What do we want from fashion now: fantasy or reality?

As we emerge back into the wider world, our emotional state will inform our fashion choices more than ever before
What do we want from fashion now: fantasy or reality?
Carolina Herrera SS20

In an alternate reality where life is still normal, I would rather go to prison for a crime I didn’t commit than have my internet search history read aloud in a court of law. But since normal is currently furloughed, some of the less mortifying samples from the past few weeks: "how to look hot on Zoom", "cookie recipe no oven", "buy original Picasso ceramics." The court rules that I am vain, lazy and wildly unrealistic. How charming!

Far more revealing about my own interior life during lockdown, however, are my clothes. Three months spent mostly alone in my tiny nook of north-west London have made me emotionally topsy-turvy and seen my perception of time tighten and then stretch with uncomfortable, uncontrollable unpredictability. My diary – ambitiously huge and embarrassingly empty bar for the crossed-out restaurant reservations, theatre trips and flights – now mocks me. When 2020 ends – that is, I mean, if 2020 ever ends (I really wouldn’t be surprised at this point, would you?) – we will see a year punctuated less by events as it was by moods.

Mica Argañaraz for Zara Spring/Summer 2020

If you believe, as I do, that clothes are emotional then your own approach to getting dressed these past few weeks will have been revealing. For those of us lucky enough to have lesser concerns than readily accessing PPE, our clothes have offered some connection to our expansive lives beyond our homes, and a mirror to our constantly changing interior landscape. But what is it we actually want from fashion now: unbridled escapism and fantasy, or ready-for-anything practicality and realism? And when we step into the post-lockdown world, how will we want to dress then?

In the last few months, my wardrobe has served as a chronicle of my emotional gear changes. So, while I might not remember any details about the day in early lockdown that I put on nothing but grey knickers and a scrunchie, I will remember the all-bets-are-off feeling of feral liberation, like a teenager with a free house for the first time, and will think of this time as my 'so reality really is cancelled' phase.

Similarly, whenever I pull on my leggings, I will recall the jubilation of running 20K for the first time in years, which marked the dawn of my self-optimisation era.

I am a terrible cook, so the banana bread and sourdough moment completely bypassed me, but crisp cotton dresses represented my own age of domesticity. Tailored shirts with rolled-up sleeves coincided with a short-lived "keep calm and carry on" pragmatism; a blanket worn as a shawl with a visceral, child-like craving for a hug.

Then there was the unremarkable evening I dressed up in a remarkable frock: a black lace Alessandra Rich number that has had many decadent past lives. Now I was pulling it out of my wardrobe not because there was anywhere to go or anyone to see me but, well, just because.

From now on this dress isn’t the one that rolled around on the floor of a karaoke bar at my 30th birthday party, ripped from hem to bum at a wedding, or jumped in the pool at Chateau Marmont, but a totem of my era of defiance, self-reliance and optimism. It was the moment I leant into the pure fantasy of fashion.

In lockdown, two distinct fashion camps have emerged. On the one hand, you have the fantasists, those who cherish the escapism and romance that clothes can offer and are galvanised by a wild print, an extravagant collar or piece of costume jewellery. On the other, you have the realists who find happiness in familiarity, practicality and utility.

Max Mara SS20

Most of us, I’d wager, fall somewhere in the middle. But these apparent opposites at some point wrap around and blend into one another, they both speak to our universal desire for comfort. We are all desperately scrabbling to find our comfort zones, which take a different shape for each of us.

In these odd few months, wherever we fall on the spectrum, we have come to realise how getting dressed can sharpen our mental clarity. Whether making that effort simply extends to bothering to put on a bra or a full face of make-up and a fabulous frock depends on where you sit on the fantasy/reality scale.

"At the beginning of the lockdown I was only ever wearing pyjamas," says Ditte Reffstrup, the Creative Director of Ganni. "But I got so tired of it, I decided to start making an effort. And it sounds silly, but it actually made me feel better. It’s made me realise how powerful clothes can be." 

"I still felt it was important to continue that daily ritual of dressing," says Rejina Pyo, who has been working on developing her SS21 collection during lockdown. "I dress for my mood, so I found that continuing to play with colour in my wardrobe helped me stay positive and creative. My team and I would wear our new pieces and send selfies to stay connected."

Rejina Pyo SS20

Getting dressed doesn’t just help us to feel connected to others, but to life beyond lockdown. In embroidering and embellishing our own visions of the future, we are all embracing some form of fashion fantasy. For some, that fantasy is literal.

At Erdem, it is the most special pieces that have been selling well. "I’ve wondered where the clients will wear what they bought. They must be planning for life after lockdown," says the designer.

"It’s important to remember that this will pass. We reopened our London store this week as private appointment only and we have seen bookings straight away, so I think there is a desire for people to move on from this crisis. As always, clothes are a form of self-expression and dressing for a new chapter is a wonderful thing."

Erdem SS20

Similarly, alongside the expected loungewear and homeware revolution, Matches Fashion has also witnessed a spike in interest for investment pieces. Fashion and buying director Natalie Kingham thinks, post-lockdown, purchases will be more considered, but that there will be an emphasis on special buys.

"Fine jewellery has been quite unexpectedly popular," she says."Jewellery is timeless and can be worn forever so the feeling is that it is a good investment; whatever happens they can wear diamonds. We’ve seen an uptick in vacation dressing, from dresses for by the pool to pieces from our wedding edit as people make future plans."

That shouldn’t be surprising. Whether we favour aesthetic realism or escapism, we are hungry for the storytelling potential of clothes.

So, no, we might not be able to actually go on holiday, but putting on a kaftan to waft around the park allows us to lap up that dream for an afternoon.

"During the confinement I was working with a back-to-basics capsule wardrobe while at my in-law' place in the French countryside for over seven weeks," says the journalist and podcaster Monica de la Villardière.

"[But] since the “de-confinement” here in France I’ve taken particular pleasure in selecting an outfit from my entire wardrobe in the knowledge that at least a few strangers on the street would see it. I find myself lying in bed in the morning dreaming up every detail of the outfit I’m going to wear to get coffee, my sartorial soul re-released into the urban jungle. Truth be told, I’ve always loved daydreaming about fashion but the hobby has definitely taken on new proportions. The outfits are planned, now I’m just waiting for my invitations!"

So where will fashion go next? Historically speaking, the emergence from a time of turmoil has been "positive and transformative" according to Bronwyn Cosgrave, host of the fashion podcast A Different Tweed. "Consider the aftermath of the First World War. Designers like Coco Chanel, Jean Patou and Madeleine Vionnet came into their own by creating clothes that were unprecedented in terms of functionality. Though they all did it their own way, they created a minimalist elegance that remains the blueprint for modern fashion." She adds that fashion’s pre-existing love affair with high/low dressing will continue to inform what’s to come.

"All fashion has to be pragmatic and somewhat grounded in reality. Or else it is just not wearable," she says. "But also consider that consumers will be spending less. Maybe women will want to buy an important elaborate piece and express their relief at being released from lockdown by flaunting something exuberant."

Does personal style still exist when there is nobody else to see it? Of course. Perhaps, in fact, self-expression has mattered more than ever these past few months.

Our global grounding has afforded us an opportunity to tap into not only the image we want to project (through clothes, or any other outward signals) but the people we want to be. Away from the clatter of other people’s taste and style (that is, if you step away from Instagram for long enough) we might be offered the chance to touch something more authentic.

JJ Martin of La DoubleJ photographed by Alberto Zanetti for Matches Fashion

"This period of enforced lockdown has given us all a lot to think about – our jobs, lives, relationships, not least how we navigate the other side of quarantine," says La Double J’s JJ Martin, who has been in lockdown in Milan.

"It’s a time that has drawn a lot of honesty and emotion out of people as they turned inwards and reflected on their existence, so personally I think we should be prepared to see a whole lot more personal expression. Whether that’s through toe-tapping colour and double-punch prints, like the kind we serve up at La Double J, or a less maximalist approach, I hope that individuality will be celebrated like never before! On a more industry-wide scale, I would like to see fashion come back with a new sense of purpose and identity. Support, accountability and responsible business is more important than ever – to brands and consumers – and I hope the industry takes the time to correct their wrongs and come together on pursuing a more sustainable and considered future. I truly believe this is what we are going [and should] want our clothes to reflect."

What do I want my clothes to reflect about me post-lockdown? I’m not sure yet, my emotions are still plucked at random from a cerebral potluck. But as we prepare for landing – seatbelts on, tray tables folded, but too soon to jump – I will share another nugget from my internet search history: "Sophie Bille Brahe diamond ring."

This will be my post quarantine treat to myself, a talismanic reminder that I made it through, I survived and that I am enough on my own. It will be a gesture of fantasy and reality. It will represent the dawning of my age of self-sufficiency.

Photos: Jason-Lloyd Evans, Instagram and supplied