In 2020, three months after the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus pandemic, Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture hosted a 12-hour online conference. Researchers from different countries presented their observations of how the global force majeure was reshaping our wardrobe — and more. The conference led to the publication in 2021 of the collection The New Normal: Wardrobe and Body Practices of the Pandemic Era. In this interview with Liudmila Alyabieva, editor and compiler of the collection, chief editor of Fashion Theory and associate professor at the HSE Art and Design School, explained why neither the fashion industry nor we would ever be the same.
Associate Professor, HSE Faculty of Communications,
Media and Design, Academic Director,
HSE Doctoral School of Arts and Design,
Editor-in-Chief, Fashion Theory:
The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture
— Social distancing, working remotely and limited interpersonal contact has become the new normal in the ‘pandemic world’. How do those in the field of fashion see it?
— Fashion is a phenomenon that touches on many areas of life. Therefore, of course, all those changes that have occurred not only in the wardrobe itself but also beyond it — the way we have restructured our daily lives — have forced us to change our routine practices, including tactile contacts.
It is no coincidence that the researchers whose works were included in the collection focused not only on clothing practices but also on practices related to the body and everything connected with our daily routine — that the coronavirus has greatly transformed.
— The question of how fashion has responded to the pandemic is not new. Those who studied the reaction to the Spanish flu 100 years ago note similarities with the current situation. What are they?
— There really are many similarities, but there is also a lot that distinguishes our reaction from the reaction of a hundred years ago. For example, mid-level fashion magazines mentioned the Spanish flu and it fell within their field of vision, whereas high-end publications like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar barely took notice of it. That is, we can speak of the social nature of the 1918 pandemic, about the fact that it practically didn’t trouble the upper strata of the population.
We see the parallels in the solutions created by designers and clothing manufacturers. The first that comes to mind is protective masks and veils that also appeared back then, that were actively disseminated and caused no less heated debate than now.
The fashion industry responded just as quickly. In 1918, the press began to write about affordable protective veils almost immediately, and they went on sale within days. The same is true in our time — that has more tools for disseminating information. There is the Internet, which in this sense is much more effective than paper media.
In November 1918, Women’s Wear Daily ran an ad for a veil-mask hybrid that ‘combines fashion and healthcare’: with a coarse mesh covering the top of the face and an opaque fabric on the bottom. ‘The text of the ad states that the fabric is “medicated with a colourless, odorless, antiseptic solution formulated by Dr Bruce”’.
(From the collection The New Normal: Wardrobe and Body Practices of the Pandemic Era, Moscow, ‘The New Literary Review’, 2021.)
— Do these similarities show us that, deep down, people never change?
— People are changing: we dress differently than we did 100 years ago, but the basic function of clothing, which, of course, is protection, remains the same. There used to be and still is a desire to wrap oneself up, to cover one’s body as much as possible and to protect oneself from danger. Therefore, masks, veils and ideas about some kind of super-protective clothing that instils confidence in the face of disease were present in both 1918 and 2020.
— And was there accusatory rhetoric in the early 20th century, like there is today, that fashionable items lead to disease?
— Yes, the idea arose in and gained currency in 1918 that certain items of clothing help spread the flu. People said, for example, that thin-soled shoes contribute to illness, or that it could be caused by the so-called ‘pneumonia blouse’ that is transparent and thin and doesn’t provide adequate protection for the lungs. Some articles claimed that fur was the culprit, that its individual hairs carry the virus.
In February 1919, The Cleveland Press wrote, ‘I would like to strongly warn against the silly fashion or habits of girls who seem to find it necessary to wear thin-, flat-soled shoes in the middle of winter’.
People also believed that thin stockings could bring on illness. In 1919, Vogue responded with ‘a clever way to fight the flu’ invented by Parisians, who slipped flesh-coloured thick woollen stockings under the transparent silk stockings to keep their legs warm and look stylish at the same time.
(From the collection The New Normal: Wardrobe and Body Practices of the Pandemic Era, Moscow.)
I saw relatively little information on this topic during the current pandemic, but I read about the fear of transmitting the virus on jewellery such as rings and earrings, with the suggestion to forego wearing them at all. In general, there is the fear of surfaces, of touching things in your surroundings. The idea appeared in print that you could bring something in on your clothes. For this reason, especially during the strictest lockdowns, there were various guidelines on what to do when returning from the store — shaking out your clothes, washing them and so on.
— Did this concern clothes in general, or were some types of fabrics considered especially high-risk for carrying pneumonia?
— I never saw anything that focused on a particular item. It is, in fact, possible, though, because accusations against fashion as such and fashionable clothes are characteristic of the discourse in general and can be found in texts about fashion in every historical period.
— Have the fashionistas themselves reacted to the current pandemic?
Fashionistas, like everyone whose wardrobe is geared towards going out and various special occasions, have, in the absence of those things, been forced to reduce their fashion activities to a minimum. Being alone with one’s wardrobe — that has not been replenished during the quarantine — has led to some unique situations.
The lull in fashion was a good experience: it showed that you can get by with far fewer clothes and that those you do have deserve more attention. Many people have reorganised their wardrobes for the first time in many years. Some articles have reported a desire to repair certain items — that is, to give them a second life after the pandemic.
This is a completely different paradigm. After all, fashion is focused on the future. It’s about change, about new outfits that make us better and more successful. But this is all about cyclicality and taking care of what we already have.
On the one hand, staying at home 24/7 was a time for comfortable, casual clothes — basically, we wore whatever was comfortable and convenient to move around in, sit at the computer and do household chores in. On the other hand, this made us hungry for bright, theatrical, spectacular clothes, for a post-quarantine dress that we would wear when we could finally enjoy social contacts again. This hunger was probably connected with the boom in digital fashion, which offered additional outlets: if you have no reason to go to a party, then post your look on Instagram.
— Did fashion designers take note of this new desire for comfort?
— The demand for comfort and everyday urban uniforms did not start with the pandemic. Even before it, there was a trend called ‘athleisure’ — sportswear for leisure: leggings, sweatpants, hoodies, T-shirts and sneakers. The pandemic only strengthened it and, of course, fashion designers could not but respond to the heightened consumer demand.
We see such ‘pyjama chic’ reflected in what stores are offering now, and on Instagram; the number of local brands that sew comfortable clothes for everyday urban living has only increased. And there is certainly a demand for all this.
— In the U.S. in the summer of 2020, Vogue magazine, leader of the fashion world, ran stories about saleswomen and cashiers. In the UK, the magazine ran a cover photo of workers in ‘industries that have not stopped working during the pandemic’ and articles about teachers, doctors, couriers and cleaning staff. Is this a temporary phenomenon or the start of something new?
— The glossy publication’s greater inclusiveness was a response to the situation. In September 2020, all the national versions of Vogue came out with uncharacteristic covers and articles devoted to mankind’s hope of overcoming the pandemic. Will this trend continue? Will we see more profiles of bus drivers and nurses? I don’t think so.
On the other hand, even before the pandemic, the ranks of the heroes of fashion underwent a major transformation, thanks to social networks and new media. Processes connected with diversification and inclusiveness have changed the fashion picture considerably, and will now go even further.
Glossies should take note of the desire to respond to social changes, to speak out on socially important issues, to work with stories about which fashion is still the subject of reproach — instability, an insufficient balance between genders and races and the harmful influence on the environment. Thanks to the pandemic and the forced slowdown showing that we can get by doing much less, this discussion will only intensify.
— Different authors in the collection express the same idea — that there is an urgent need to change the system. One even wrote, ‘During the coronavirus pandemic, it became obvious to many how harmful and destructive the modern fashion system is’. What is this about, and why is it so harsh?
— This is manifested in many ways. The first is production, which is a disaster for the environment. The second is the obvious overabundance of clothes, the quantity of which is only growing. This is connected with the phenomenon of ‘fast fashion’ when new collections appear on store shelves every two weeks.
The third is that the producers themselves are the disadvantaged regions and countries to which production has been transferred. Attention is more frequently focused on them and their working conditions, which is atypical for the fashion discourse: fashion traditionally looked only at the finished product, at the moment of purchase and the wearing of the item.
The fashion system needs a reset because it has now become more obvious than ever that the existing paradigm makes the fashion industry a completely unsustainable burden for the planet.
When planning a new collection or designing various items, you need to know in advance how they will be made, used and then recycled. This is directly related to the ‘cradle to cradle’ paradigm when every stage of an item’s existence is worked out in advance — including both producers and consumers.
Fashion, as we knew it, is disappearing. The glamorous, triumphant, novelty-based and change-oriented phenomenon is undergoing a crisis and, apparently, requires a total revision of all its principles and a rejection of evident schemes. The future will show how ready we are for this.
— What has the pandemic brought to the idea of beauty and style?
— At some point, it was interesting to observe the discussions regarding masks. In Europe, wearing them on the lower part of the face is unusual, and they talked about how much it was necessary to, for example, rethink makeup, to focus more on the eyes.
But it is hard to say whether beauty standards have undergone a reevaluation. Our long presence exclusively in the digital environment has probably left a mark. Going online has made it necessary to present yourself in a new way. Many people said that when preparing for Zoom sessions, they dressed for the camera, accentuating their appearance to emphasize their online presence — applying makeup in a special way, adding flashy accessories to their outfit and the like.
— Or they put on what they would never dare to wear in ordinary life.
— Yes, it’s like a vacation. People often pack things that they don’t wear in ordinary life. To try them out, they put them on in an environment where certain rules don’t apply — a kind of fantasy outfit that you can allow yourself to appear in to see if it passes the test of everyday reality. You can also fantasize online: it kind of creates the necessary filter for trying out something new.
— The question is whether we can then go offline with the same fantasy outfits.
— Again, it’s like a vacation. Having taken various items on a test run, a person will choose to wear some of them later as well. That is, the division between the vacation wardrobe and everyday wardrobe still exists. We’ll see whether it holds for Zoom vs real life wardrobes.
In general, there is a lot of talk about forecasts, about what will be in fashion when the world more or less comes to its senses. It would seem that after the restrictions are lifted, after an excess of comfortable clothes that are often shapeless and conceal one’s figure, everyone will want a holiday, a flashy outfit that instils confidence and emotional security. At the same time, the triumph of comfort — comfy trousers, shapeless hoodies and sneakers — are also a type of armour, but one that is enveloping, a kind of cocoon that makes you blend in with the crowd. I think both trends will continue because they meet basic human needs, which is largely what fashion does.
— It seems that fashion itself can predict the future. For example, the collections of many brands included masks and various accessories for covering the face — and then the pandemic hit. It looks almost like a prophecy. But seriously, what’s going on here?
— Many collections experimented with including masks. I think there were two reasons or sources of inspiration for this — protecting oneself from the growing presence of ‘Big Brother’ (the desire to maintain privacy and hide from the control of cameras) and the influence of Asia (designers drew on the practice in South Korea, Japan and China of people wearing masks on the street to protect their respiratory systems from excessive air pollution).
— Now there is a third reason: the epidemiological threat. Does this mean masks will not go out of fashion?
I think they will be with us for a long time. The influence of the pandemic is so enormous that it is difficult to imagine going back to the way things were. Of course, masks won’t be found in every collection, but almost all mid-level stores offer them now.
Fashion ‘reworked’ the mask and incorporated it into everyday life. That is, it fulfilled its traditional function — it normalised an unusual object and made it a part of everyday life.
Setting aside all talk about the benefits and drawbacks that are typical of every period when people are faced with something unknown, the normalisation of what in this case is a medical accessory was largely due to fashion.
It is interesting to see how to cope, how you can eliminate the trauma with the help of the humorous statements or pictures that appeared immediately after the masks did. By the way, this is characteristic of not only the 2020 pandemic. In 1918, there were also pictures in which the images on the masks were apparently designed to lighten the mood.
Cartoons showed the different attitudes towards masks during the Spanish flu. An article in the Seattle Clarion-Ledger humorously described ‘all sorts of fancy ways to wear face masks, including how some embellish them with embroidery and other decorative elements’.
The student newspaper The White and Blue published a caricature of ‘the most modern’ made-up masks to suit ‘a certain type of person’. For example, a mask in the form of a question mark made of ‘purple velvet with piping of gold’ was called the ‘Professors’ Special’.
(From the collection The New Normal: Wardrobe and Body Practices of the Pandemic Era.)
— Fashion Theory held its conference in June 2020. Did the scope and nature of the change become clear so quickly? What’s next — is there a need to continue the conversation?
— At that time, we mostly shared our observations, took note of the changes occurring and probably tried to make preliminary forecasts. But we weren’t far enough from events: proper reflection takes a little more time.
Everything was changing as I wrote the foreword to the collection: Europe emerged from a tough and protracted quarantine and Russia entered its ‘third wave’. Now we are also familiar with uncertainty, instability and constantly shifting processes.
We have stopped looking far ahead. Major changes have taken place, at least in my life — in the past, I would plan conferences and meetings a year in advance. Now that seems too exotic and overly confident.
Nevertheless, academic and scientific forums continue. In March of this year, we conducted one that was similar in content, on ‘making’ or crafting — that is, how people turned to creative activity during the pandemic. Another was devoted to responses to the crisis of fellow teachers at educational institutions where they study not theoretical, but practical disciplines. They suffered from Covid-related restrictions more than others did: studios and access to equipment were closed and many teachers were forced to completely revise their curricula and offer completely new programmes.
The conferences will definitely continue. But will they focus on the pandemic experience? It seems to me that other questions, including the pandemic, are relevant now. The HSE School of Design, under the auspices of the Cumulus organisation, is currently preparing an international conference on the question of tactility in design and art in general.
In 2022, we will discuss how our tactile perception is changing in the digital age, when, on the one hand, we have technologies, and on the other hand, the ongoing need for sensory experience. I really hope that by that time we will finally be able to resume travel and in-person meetings. We are planning the School of Design event in Moscow to be offline.