A radical shift in our lifestyles usually means a major change in our relationship with what we wear. In the midst of a pandemic and mass social movements, fashion has had to evolve quickly. Our clothing choices have also become intrinsically more personal as we’ve been removed from dressing for the societal herd.
Then there’s the accessory/necessity of the year: the face mask. What began as a tool for preventing transmission of the coronavirus quickly transformed into both a political statement for some and an aesthetic choice for others. Who did and did not wear a mask began to be a signal of our perceived values. By June, our masks were the new T-shirts as Black Lives Matter messages, community signifiers and even political candidates were emblazoned on them.
In a world that is continuing to grapple with a deadly pandemic and where long-held social structures and systems are being re-evaluated, how will fashion respond? Right now it’s both trying to update its message for new day-to-day realities and trying to be a familiar anchor in unpredictable times.
Lynda Grose, the chair of the fashion department at the California College of the Arts, calls 2020 one of the most impactful moments in history when it comes to changes in our attitudes about clothing.
“The two world wars, the changes of the 1960s and the emergence of ready-to-wear, maybe going as far back as the Industrial Revolution when things were mechanized, those were the other moments maybe comparable in terms of a radical shift,” says Grose. “The potential is so great for really deep change.”
Amid that change, the industry has asked itself questions about where it fits in with the new restrictions and new concerns of consumers.
“It’s a kind of fallow period we’re in,” says Ben Ospital, the co-owner of the Modern Appealing Clothing boutique in San Francisco with his sister Chris Ospital and mother, Jeri Ospital. “Fashion is going to have to reset on so many levels, from what we’re dressing for to how it reflects a company’s values on social issues.”
The most exciting fashion of recent seasons has responded to what’s been going on at the time, whether it was the rise in political messaging on the runways after the election of Donald Trump, more gender fluidity in collections arising from greater awareness of nonbinary identity, or the social-media-savvy looks of Millennial designers looking to exploit the power of influencers. What we dress for now is different.
With so many major news stories breaking in 2020, what we think about is different, too.
The new reality is so changed from the recent past that the excesses of maximalist fashion, celebrity style, overt sexuality and anything that reeks of status or conspicuous consumption feel not only passe, but tone deaf. Dressing has new purpose and a new awareness in 2020.
Rachel Fischbein, the executive director of the Fashion Incubator San Francisco, has seen several key topics emerge in conversations with industry colleagues and the designers in residence at the incubator since March. She says protection is one consideration for the immediate future, and likely will be until a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed. She points out incubator brand Cotton the First, which now has a line of shirts with matching face masks as an example of one way protection is becoming more aesthetic, a move that San Francisco brand Lemon Twist and others have also made.
Fischbein has also seen a rethinking of weather-protective accessories like “hairbrella” head coverings with built-in face visors, and she predicts that more hooded tops and high collars on outerwear that can wrap around the face will emerge as part of this move.
“Some of that thinking was probably already there because of issues related to climate change in recent years,” she says. “Now this idea of protection for the face doubles for fire season and coronavirus.”
There have also been ongoing questions about how to extend the selling life of clothes outside of certain pigeonholes of the fashion calendar.
“Brands are trying to be more evergreen and more seasonless,” says Fischbein. “We see that already in San Francisco, where certain pieces can be worn year round because of the climate, but with the disruption in the supply chain, designers all over are trying to think about making pieces that are perennially relevant. It’s part of a push toward making things that are really useful for how we’re living, which is why you’re seeing basically all designers integrating masks as part of production.”
Comfort will also continue to be an expectation for consumers, both in their new home-work wardrobes and for the limited versions of going out.
“The softer something is, the easier it is to sell,” says Emily Holt, the owner of Hero Shop in San Francisco and at the Marin Country Mart. “I don’t want a structured, nipped waist now. I’m wearing sleeper dresses with puffed sleeves and no waist.”
But comfort is not at the expense of aesthetics. Details on garments like darting, interesting necklines and sleeves are selling well, Holt says. Jewelry as well as tops and knitwear in bright colors and bold patterns have also been much in demand, which Holt attributes to more of her customers trying to strategize their wardrobes for video conferencing.
“It’s not dreary, dark colors like after the 2008 recession,” says Holt. “People don’t want sad clothes.”
Womenswear designer Sarah Liller sees 2020 as a year where people are beginning to re-evaluate what it means to dress for themselves once they were removed from schedules and events that dictated expectations of what they wore.
“We’re not going out and showing off what we’re wearing the same way,” she says. “Things like stiletto shoes, skinny jeans, corset dresses feel unimaginable for a long time in terms of not having reasons to wear them. Soft, drapey things were already a place we were heading toward, but now they’re a psychological comfort for people. There’s been a comeback of things like housedresses and flats for home. We’re looking for security blankets in what we’re wearing.”
It also seems unlikely that consumers will want to continue the addiction to fast fashion in a world of less social interaction. Saloni Shrestha, the designer and owner of sustainability-focused brand Agaati, sees consumer and designer obsession with newness as being out of the step with the times. Quick trend cycles may vanish as people become more thoughtful about the environmental cost of disposable fashion.
“As people have become more introspective about their consumption, brands are going to be held more accountable for what we produce and what goes into the production,” says Shrestha. “Overall production and consumption will have to go down, so brands will be thinking more about classic silhouettes, pieces that are timeless.”
“There’s also issues about what’s sustainable in the long run we have time to talk about,” says Chris Ospital. “It’s about what’s sustainable for the planet and business on a certain seasonal schedule. It was all going so fast. Everything stopped that first month (of the pandemic), and it’s going to be really slow for a while.”
It’s not just a brand’s environmental practices that will be under scrutiny. Choosing brands based on their social values will be one of the next major revolutions, says retailer Sherri McMullen of the McMullen boutiques in Oakland and Palo Alto.
“After the social media black boxes for Black Lives Matter, it became very obvious to me that people can see through insincerity in a brand,” says McMullen. “Consumers are very much wanting to know how they’re spending their money. It has to be in line with their values. It has to go beyond just putting up a black box in solidarity. How many people of color do you have in your workplace, how many black models are in your lookbook? Spending our money is a political statement we can control that people are waking up to.”
As such, ideas of luxury and the worth of certain fashion items will also evolve.
“A $2.50 shirt hurts the people who make it and sell it,” says Ospital. “Part of slowing down will allow you to ask what you’re paying for, who does it support in the chain from store to designer to factory workers and does it allow them to make a decent living?”
It’s a move that will hopefully elevate considerations of craft and the life cycle of a garment above just the perceived value of a brand for its social cachet.
Much of this slowdown feels unavoidable: The pace at which we consumed, the number of collections fashion houses produced in a year and the absurd capitalism of influencer culture were a bubble waiting to burst. Authenticity is already coming to replace flash and status dressing as the need to level societal playing fields becomes more apparent. The major issues of 2020 only brought an inevitable reality check to fashion.
Tony Bravo is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com