Kenya Hunt is deputy editor of Grazia UK and author of the book, “Girl, Gurl, Grrrl: On Womanhood and Belonging in the Age of Black Girl Magic.”
Legendary designer Karl Lagerfeld once famously declared sweatpants “a sign of defeat.” By that standard, a year into covid-19, we’ve all surrendered. Fashion inspires those who wear it or simply look at it. But it’s hard to motivate people to rise to the occasion when there are no longer any occasions to rise to.
So as the pandemic rages on, fashion’s most influential designers and labels are stuck balancing between meeting consumers where they are and offering hopes of more exciting days to come.
Fashion editors have long extolled the virtues of dressing to lift one’s mood, of course. And in the past year, fashion has done its part to help us forget about reality when we need to. The pre-Regency dresses in “Bridgerton,” line-for-line re-creation of Lady Diana’s wardrobe on “The Crown” or the Tiger King’s outrageously out-there animal prints have all provided welcome distraction from our troubled times.
Yet, the vast majority of us don’t seem to be dressing up much at home. Instead, it’s the most comforting and practical pieces we turn to again and again in a world that has never been more changeable. Fashion has always been a way to express who we are and define how we want to be regarded in the world. What does that mean when the world has shrunk to four walls and a screen?
Judging by the spring-summer collections presented at Paris Couture Week in February, those in the business of fantasy are asking similar questions. Most people will never buy the clothes in these shows. That’s because haute couture, a special accreditation given by the French government to describe clothes custom made by hand to match the wearer’s body, is wildly out of reach for the average consumer. Meanwhile, the luxury ready-to-wear items one can purchase off the rack are merely very expensive. But the looks and ideas showcased at these events eventually trickle down to more accessible brands. The shows are a glimpse into our collective fashion future.
Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli, long known for his decadently voluminous dresses, showed a couture collection that was relatively pared down, including high-brow versions of beige trousers, a trench coat and a hoodie. Yes, it was an exquisitely cut, gold hoodie, but a hoodie nonetheless. Alber Elbaz, whose work at the luxury brand Lanvin the New Yorker once described as “a remarkable mixture of the soigné and the daffy,” returned to women’s wear after a hiatus with a range of knit dresses and separates he described as “solutions-driven fashion that works for everyone,” including pieces that can be mixed and matched in a capsule wardrobe. Even the luxury magazine Harper’s Bazaar declared matching leisurewear the “uniform” of the season.
Each show presented a different take on the year-long debate about how fashion can remain relevant during a time when the social circuits they service are closed.
The most fantastical couture collections also acknowledged the wider moment. For Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri imagined a world filled with tarot symbols brought to life, regal women in sweeping robes and empire-waist gowns. Chiuri chose tarot because she said its magic has the power to inspire hope for the future. Other fashion houses, such as Chanel and Giambattista Valli, offered up glamor as a corrective to bleak times.
One of the more stylish presidential inaugurations in modern history also exposed these tensions. Michelle Obama’s blowout and Sergio Hudson suit went viral, as did Lady Gaga’s gilded Schiaparelli bird. Meanwhile, the first lady and vice president wore some of the fashion industry’s rising stars, including Christopher John Rogers and Markarian. It was a day so big on fashion that the top-tier model agency IMG scouted two of its newest faces from the ceremony, poet Amanda Gorman and Vice President Harris’s stepdaughter Ella Emhoff.
Yet the most talked-about style moment of the day did not involve a suit or gown, but rather a humble parka and hand-sewn mittens. It was the most relatable uniform in a lockdown winter, the most ordinary ensemble in a most extraordinary setting. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was all of us. We might not be able to dress our way out of this pandemic. But get dressed we must.
Right now, fashion exists in a state of polarized extremes. There is the basic utility of our day-to-day lives, filled with things practical, soft and easy to slip on and off. And then there is the hopeful, optimistic high-octane stuff of escapism: the tailored suits, silk gowns and impractical tulle dresses we fantasize about having an occasion to wear. There seems to be little else in between.
Perhaps that’s because the part of our lives that might have filled the space between the daily slog of working from home and the unlimited promise of our imaginations has vanished, at least temporarily. Covid-19 has made us all go casual, long as we might for heels, tailoring and tulle. A sign of defeat? Hardly. Every day you get dressed, be it in sweatpants or Regency-era robe, is a win.