I went on maternity leave last summer. Occasionally during that time I would think idly about what I would wear when I was back at work and my body looked less like a souffle. A few weeks ago, when the moment finally arrived, I found myself in the middle of a pandemic, still at home, wearing Birkenstock clogs and a tracksuit stained with yoghurt, braless, and staring into Zoom.
Coronavirus has dismantled the scaffolding of our daily lives – and many of us working from home have reacted by dressing in clothing that is both comfortable and comforting. What we wear has been one of the few things we can control. So with restrictions easing far quicker than they were implemented, how exactly will we map this new freedom onto how we dress?
There are theories: the great reopening will likely start on a high, like New Year’s Eve – crowds in their Sunday best and matching masks laying waste to beer gardens, that sort of thing. Expect reactionary colour, too, and the chance to wear heels for the first time in quite some time. Fashion insiders have told me they plan to make opera gloves happen; that visors could “allow for a full face of make-up”. In reality, our elasticated waists will pivot at best to jeans. It’s one thing dressing for frivolity, but another thing entirely to be frivolous.
Fashion is usually defined by cycles of capital, culture and commerce. The pandemic has interrupted that, leading to a shift in clothing that is driven by circumstance, not trend. This certainly applies to Lawrence Schlossman, one half of the fashion podcast Throwing Fits. He loves dressing up, yet Schlossman’s lockdown uniform, he told me, adheres to an exceptional but very specific casualness – Patagonia shorts, the Birkenstock Boston clogs – that has become “a way to keep one thing in my life consistent while everything else is crumbling around me”. If even dedicated followers of fashion are dressing down, then surely it must be a thing.
Still, just as everything – pandemics included – is commodified under capitalism, so too are trends drummed up to justify, explain and lay claim to certain circumstances. To wit: GQ publishing an article attempting to codify “slob style” – my yoghurt-stained tracksuit – as not simply a trend, but a form of “power dressing”. We have, they say, become a nation of slobs. Unsurprisingly they cite Boris Johnson’s chief strategist, Dominic Cummings, as its figurehead.
The word “slob” (however snobby its use often is) has long been applied to Cummings, perpetually photographed on his way into Downing Street in creased white shirts, dirty tracksuits and sports tees. But beyond the whims of the infamous lockdown dodger, a sentiment of dressing down fits the mood right now – which is no bad thing. Most of us are responding organically to the pressures and demands of life, not to mention the removal – for some – of the need to dress in a uniform, whether formal or not.
This casual culture is part of a wider, privilege-adjacent moment, in which we seek new ways to look good yet comfortable, without betraying the great levelling that the pandemic has supposedly laid out. The truth is, though, that some of us are able to dress down and others are not, and this reality may reassert itself when lockdown lifts – it will be fully apparent when more people return to shared working environments.
Unlike exhausted NHS workers on their day off or harassed parents now working from home, and long before Covid-19, Cummings has had the privilege of dressing the way he wants, cultivating along the way a reputation as a maverick. The skewed codes of fashion help him in this regard: we presume his Finisterre surfwear must be appropriate for Westminster, effectively becoming an expression of his status. When formality is hinted at (the white shirt, unkempt of course), that power becomes even more clear.
Such dishevelment is allowed because of the role Cummings has carved out for himself in politics, and besides, he has merely deployed what Harvard researchers call the “red sneakers effect”: the idea that if someone is bold enough to wear red trainers in a room full of suits, we are inclined to listen to them because they must be important if they can get away with wearing them. This idea is potent in Silicon Valley – see Mark Zuckerberg’s traumatising array of casual wear – and has been previously popular among British government policy gurus, with the yellow V-neck T-shirts of Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s blue-sky thinker, a particular low point.
Self-styled mavericks will always dress as if they don’t care in an attempt to build a myth. The question for the rest of us is whether the newfound comfort we might have found in lockdown is here to stay, or whether traditional clothing norms will be reasserted. This may seem like a small point in the grand scheme of things, but the vital question of whether coronavirus will lead to a different world applies to clothing just as it applies to anything else, no matter how much you may wish to distance yourself from fashion.
Clothing has the power to define something, and shape it. Particularly for women, there could now be a reduced compulsion – one that is generally felt unconsciously – to dress a particular way, especially in the workplace. Or it’s possible that we have been so conditioned by our collective experience that nothing will actually change.
The traditional suit, so analogous of authority, is on hiatus, however temporarily. It’s not simply a way of demarcating boundaries between work and leisure, it’s about plausibility. Perhaps now though, in our exhausted world, enveloped in shorts and clogs, we might finally be able to expand what’s plausible.
• Morwenna Ferrier is the Guardian’s deputy fashion editor