Post-Pandemic Dress Codes

Ascetic Athleisure, Extravagant Couture, or Curated Classic Tailoring?

Gabriella Clare Marino on Upsplash

As we look forward to emerging from over a year of forced hibernation, the fashion conscious and the fashion averse alike speculate about what we will wear once we get out and about. As one would expect in our troubled and polarized nation, two opposing camps have emerged, which I will style as the ascetics and the aesthetes.

The ascetics maintain that a year of virtuous isolation and productive remote work on Zoom will cure us, once and for all, of our vanity and our unhealthy addiction to wasteful and frivolous fashion. Society will embrace the simple virtues of practical, comfortable, functional clothing. We’ll stick to what we wore when no one other than our families, our roommates and our God could see us. We will never again tolerate cumbersome clothing, burdened with needless adornments. Dress codes will become a thing of the past. Tailors, dressmakers and fashion designers will go out of business, forced to turn to hardy honest labor plowing fields, whitewashing fences, driving for Door Dash or designing video games. In the end days, we will all wear some version of sweatpants, t-shirts or pajamas.

The aesthetes, by contrast, insist that twelve long months of social quarantine will leave us more anxious than ever before to see and be seen. Wearing our innermost fantasies and aspirations on our sleeves, we will be drawn to flamboyant, glamorous and decadent new fashions, a glorious sartorial excess the likes of which has not been seen since the court of Louis Quatorze. We will plunder history’s wardrobe for the most sumptuous and extravagant examples of conspicuous luxury and sensuous indulgence. Fashion designers will work overtime to outfit us for orgies of beauty, celebrations of bodily pleasure and earthlyvice. The dress code will be liberal but demanding: nothing verboten, nothing sacred but for the sake of all that’s bright and beautiful, take risks, put yourself out there, make an effort! Powdered wigs, Renaissance era doublets studded with precious gems, zoot suits, flapper fringe dresses, thigh boots, stiletto heels, animal prints, Spandex and lycra, Dapper Dan jackets covered with Mercedes symbols and interlocking Gucci “Gs” — all this and much more beckons us in what promises to be this century’s roaring ‘20s.

You can guess which faction throws the better parties. But which is the better at prediction?

I’ve written about the rules that have shaped development of fashion in my book, Dress Codes:how the laws of fashion made history and if history is any guide, each side has a point. The waning of the plague in Europe gave way to the sumptuous and expressive fashions of the Renaissance, but also to an ethos of modesty and self-abnegation. This found expression in laws forbidding jewelry and luxurious clothing. Religious leaders condemned such adornments as sinful “vanities, ” which they encouraged zealous true believers to throw onto bonfires. The exuberant fashions of the Jazz Age followed the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, but so did new dress codes banning cosmetics, bared arms and skirts that exposed the ankles — all condemned as “illegally attractive.”

So, what about today?

The ascetics can point out that “athleisure,” already a growing trend before COVID-19, exploded after the pandemic forced us out of the public eye — and it shows no sign of abating. Plenty of people insist they will never put on a necktie or a pair of high heels again — indeed, some have said that even jeans — once the epitome of relaxed comfort — are too constricting after blissful months spent cosseted in cotton jersey and flannel. Still, there are disturbing signs of fashionable artifice and status consciousness. We see refined, professional sweat pants, made of Merino wool and cashmere. There are sweat shirts cut to skim the body like a well-tailored blazer, made with buttoning cuffs and what look suspiciouslylike lapels. One might feel silly putting on a full business suit for a call in the living rooms on Zoom. But many professionals seem to think they still need to look, well, professional, and maybe even successful. And that requires clothing that’s different that what a teenager might wear during a Fortnite marathon.

Meanwhile the aesthetes would note that the alluring glamour of fashion has only grown in absentia. We covet the Regency styles of Bridgerton; the mid-century chic of The Queens Gambit,the aspirational threads worn by Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman in The Undoing, the parade of to-the-manner-born Anglo garb worn by the royals in The Crown. And speaking of royals — there’s already a run on both Harry’s and Megan’s Oprah interview ensembles.

But there’s also a new social consciousness. Fashion, for the woke generation, needs to be fair trade, ecologically sustainable and made using humane labor practices.

This may mean less clothing but better clothing. According to journalist Dana Thomas, an exquisite Stella McCartney white shirt made without toxic chemicals or an exploited labor force sells for over $500, a price tag that might scare off even a Bridgerton or Windsor. But, as partisans of fine tailoring and cobblery have always known, cheap clothes, made to be worn once or twice and thrown away, are a false economy. By contrast, a well-made garment improves with age and can last for decades, even generations. Hence, the age-old advice: if you’re poor, buy rich. Or buy used. Post-pandemic fashionable exuberance could finally eschew wasteful fast fashion in favor of curated luxury vintage and quality pre-owned threads, whether purchased online on Poshmark or in local shops like La Marelle in Paris’s Gallerie Vivienne.

The dress codes of 2021 should combine the best of the ascetic’s responsible rationality and the aesthete’s hedonistic cultivation of beauty. Socially conscious fashion can emphasize sustainablity, humane production and durability, taking a cue from the ascetics but without the sanctimoniousness and hypocrisy that usually accompanies claims of indifference to frivolous fashion. And by upcycling of the best garments from the past, it can also adopt the sense of stylish fun of the aesthetes but ditch the decadence and snobbery of the stereotypical Jet set. In the aftermath of the pandemic, we may manage to combine the modest sobriety of practical garb and the sexy intoxication of flamboyant fashion. Maybe there’s hope for mending the disunited state of the nation after all.

Professor. Lawyer. Dilettante mixologist. Amateur sartorialist. Watch geek. Author of Dress Codes: how the laws of fashion made history. www.dresscodes.org

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