I wonder if this moment will push many of us to seek more comfort in clothing. 

At the same time, clothing is even more obviously a kind of armor for us when we do actually leave the house. From those who work the essential jobs that allow most of us to remain home I have heard stories of ritually changing out of work clothes in garages or other out-of-the-way places and quickly washing them to minimize the possibility of the virus entering their homes and infecting family members. More easily washable layers will no doubt be appealing in the immediate future as we learn how to live with the ongoing possibility of more outbreaks. Again, I find myself looking back to history, thinking of the siren suits worn by people in bomb shelters during air raids in World War II. They protected clothing and hair, or comfortably covered pajamas at night. Many models featured large pockets for caring essentials and they were usually accessorized with a bag to carry a gas mask. 

ARP AT KINGSTON HOUSE, LONDON, c 1940. (D 176) A female member of Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

Baltimore’s designers have been producing fashionable masks for non-medical folks, from the delightfully kitschy and kinky fringed masks designed and made by Sara Autrey of Get Shredded Vintage to the colorful patterned mask available from AfroThreads. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before enterprising makers design bags for our masks to keep them at the ready. A siren suit could be handy right now for walks around my neighborhood and trips to the store. I can imagine they’d be incredibly practical for grocers, postal workers, and delivery people to protect themselves and easily launder an outer layer at the end of the work day. Well-designed uniforms might be part of a larger set of changes badly needed in the gig economy.

On my walk the other day, I realized that my traditional red lip, applied for recording video lectures for my students, was not terribly compatible with a face mask. Historically, in times of economic downturn, lipstick sales have risen. The prevailing logic has been that cheap luxuries appealed to consumers with less disposable income than they once had. The chairman of Estee Lauder, Leonard Lauder, coined the term “Lipstick Index” in 2001 after noticing a rise in his company’s sales in the midst of the recession that year. In the Great Depression, cosmetic sales grew by 25 percent! As many people experiment with makeup looks that will pop on video calls, and adornment compatible with masks, perhaps statement eye makeup will return. I suggest looking to the swinging ‘60s for inspiration. As daily rituals become even more important to many of us working to hold onto a routine, I imagine skin care is also getting more attention. Those who haven’t experimented with makeup before might give it a try now, or take some of the time saved from commuting and use it to try out a moisturizer or soothing face mask rather than a protective fabric one. At the very least, our hands require more moisturizing these days. Memes about people not showering and corona-beards aside, in another few weeks many of us will have found new rituals for preparing to face the day. I’m interested to see which daily rituals remain important to me and to others. 

Many of these concerns may seem trivial, but I’d remind you that at its root clothing is the barrier between our bodies and the world, and at the moment that world feels more dangerous than ever. The ways in which we outfit ourselves to face it, whether we leave our house or not, says much about our state of mind and the ways we find to cope with the state of the world. I hope that the “normal” we return to after this crisis will be one that is more just, equitable, and sustainable—and that hope extends to the fashion industry. 

A Weldon’s Siren Suit Pattern (British), 1940s
Captain Charles Albert Adams with women of the Women's Motor Corps, part of the National League of Women's Service, 1917 or 1918 (Bain News Service), Library of Congress
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