Slob-chic, athleisure, casual comfy — you've undoubtedly heard some version of these terms over the past year in reference to pandemic fashion. They have been used to refer to any attire with some combination of a stretchy waistband, loose fit and/ or soft material — in short — something comfortable.
This has been the overriding characterization of pandemic fashion, which the arbiters of the industry have interpreted as a sign that we just no longer care. Any reflection on pandemic dressing, including this one, is likely to reference the words of late designer Karl Lagerfeld, who famously said wearing sweatpants was defeatist. "You lost control of your life, so you bought some sweatpants," he said.
It is true that we went all-in on wearing the kind of outfits most likely to get you turned away from Buckhead's Le Bilboquet, but while we were buying lots of sweatpants (and pajamas), we weren't buying much of anything else. Sales in the beauty, footwear and apparel categories declined by more than $56 billion in 2020 compared to the previous year, according to data from market research company NPD Group.
Now that many of us have regained some semblance of control over our lives and are willing and able to leave the house, getting dressed is a necessity. But how we will dress is anyone's guess.
One-third of consumers said dressing up has become more casual for them than before the pandemic, according to a survey from NPD and software company CivicScience. Some consumers are wringing their hands about what to wear as work and social outings have resumed.
The pandemic offered an opportunity for the fashion industry to reset itself, but instead of catering to the sweatsuit-wearing masses, brands are offering something more optimistic. If the most recent reports from virtual runways are any indication, consumers can look forward to either jumping full on into sequins and tulle and dressing as if life is a party every day or making a slower transition back into the world with a sort of hybridized clothing that can go from dressy to messy.
Fashion experts have attempted to weigh in on the future by looking to the past for clues about how the fashion pendulum might swing post-pandemic. But the twist of 2020 — the start of an era that has already seen the fashion industry struggling to assert its influence and tastes — is that maybe it no longer matters what the experts think.
Sometime mid-lockdown in August 2020, R.S. Williams of LaGrange, Georgia, was forced to stop exercising after injuring her sacroiliac joint running and attempting to do a Steven Seagal-style split. Exercise had been her outlet for ensuring her mental health through the pandemic, she said, and when she lost it, she needed a replacement.
Williams has worn a lot of hats in her careers as an actor, writer, exotic dancer and teacher. She has also worn a lot of outfits, so she decided to ditch the workout gear and dig into her closet.
The first outfit, a gold sequined skirt with a slit up the leg from Sears and a charcoal gray T-shirt with area code 985 (southeastern Louisiana), was the pick me up she needed to run errands. She looked so good, she snapped a selfie and posted it on social media. It quickly racked up hundreds of likes.
Suddenly she was feeling better. She followed with more outfits — a leopard print shirt, some faux leather leggings, a shirt with giant navy polka dots. Sometimes the outfits made sense; sometimes they looked insane.
Friends told her they hadn't laughed so hard since the lockdown began. "People were howling," said Williams, 47. Williams kept it up. On Mother's Day, she asked her mom to write a list of fashion don'ts, and Williams proceeded to put together an outfit that included almost everything on that list.
For Williams, this new process of getting dressed was as performative as it was transformative.
"Even if no one says anything to me about my outfits, I feel like a million dollars," she said. "When you are from a small Southern town, you have to think about what everybody likes and what is proper. I don't give a damn. We need a little levity here."
On a trip to Pine Mountain, she wore one of her most radical outfits — a gold torpedo bustier with gold leggings and gold shoes. She jumped out of her borrowed Jaguar XJR to go to the ATM and watched as every jaw in sight went slack.
The whole experience or experiment has been freeing, she said, a reminder of the girl she was in the mid-1980s growing up in the small town of Franklin, Georgia and smearing on black lipstick before school.
Wearing her own carefully curated outfits has also reminded Williams of the care that others put into choosing their clothing as well. When she spied a young girl about 11 years old walking through Kroger with an older woman, Williams felt compelled to tell the girl how much she liked her outfit of moto pants, ankle boots and a top with a white, black and chrome yellow chevron pattern.
When the girl was almost out of earshot, Williams heard her say to her elderly guardian, "See, I told you."
"That was the kind of validation I needed as a young girl," Williams said.
Through Williams, and countless other fashion mavericks scattered across the metro area, the people have spoken. And they are saying something we have been attempting to speak for quite some time — that we are ready to let go of conventions.
For some of us, getting dressed post-pandemic will mean continuing the parade of elastic, spandex, muumuus and gym shoes. For others, it will mean stepping into Tuesday morning in our home offices wearing stilettos and skirts.
Whichever way you decide to play it, the aftertime seems like the perfect opportunity to follow Williams' lead and declare our independence — at least in matters of fashion.
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