The digital fashion presentations in Paris and Milan that spanned the last two weeks — and replaced the usual live runway shows for fall haute couture and menswear, as well as women’s resort collections — weren’t physically exhausting, but they were mentally numbing: the live streams, music videos, short movies and Zoom conversations with designers trying to work through what this moment in history means creatively, psychologically and financially. As a viewer trying to absorb it all, the days felt like an emotional roller coaster where the rare live fashion show — outdoors with mask-wearing guests — could feel simultaneously admirable and reckless, even when watched on a screen.

One could delight in technology that brought one behind the scenes, only to realize that a lot of what happens in the shadows of a fashion show is as excruciating as watching waiting people wait. Or, more precisely, during Gucci’s 12-hour live stream it meant watching an assistant fan a model wearing fall clothes on a hot summer day so he didn’t pass out. The myth is far more exciting than the mythmaking.

Dior’s menswear embraced diversity through the glorious portraiture of an African painter. Dior haute couture ignored it with its ivory-skinned mermaids and nymphs. Dolce & Gabbana directly addressed the pandemic with a live show at Milan’s Humanitas University, where research into a coronavirus vaccine is underway. Jonathan Anderson’s show-in-a-box, mailed to each guest, offered a reprieve from it. Chanel created clothes for a world as it once existed. Prada offered a wardrobe for the world as it is.

Where are folks going in all these new frocks? Lord knows.

Fashion rustled up a beautiful, desperate dream. Some might see it all as misguided frippery. But truly, has there ever been a time when beautiful dreams are so desperately needed?

“The risk, in this moment, is that we stop dreaming,” says Dior creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri in a FaceTime interview after her fall couture presentation. “Fashion is also a dream — not only [a desire] to have new clothes.”

Anyone who wanted to get a peek at what designers have been up to in months of lockdown had only to log on to their computer for access to Dior’s short film featuring red-haired woodland creatures and porters bearing doll-size couture dresses. Chanel offered a brisk, jittery, 1-minute-and-22-second video of embroidery, ruffled necklines and brocade. Dries van Noten featured a model playing air drums. Olivier Theyskens, the recently appointed creative director of Azzaro, debuted with a dramatic one-woman concert by Belgian musician Sylvie Kreusch. The music videos evoked a mood; the narratives were akin to a murky dream.

With feet propped up and a cocktail in hand, one could be a voyeur in Rick Owens’s design studio as he draped one look after another on a gangly model balanced on clear acrylic heels. One could explore the iconoclastic work of Iris van Herpen at one’s leisure.

At its best, technology became a tool for building a closer relationship with customers, breaking down the fourth wall that separates the performance from the audience. At Maison Margiela, cameras brought viewers into the ateliers and settled in alongside creative director John Galliano as he sorted through his myriad inspirations for his fall Artisanal collection and explained them via text and video chat to a team of employees that had been dispersed on the wind.

A trio of teaser videos released over several days led up to the 50-minute film that showed Galliano referencing sculptural draping, the sensuality of water-drenched fabric, zoot suits and blitz kids. His thoughts unfolded in an avalanche of analysis and digressions rather than the typically edited gloss that companies distribute in a news release.

Watching the team re-create the effect of a water-soaked gown clinging to the body using a combination of fabric and audacious dressmaking technique is to get a real sense of what makes couture special. Galliano says he’s not really expecting that people will be lining up to purchase such garments. Couture “fuels the house. That’s its purpose, to show what we’re capable of.”

Whether the remark was scripted or off-the-cuff or something in between, it nonetheless captures a uniquely indulgent aspect of the fashion industry — the pursuit of beauty and craftsmanship for the sheer pleasure of succeeding at something that seemed impossible.

Anderson exposed a similar kind of interior design process, but he also highlighted the popularity of crafting during the lockdown. His Loewe “show in a box” for his spring 2021 menswear and his women’s resort collection emphasized the tactile pleasures of fashion while giving the box’s recipients the delight of having access to something deeply humane. Arriving via FedEx, it was filled with fabric swatches, paper doll-like garments and accessories, a life-size clothing pattern, a pop-up book of an imagined set as well as a vinyl record of the soundtrack along with a manual record player.

“This moment is about doing what’s right for you, not what’s right for the system,” Anderson says in a Zoom interview. “We’re human at the end of the day. … As humans we naturally want to touch things.”

“We’ve started to see how the virtual and digital world can distort things,” Anderson adds. “I’m looking at what’s happening in the world and I wanted to do something very tangible.”

“There’s so many other problems,” he says. “Fashion should be a little more humble and a little quieter.”

These past few weeks have been a test — not just of how well fashion could tell its seasonal story in the midst of a pandemic. It was also a challenge for the industry to make the case for its relevance in a profoundly scarred world.

Miuccia Prada made her argument simply: with her spring 2021 clothes. It was her final collection before she welcomes Raf Simons as her co-creative director. She allowed five filmmakers to interpret her work, showcasing her clothes against such backdrops as an empty theater and an industrial factory full of metal ductwork and pressure meters.

“This season, with this approach, we had the occasion to show the next step — it’s clothes living in life,” Prada says in a statement. The multiple perspectives create something that’s “more than a fashion show. It enriches the show, and enriches the clothes.”

But regardless of set or auteur, Prada’s singular vision remained undiluted. Hers was an eloquent assessment of our collective mental state. We yearn for back-to-work normalcy; we need comfort; we want to be useful. The clothes filled those desires: easy workman jackets and matching trousers, a coat reduced to its most minimal lines and the utilitarian beauty of industrial nylon.

In the midst of the pandemic angst, there’s also a global demand for fashion to be more inclusive, more proactive on issues of racial justice and more aware of its footfalls in the culture. The Dior Homme collection designed by Kim Jones was a breathtaking melding of sporty menswear with the work of Ghanian-born black artist Amoako Boafo. But perhaps even more important: The film that unveiled the collection was a visit to Boafo’s studio and a conversation with him, not Jones, who is white.

In contrast, the Dior couture collection stood out for its startling lack of diversity. Chiuri explains the casting of almost all ivory-skinned models as a reflection of her inspiration: Greek mythology and the art of Botticelli and Bernini. In collaboration with the filmmaker, they decided that a multiracial cast “would make something that is not believable for the reference.” But of course, the film was an interpretation — a fantasy, not a documentary.

Chiuri also notes that since her arrival at Dior, she has guided the brand as a feminist and “to be feminist is to be inclusive,” she says. The couture film wasn’t inclusive, but previous presentations have been, particularly the cruise collection unveiled in 2019 in Marrakesh, and upcoming ones will be. “We have to look at everything,” Chiuri says, not just a single casting. “We have to change the values of the company.”

The same could be said of the fashion industry at large: It’s due for a change in values. This strange season of shows reveals an industry struggling to find its way. It’s a massive ship and so many jobs depend on its getting back on course. At the same time, it’s a ship that’s taking on water. The most illuminating images from these presentations are not those of the clothes — beautiful as some of them are. They are the pictures from inside the ateliers, the ones that show so many human hands at work.