Dressing For The Upside Down: How Fashion Can Be A Tether In Troubling Times
Sometimes garments only become emblematic of a given period with hindsight. Sometimes it can happen as fast as a dash to the charity shop.
I knew we’d passed the peak of the pandemic, at least emotionally, the day I jettisoned my lockdown trousers. Calling them ‘trousers’ seems grand – they were low-rise, cropped, wide-leg grey jogging bottoms with all the charisma of a slug. But they saw me through hundreds (thousands?) of work Zooms during lockdown.
I moved on, and the only way was up. I spent the summer in Bridgerton-esque dresses and little Mod minis. Everywhere I turned, people were making an effort. The prevailing looks of the season were shorter (the Miu Miu set with its own Instagram feed), tighter (corsets), louder (highlighter-bright suiting), sexier (the rise of Nensi Dojaka) and, yes, sillier than anything seen in the previous two years. Logo-slathered luxury mashups and Y2K throwbacks suddenly felt like rational choices.
And now we enter the next stage. A new season, characterised less by hopefulness than anxiety – over sustained conflict in Ukraine, rising energy prices and inflation. Even with government interventions, this autumn/winter promises to be a season of throwing on another jumper. That the coming troubles will filter into how we engage with fashion seems inevitable, and not only in the fingerless gloves we’ll wear at our laptops.
Everyone is talking about it; few are willing to share their thoughts openly. ‘I’m worried about coming across as privileged, talking about fashion when so many people are going to struggle,’ one industry insider told me. The unspoken consensus is that a sea change is coming – we’re about to shift from outré dressing to quieter wardrobes. After seasons of in-your-face logomania, could we be on the brink of a turn toward discretion and stealth luxury?
High-octane party dressing and the Barbiecore aesthetic is the welcome injection of fun we need
Some AW22 collections, shown in the early days of the war in Ukraine, took a more portentous view. Designers – even those who specialise in miniskirts easily mistaken for belts – showed comforting, cocooning volumes. If you believe in the hemline index (the idea that skirts get shorter in good times, longer in bad), then you might perceive a sense of foreboding in Anthony Vaccarello’s latest Saint Laurent outing. In place of his usual wet-look leggings and minis, he showed a parade of floor-sweeping skirts and dresses.
Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia dedicated his collection to refugees and sent models staggering through a barren snowscape, while in New York, Marc Jacobs’s enormous ribbed jumpers had the look of protective padding. Even Gucci’s Alessandro Michele made a tonal shift, with a collection more focused on masculine suits than frothy gowns.
But before you start packing up your monogrammed Gucci capes and Fendi tights, ask yourself the crucial question: ‘Do they spark joy?’
‘During Covid, a lot of people started to view their clothes pragmatically and in terms of comfort, rather than just looking for them to be aesthetically pleasing,’ says the fashion psychologist Shakaila Forbes-Bell, author of Big Dress Energy. ‘Now we’re more aware of how clothes affect us emotionally. In difficult times, people are going to look for easy tools that can help give them an instant mood boost.’
That’s going to be different for everyone. One person’s calming navy knitwear might strike someone else as depressingly austere – in which case they should keep on keeping on with the bucket hats and cargo pants.
‘While the news of rising costs is definitely unsettling for most,’ Petersson says, ‘I think post-pandemic statement dressing is here to stay. We see our customers expressing positivity through their wardrobes.’
Maybe we’ll cling to sources of joy as and when we find them, leaning into fashion that makes us feel good, no matter the cost. Luxury brands’ financial results make it clear that the sector is still flourishing, despite inflationary pressure (the cost of raw cashmere is up 30%).
I think post-pandemic statement dressing is here to stay
People may not stop spending completely, but most of us will make at least some changes. We’re more likely to research potential purchases online and show up to stores with specific pieces in mind. Or we’ll shop smart, capitalising on the rise of the rental, resale and secondhand markets.
‘Vintage bags now have the same sense of prestige and value as vintage cars,’ says Danni Dance, founder of pre-owned luxury and vintage handbag specialist The Hosta. ‘[Vintage] has tipped over into a collectible market, rather than being seen as something less-than.
That’s especially true of vintage Chanel. Since 2020, the French luxury fashion house has raised the price of its medium classic flap bag by 35%. That has boosted the price of second-hand versions, to the extent that Credit Suisse and Deloitte recently singled out Chanel bags as better investments and inflation protections than fine art, wine or classic cars.
Economic upheaval has always reshaped fashion. In the Twenties, as more women moved to cities and took jobs, they shrugged off restrictive styles – ergo, the flapper. In 1947, when Christian Dior introduced his New Look, its wasp waists and full skirts must have seemed like undreamed-of extravagances after the fabric rationing of World War II. The political turmoil of the Seventies birthed the punk movement. Eighties decadence delivered big shoulders and bigger hair. Grunge was an aesthetic backlash to that excess, and minimalism – white space, gold-stamped logos and millennial pink – can be understood as a self-soothing response to the 2008 financial crash.
Vintage bags now have the same sense of prestige and value as vintage cars
When the world turns upside down, clothes can be an anchor. The legacy of the cost-of-living crisis in our wardrobes could be more intentional shopping. As Selfridges noted in its AW22 preview, shoppers are seeking out ‘brands with a strong sense of ethos and purpose’.
‘I anticipate that shoppers will start to consider their purchases more,’ Petersson says. ‘During the last economic downturn in 2008, we saw customers mainly investing in items that truly excited them, moving away from buying more of what they already had in their wardrobe – like black pumps – and towards buying that one special pair of heels that they just couldn’t live without. I feel this time we’ll see a similar pattern.’ Glimmering shoes: just the thing to brighten up dark days.