Style After Social Distancing Isn’t About Comfort—It’s About Pleasure
In the before times, going-out clothes for Grazia Rutherford-Swan, a 25-year-old in Brooklyn, meant a fun top and cute shoes.
Now a style vision board she made with her friends to plan for post-vaccine life features: a pink cowgirl hat, trimmed with shimmering fur. A string bikini top, the size of two clementines strung together with floss. Light-wash grandma jeans. Sunglasses with flame-shaped lenses.
Like many people, Rutherford-Swan’s life now is unrecognizable compared with before the pandemic. She left a corporate job. She celebrated a birthday without her friends. She even got bangs. She always liked taking fashion risks. But now, after 15 months of tiptoeing around sickness and death, no aesthetic feels off limits. Once you have lived through a pandemic, what is there to fear from a pair of hand-painted bubblegum-pink leather platform boots?
“Before, I would have been like, ‘I have no reason to wear that,’” she says. “And now I feel like, ‘Why wouldn’t I wear that?’”
For a year, there were no prom dresses, few Oscar gowns, no Met Gala. In closets around the world, sequins and silks patiently awaited the call of duty. Heels and boots stayed well preserved, spared the impact of chewed gum and sticky dance floors, the danger of getting caught between cobblestones. The Gen Z–versus-millennial skinny-jeans debate was, ultimately, an exercise in magical thinking—jeans were the provenance of the few, the proud, the deranged.
Now vaccines are becoming more widely available, and public health experts and the CDC have given the go-ahead for vaccinated people to stop social distancing. Life—seeing and being seen, touching and being touched—is about to return in some form.
And some of us are planning our outfits.
Anyone who has ever claimed, “I don’t dress for other people; I dress for myself,” has had to take a hard look in the mirror this year. With severely reduced human contact, most of us have drastically shifted the way we dress. The New York Timesreported that in April 2020 clothing sales dropped 79% in the United States, a historical record. Sweatpants sales, meanwhile, rose 80%. Shoe sales cratered, but slipper sales soared.
This doesn’t indicate fashion is pure vanity; it’s just that we’re social creatures—we use our appearances to explain ourselves to other people. In a year of not being looked at, we haven’t felt the pressure to visually conform, but we also haven’t had much space to make visual statements about who we are.
Shamelessness. Fantasy. Fun. Personal expression, even at the expense of comfort. These are the themes that begin to emerge as the world stands up and dusts the crumbs off its sweatpants. “We are desperate to express ourselves,” says Emily Gordon-Smith, product director at Stylus, a trend research company. “Designers are already exploring escapism and hedonism as themes in anticipation of post-pandemic partying.” For women, especially, style has shifted. It’s not about the binary of “dressing for myself” versus “dressing for others.” Women, says Gordon-Smith, are “dressing for pleasure.”
“Before, I would have been like, ‘I have no reason to wear that.’ And now I feel like, ‘Why wouldn’t I wear that?’”
“This concept of fashion as being a way to express who you are has been, for a lot of people, on the back burner,” says Larkin Brown, the head of core research at Pinterest. As Pinterest users start to plan their upcoming looks, Brown is watching athleisure segue into elegance—silks instead of cottons, flowing pants instead of sweats, housedresses and jumpsuits instead of wrapping yourself in a weighted blanket and using your laptop as a space warmer. “Cocooning is the new layering,” she says. “It’s this oversized, cozy aesthetic.”
Style experts are clear: Coziness isn’t going anywhere. More likely, a continued value for comfort will be interspersed with moments of total wildness. “The history books are also being plundered as we escape in looks inspired by a bygone world of saucy corsets, dramatic sleeves, and over-the-top jewelry,” says Gordon-Smith. She anticipates “full-on retro rave and psychedelic looks to dominate at next year’s festivals.” On Pinterest, searches for “emo princess” are up 152 times over last year, “fairycore aesthetic,” up 66 times, and “light academia” (an aesthetic that essentially allows the wearer to look like both a professor and a schoolgirl), up 236 times.
“Sexual self-expression is a massively important theme among young designers at the moment who are exploring almost fetish-like fabrics, bondage-style wrapping, and super-revealing styles.”
Heuritech, another fashion-trend-forecasting company, predicts the continued rise of the following this summer: crochet and mesh fabrics, cropped knits, deep-V tops, halters, crop tops, and strappy sandals. Basically, all things small, see-through, and a little bit throwback.
Is it that surprising that surviving a public health crisis makes people want to revel in their body? “Of course I wear a mask, I’m happy to, but it’s very constricting,” says Rutherford-Swan. “I think now I want everything I wear to feel like I’m not wearing anything.” Linda Gonzales, a 21-year-old in Anchorage, Alaska, agrees—she’s been buying more “scandalous” clothing to wear after social media requirements lift. “I’m young and I deserve to show off whenever I want,” she says. “This body deserves to be seen!”
Gordon-Smith says that designers are rising to meet this challenge: “Sexual self-expression is a massively important theme among young designers at the moment who are exploring almost fetish-like fabrics, bondage-style wrapping, and super-revealing styles.”
Harper Yi, a 27-year-old in the D.C. area, misses being seen. She misses telling other people their outfits are cute and hearing the same, and longs to trade the “Where did you get that?” question with strangers. But during the pandemic “it’s been, like, pajamas 24/7.” She’s been taking serious precautions, especially because she’s been helping to care for immunocompromised grandparents. The main variation in her style has been the life-and-death decision between sweatpants and yoga pants.
When we dress up, we constantly face questions—even from ourselves—about who it is we’re trying to impress. After taking over a year off from dressing up, these concerns just don’t feel as important.
Recently, Yi says, she bought what she estimates is $1,600 worth of clothes for $150. She scoured secondhand stores online, and shopped companies liquidating their stock after a hard year. She went all out, because, why not? After surviving a pandemic, why listen to your judgmental inner voice that says, “Aren’t you a little overdressed?”
“After the pandemic everyone should just do whatever they want, because it is truly amazing to continue to be alive after a tragedy like this,” she says. “Joy is in short supply. As a culture, we’re into luxury and hedonism in a capitalistic way, but we constantly find ourselves justifying joy—‘You’re not allowed to nap until you do this! You don’t deserve to watch Netflix until you do that!’ We constantly tell ourselves that we have to earn things, but I don’t want to have to keep explaining myself so I can enjoy life.”
Dressing up is Aysha Sow’s job, not just her interest—she’s an influencer. But as other influencers justified tropical vacations and bragged about partying, Sow stayed mostly in her tiny New York apartment—she hasn’t seen her family, who live in Europe, since 2019. “Pretty much all I did was just create content in my place, and then take the clothes off and put them back in my closet,” she says with a laugh. For a long time she would look at her favorite pieces and promise herself, “I’ll wear that after quarantine.” But her attitude has changed. “How ’bout I just wear it now?”
Like Rutherford-Swan, Yi, and Gonzales, she isn’t interested in clinging to convention anymore. “I think being in this pandemic for a year now, it makes you want to live as loud as you possibly can,” she says. “I think for me, living loud translates into the way I dress. And after this pandemic I want to wear all the bright colors. I want to wear all the outfits that get all the attention. Usually, I would never wear heels on a regular day. Now I want to wear heels that look absolutely gorgeous and have people asking, ‘Where did you get these shoes?!’”
Women face a hopeless task when we style ourselves to go out in the world. We’re supposed to look sexual but not slutty, beautiful but not attention-seeking, feminine but not too girly. When we dress up, we constantly face questions—even from ourselves—about who it is we’re trying to impress. After taking over a year off from dressing up, these concerns just don’t feel as important.
We’re ready to dress to be seen, which is distinct from dressing to satisfy expectations. We’ll see lusciously tactile fabrics and riotous colors and plunging necklines—clothing that celebrates life. We’ve kept our bodies safe; now we’re going to take them to a party.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You canfollow heron Twitter.