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.