Has the Pandemic Changed the Way We Dress and Present Ourselves Forever?
It is not just about sweatpants. For many, the pandemic has radically changed their attitude to fashion and self-image—and how they intend to present themselves in the future.
Before the pandemic, Kiri Anne Ryan Stewart worked as a graphic designer in an office where she was the only trans employee. Stewart, who uses she/they pronouns and also identifies as non-binary, had to learn how to dress to make her colleagues comfortable.
“I was dressing and presenting myself in a way that was palatable to straight people,” Stewart, who is 35 and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told The Daily Beast. “That wasn’t what I wanted to do, but it was what I had to do. I wanted to present in a way that made me feel good and signal my queerness in a way that’s important to me, but also didn’t offend these expectations the people around me have. It was very, very challenging and exhausting to be honest.”
Stewart’s office didn’t have a very strict dress code. People generally wore “whatever they wanted.” Except for Stewart: she didn’t want to “freak people out.” So, pre-COVID, Stewart ended up building what she calls a “capsule wardrobe.”
As she explained, these outfits were made up of “things that I knew worked and I felt pretty good in and didn’t make other people uncomfortable. Very typical, Target, basic, white girl kind of things: cowl neck sweaters and skinny jeans and sneakers.”
It was, in Stewart’s words, “the worst.” Stewart grew up with a mother who designed wedding gowns and formalwear. As a kid, she lost herself in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, W, and Vogue. If she could choose, Stewart would dress like a “classy badass,” wearing “a combination of timeless styles and colors but also showing off my love of rock n’ roll and runway fashion… something that’s a little bit edgy, or off, or out there.”
This is the opposite of what she wore to work every day before the end of March 2020, when the pandemic forced Americans with non-essential jobs into lockdown.
Stewart is not alone in her sartorial journey. Plenty has been written about the way the pandemic changed clothing and fashion trends. During the first wave in March and April, comfort reigned, and the New York Times declared “the fashion industry collapsed.” Long live sweatpants.
In a post-vaccine reality (well, for some of us), things look a bit different. “Revenge shopping” is back: Ad Week reported that Americans were eager to spend on “what they’d missed” during lockdown: occasion-wear, definitive “going out” clothes. Fashionista specified that people might just be drawn to whatever the hell they want, noting “the rise of the individualized wardrobe.”
And now, as people enter and circulate the outside world more, the question is, will they stick to their wardrobe changes, return to their traditional clothing, or—as designers so often do—mix it up?
Stewart, for example, said she had “stuck” with her old-style wardrobe for two years pre-pandemic, “and I got so bored, so stifled, it was just kind of the worst. So in that regard, the pandemic and working from home was one of the best things that could have happened.”
The burden of having to please other people with her clothing was lifted overnight. Suddenly it was just Stewart, alone with her mirror. She could wear whatever she wanted.
“I started to experiment more,” Stewart said. “What fashion haven’t I tried yet because I was too afraid? Being able to do that pushed my identity, too. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was just fully she/her pronouns, a trans woman. And then as I got to explore myself outside of the expectations of a cisgender, heteronormative society, I felt more comfortable using them pronouns. I became much more comfortable exploring the gender map.” In August 2020, Stewart came out as non-binary. She changed her Zoom name to include her new pronouns.
Stewart had always wanted to wear “more typically feminine clothing” like dresses and skirts. But the more she wore those in lockdown, it hit her: “I found that it was something I wanted because that was an expectation of femininity, not because I wanted it. So I really didn’t end up going in that direction, though I finally could have without judgment.”
Instead, Stewart now opts for “things that are much more kind of aggressive and butch-y and have lots of top energy,” as she put it. “Button-down shirts that open really low and show my bra. I had long hair for most of the pandemic, but I shaved a big part off of one side of my head. I started to lean into things that reflected who I am as a queer woman and a non-binary person, that signal what culture I belong to.”
Stewart’s back in her office for one day a week. But she’s content to continue dressing for herself, and not her coworkers. “It’s been over a year of dressing the way I’ve been dressing and shaving the side of my head and doing dark eyeliner,” she said. “It’s a routine for me now, and I don’t think I’d be able to stop doing it. I don’t really think people care all that much about what the people who are coming back into the office look like, anyway. If people try to shoehorn the same people from March 2020 to September 2021, I think they’re going to find that doesn’t work. Nothing is the same, and people are so different in so many ways.”
Chris Costello, the senior director of marketing research for commerce intelligence platform Skai, told The Daily Beast that “consumer conversations about apparel do seem to be evolving” this summer. “People are talking online about dresses and skirts for women, and they’re now talking about shoes and high heels. Anecdotal information suggests that no one is wearing high heels, but they’re talking about wearing them. We’re in that assembly phase of getting your looks together.”
Costello added that there is more of an interest online in makeup and cosmetics, including pink lipsticks. “People want brighter colors, things like glitter, ways to show off more that we’re seeing people again.” Online conversations about high heels for women increased 37 percent from Quarter 1 to Quarter 2, Costello said.
But not everyone is feeling the need to follow trends. “I really don’t give a fuck anymore,” Samirah Raheem, a model and activist, said. “I go to castings and now I’m like, baby take it or leave it. There is less of a striving to wanting to be accepted and perceived. I sat down and was quiet for a year, and by the grace of god did proper internal work in this solitude. Now I step into spaces for work and I’m more grounded in purpose.”
Raheem’s back at work now, but for so long she was stuck at home with nothing to dress up for. “Being a model, sometimes you just throw on a look and feel like a hanger,” she explained. “But now I’m taking up space in whatever I put on. It’s rare that I get to put something on, so I won’t take it for granted.”
There are certainly no more hard and fast style rules for Pablo Hernandez Basulto, a 27-year-old New Yorker. Basulto works in community engagement for The Public Theater; it’s an office full of creatives who basically wear anything. Before the pandemic, though, Basulto remembers thinking he had to overdress a bit to counter his young age and “look professional.”
“I felt like if I’m not wearing a button down, I’m not going to be taken seriously,” Basulto said. His closet was full of the same J.Crew button-ups. He wore them at the beginning of the pandemic every day, even though he was working from home, to keep up a routine and stay sane. But when the summer of 2020 hit, and he wasn’t going into an office with “free AC,” Basulto started to show more skin. Surprisingly, he liked it.
“I wore my shorts from the summer of 2019, and I thought, ‘why are these so long?’” Basulto recalls. “They were a 7-inch inseam, and that felt short before the pandemic. But now I have five-inch shorts, and maybe someday those will feel too long too. 2020 was also the first time I bought a Speedo and wore it proudly. I would never have done that.”
For Basulto, a cisgender gay man, the pandemic has allowed him to find new ways to express his sexuality. “Slowly but surely, I accept layers and layers of what it means to be queer,” he said. “That’s the biggest goal I have, and I want my clothes to reflect that. The definition of how they reflect that has changed. For instance, I had a light purple button down, and that was queer to me. It was a risk I was taking when I bought it: being a man and wearing purple. But now, I’ve given that shirt away. It’s not fun anymore. I bought these new bellbottoms, and a shirt with a crazy pattern that people compliment.”
Maybe the trauma and chaos of a global pandemic has put things into perspective for Basulto. The things he used to be worried about before 2020 “feel so small now.”
“Those fears, I’ve grown past them,” he said. “Before I bought a Speedo, I would have been so afraid that I looked ‘too gay.’ But now, I feel like, it can be too gay but so what if it’s too gay? It doesn’t matter, because I am. These are my colors now.”
Basulto has noticed his friends come out of their fashion “cocoons” as well. “We’ve aged almost two years in this weird incubator,” he said. “Maybe people are just finally seeing what they would have seen two years later regardless of a pandemic, but it’s more of a shock now because we were all inside. Coming out, it seems so stark.”
One 29 year-old woman named Morgan R., who lives in Michigan and works for Chrysler, isn’t all that eager to test out a new wardrobe. She had her son Liam in November 2019, and he was only four months old when the pandemic forced Morgan into lockdown. “The majority of his life has been lived during [COVID] and to be honest, it’s pretty isolated,” Morgan said.
Morgan was laid off from a job she loved in March 2020. It was hard for her to process, especially as the world seemed to crumble around her. “Dressing my baby is definitely an outlet for me,” she said. “While things may seem crazy around us, our bubble is happy. Our circle is small, but full of love. Every day I look forward to dressing Liam, even when we don’t leave the house. During lockdowns, it always brought a sense of normalcy to get up and get him ready for the day.”
But Morgan herself, well, she’s still working on it. “It’s more difficult to dress myself,” she admitted. “A person’s body changes so much after childhood. While I may weigh the same as before, clothes don't fit the same. With stores and dressing rooms being closed, I had to rely on online shopping and was often disappointed. My style has changed and I’m still not exactly sure what I am most comfortable in.” So for now, she puts Liam in adorable outfits for the “serotonin boost.”
One young woman named Hayley, who lives in San Francisco and works for a nonprofit, has been dating her partner Dylan for over a year—but he just recently saw her in a dress for the first time.
The pair met on a dating app in March 2020, and the first two months of their relationship was entirely virtual. When they did meet in person, bars were still closed and “date night” meant take-out food and Netflix. The first time they hung out in real life, Hayley wore a slouchy sweater, leggings, and Vans, which she describes as a sort of lockdown uniform. She still remembers the first time she wore jeans around her partner. “We were like, I guess real pants still exist, but why?”
“I’ve embraced feeling more comfortable in my own skin,” she said. “Dylan never pressures me to get dolled up, but he notices when I do. Whether it’s clothes or makeup, he notices the little things and makes me feel special because of that, but he tells me I’m beautiful even when I’m wearing sweatpants.”
During Hayley’s birthday this year, she and Dylan went to a waterfront dinner on North Lake Tahoe. She packed a dress specifically for the reservation. After over a year of dating, he’d never seen her wear one.
“When I put it on, Dylan was like, ‘Wow! A dress? Look how cute you are,’” Hayley remembers. “I laughed a little because it’s a super casual shirt dress, but it was enough to make him see another facet of me.”
Hayley looks forward to more moments of dressing up, though she has “mixed feelings” about going back to the old ways.
“It’s actually pretty liberating to feel like I’m not defined by the clothes that I wear,” she said. “I think that as the world reopens a bit, I’ll continue to embrace my casual comfort and unrestricted freedom, but also take advantage of the opportunities that arise to get dressed up. I have some pretty cute clothes that haven’t been touched in over a year, and they deserve some time out in the world.”