We want to be comfy but also look good on Zoom. We didn’t know how uncomfortable jeans were until we stopped wearing them. If you wore one at the office, you might still wear your work badge at home. Some of us are ineffably fancy. Black masks go with everything. And we really, really hate bras.

Once dictated by climate and office culture, our clothing has changed significantly over the year we’ve weathered the coronavirus pandemic. Between mask mandates, the rise of remote work, the fall of going out, and stay-at-home orders, we dress more idiosyncratically now than perhaps ever before. Our social worlds have narrowed, and so have our sartorial choices. After all, when your job goes remote overnight, the external fashion rules go, too — and in Seattle, we didn’t have that many to begin with.

The result? Those of us privileged enough to work from home during the pandemic have also been gifted the opportunity to wear whatever we want. From 24/7 full athleisure to eveningwear at the grocery store, our clothes (and the categories we put them in) have become softer and more inventive. Formality is often a waist-up enterprise, or an intentional choice that adds momentary brightness to a world that feels more and more like a communal endurance piece with each passing day.

Our COVID-19 looks aren’t always dignified — or even recently laundered, if we’re being honest — but they say a lot about what we want, how we’re doing and what little control we can locate in our daily routines, during a time of immense uncertainty. And if history tells us anything, that’s nothing new.

Soft pants forever, “hard pants” never

“Sweatpants forever” declared a New York Times Magazine headline last summer, above a story about Entireworld, a new, high-end sweatpants company founded by Band of Outsiders designer and founder Scott Sternberg. With its hermit-friendly sweatsuits in subdued Lisa Frank hues, Entireworld’s inventory embodies our new relationship with pants. Where once you might have any number of pants categories to choose from — pleated, fitted, distressed, skinny, high-waisted, tapered, boyfriend, Mom, classic 501s — we now have only two: soft pants and hard pants.

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Maybe you don’t call them “hard pants” — “real pants,” “coarse pants,” “outside pants” and “human pants” also work, and I heard variations on all of these while reporting this story. When I put out a call for thoughts on COVID-19 clothing on Twitter, a newfound disdain for pants (jeans especially) was one of the most frequent responses — almost as ubiquitous as newfound bra ambivalence. Both speak to a desire for less structured clothing that feels physically better than the binding garments of the before time.

To hell with anything with buttons. Until professional life resumes in person, I’ve stopped wasting energy fastening buttons that will just have to be unfastened later.” — Peter McCollum, wearer of soft pants

Or, as, Peter McCollum, a Seattle-based communications consultant, put it: “To hell with anything with buttons. Until professional life resumes in person, I’ve stopped wasting energy fastening buttons that will just have to be unfastened later.”

When workplaces went online, a lot of us broke up with our denim and twill friends, swapping in PJs and sweatpants full time and reserving more involved leg coverings for answering the door or going outside. “I only put on hard pants when I really need to get stuff done,” said Sunny Eckerle, a freelance illustrator based in Portland. “Jeans now signal to my brain that a deadline is approaching.”

Nicole Iorio, co-manager of Labels, a high-end, family-owned women’s consignment shop on Phinney Ridge, has witnessed this gravitation toward cozy, less structured clothing firsthand. Because consignment shops allow customers to resell their own clothing in addition to making purchases, they’re a useful metric for what people do and don’t want to wear at any given time. And the pandemic has had some surprising impacts on consigning and purchasing patterns in Iorio’s shop.

“There are a lot of people working from home … and so definitely the casual, cozy loungewear is very popular,” she said. Unsurprisingly, Iorio said she’d also noticed greater demand for activewear during the pandemic, but more polished purchases (“nice blouses, pretty prints, jewelry”) all had one thing in common: You see them from the waist up. Iorio surmised that they had been purchased specifically for Zoom meetings so that people could look presentable to their colleagues “even if they’re in pajama bottoms” under their desks.

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As for more business-friendly attire, Iorio said she’d noticed an increase in people wanting to consign it. In true Seattle fashion, Labels has never accepted business attire on consignment. The shop’s focus has always been casual, she said, “but now it’s even more casual.”

Also popular among those brave enough to share their COVID-19 looks? Sweatshirts, hoodies, fuzzy socks, lipstick only for looking human on Zoom, leggings, joggers, sports bras and workout clothes for everyday wear, bras without underwires, yoga pants (yoga not required), band T-shirts, flannels and slippers (if shoes are involved at all).

For some, the shift to soft clothing means abandoning previous aesthetics. Elissa Washuta, a Cowlitz essayist who was a notable voice in Seattle’s literary scene before relocating to Ohio and a tenure-track teaching position, reported that since the pandemic started she is “no longer goth. now L.L.Bean dad/auntie with multiple flannels for work.” Her new COVID-19 wardrobe consisted exclusively of black linen drawstring pants, compression socks and Xtratuf boots.

When I followed up with her months later, Washuta said she was still dressing like this; just the day before, she’d found herself musing about her relative lack of goth-ness as she put on a new light blue L.L.Bean shirt.

Another approach to leisurewear was similarly creative. Max Belle, a retired financial IT software developer in Gig Harbor, reported that he’d taken to wearing skeleton pajamas like the ones favored by singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers.

Ballgowns as daywear

In December, the TikTok account @tikatheiggy posted a video of Tika, its eponymous Italian greyhound, in a series of increasingly ridiculous outfits over Lorena Pages’ voice, originally recorded for a video featuring a talking cat on Pages’ own TikTok account. “I had so many cute outfits planned for this year that I couldn’t wear,” says Pages, as Tika. “So I just wanted to show you.” Her vacant eyes shining, Tika cycles through outfits — a high-necked rainbow onesie, a fluffy multicolor jacket, a slick yellow workout suit, many pompoms — each time saying, “Love it. Couldn’t wear it.”

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I watched this video an embarrassing number of times over the holidays, and so did more than 842,000 others. It’s not hard to see why. “Love it. Couldn’t wear it,” encapsulates a central dilemma of COVID-19 fashion: Dressing for comfort may be soothing, but it also means we don’t have any external motivation to dress up anymore, which is sad news for fashionable greyhounds and humans everywhere.

Of course, if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that time and temporal fashion are basically constructs, and working-from-home outfits can also include formalwear — or at the very least elegant loungewear like caftans.

“COVID has regressed me to dressing like an 8-year-old,” said Seattle freelance writer Sabra Boyd. “Which is to say shorts year-round, flowing capelike caftans, the occasional ballgown.” Makeup was “mostly mascara,” but, “in case it’s relevant to your piece, my spouse told me that since the pandemic, I now dress like Moira Rose,” she said, referring to the Schitt’s Creek” matriarch and queen of camp fashion played by Catherine O’Hara and several wigs on wigs.

This image released by Pop TV shows Catherine O’Hara as Moira Rose in a scene from “Schitt’s Creek.” O’Hara was nominated for a Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy or musical for her role in the television series. (Pop TV via The Associated Press)
This image released by Pop TV shows Catherine O’Hara as Moira Rose in a scene from “Schitt’s Creek.” O’Hara was nominated for a Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy or musical for her role in the television series. (Pop TV via The Associated Press)

There’s a mordant hedonism to pulling out the tulle and winged eyeliner right now. Fashion, like art, may not save our lives, but it can help us get through the day. Because time may be a construct, but eventually it comes for all of us, and dressing up can be a way to reclaim a modicum of agency in an environment of heightened existential anxiety.

While I admire the optimistic nihilism of dressing up for no reason, I can’t keep it up personally, and instead oscillate wildly between excess and comfort. I generally either look like I’m auditioning for a French New Wave remake (eyeliner! bangs! vintage leopard print!) or taking fashion cues from Garth in “Wayne’s World” (flannel! baseball cap! T-shirt whose last laundering I cannot recall!). Sara Kiesler, who runs communications for the Cascade Bicycle Club, is similarly in-between. “I’m either absolutely no makeup or bright (orange, red or pink) matte lipstick and a faded sunset on my eyes, there’s no longer an in-between,” she said.

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For others, the urge to dress up serves a much more practical purpose. It’s a productivity tool, a signal — if only to ourselves — that we have work to do. Eder Campuzano, who reports on education for The Oregonian, said he continues to wear his work badge at home for this reason. “Honestly, I wear a collared shirt and my work lanyard nearly every weekday because it telegraphs to my brain, ‘You’ve got deadlines today, dumbass!’” he said.

The future of fashion

Fashion might seem like a frivolous concern during a time of extreme upheaval, death, grief and fear. But the way we dress has always been rooted in the sociopolitical conditions of our country. Clothes tell us about the health of the economy they were produced in, which materials were widely available and which were rationed, and how designers and manufacturers adapted to supply chain disruptions — which should sound familiar to anyone who’s hoarded toilet paper or flour since last March.

What we wear says a lot about the material realities we live in, and the overlap between global crises and simple, comfortable, functional clothing has a precedent in the garments popularized in the United States during World War II. In the United States, the United Kingdom and France, wartime rationing and shortages complicated clothing design and manufacturing. France, once the standard-bearer of European and American fashion, was newly isolated under Nazi occupation. Meanwhile, the British government sponsored production of Utility garments — clothing that aligned with stringently rationed material and labor requirements.

But in the United States, designers like Claire McCardell adapted to the limitations of wartime manufacturing by fashioning casual, comfortable clothing intended for real life, in accessible fabrics like denim and jersey. (Her “Pop-over dress even came with a bonus oven mitt!) Practical but not shapeless, affordable but classic, designs like McCardell’s striped cotton wrap dress wouldn’t look out of place today, but the postwar fashions that followed them might.

Because that tendency toward over-the-top looks in the face of crisis? That has a historical precedent, too. In 1947, Christian Dior released a new collection that would go on to be called the “New Look. While American wartime fashions emphasized simplicity and comfort, Dior’s post-occupation pieces were richly designed, maximalist creations that dedicated serious yardage to full skirts.

There’s no way to know exactly how the future of American fashion will be shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. But whether you ascribe to the McCardell or Dior school of fashion-amid-global-crisis, the presidential inauguration encapsulated both over-the-top and wholly practical sartorial responses to geopolitical chaos on Jan. 20.

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The high fashion is obvious, iconic and speaks for itself: Amanda Gorman’s Prada headband, Ella Emhoff’s Miu Miu coat, Lady Gaga’s bird (!) and Michelle Obama’s incredible monochrome Sergio Hudson outfit gave us a good day for clothes after a bad year for everything else.

But it was Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders who became an instant meme, captured in all his grumpy uncle glory in a puffer jacket, knit mittens and the standard-issue procedure mask that’s now a wardrobe staple for so many of us. A bad faith argument immediately ensued on Twitter that the popularity of the Sanders meme was evidence of a sexist double standard — would a woman be able to get away with that? (Never mind that Janet Yellen did — with a blanket no less — and looked great.)

Sen. Bernie Sanders keeps his hands warm in mittens as he waits for President-elect Joe Biden to be sworn into office Jan. 20, 2021. (Jonathan Newton / Washington Post).
Sen. Bernie Sanders keeps his hands warm in mittens as he waits for President-elect Joe Biden to be sworn into office Jan. 20, 2021. (Jonathan Newton / Washington Post).

But I saw evidence of something else in the Bernie meme: Maybe Sanders’ unfashionable fashion caught on because it embodied what so many of us were all doing at home, living out an odd new authenticity in an unexpected place: our closets. Perhaps more than anything, the pandemic has affirmed our need for physical comfort and safety, for softness and ease, for warmth and functional clothing while we go about our chilly, low-risk outside activities.

Maybe when all of this is over, we’ll gravitate toward inventive shapes like Dior’s Betty Draper skirts, and if you’re ahead of the curve on this, I salute you. But we’re not all there yet. Right now, we’re still in the thick of a pandemic, a season of insurrectionist violence rooted in the sickness of white nationalism, the time-loop dystopia of life in lockdown. But if the world can’t offer us any respite, at least our clothing can.

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