As we emerge from more than a year of lockdown, which many spent swaddled in tie-dye sweatsuits and eschewing restrictive “hard pants,” questions like “What should I be wearing?” and “What clothes are cool right now?” have taken on a renewed significance. The answer to these questions is both liberating and terrifying: Wear absolutely anything you want.
For most of the past century, fashion has been a top-down system, in which the way the majority of people dressed was dictated by a cabal of designers and magazine editors. Even those who may not have felt beholden to trends could not claim to be fully excused from this arrangement, as evidenced by the “cerulean” monologue delivered by Meryl Streep’s character in the 2006 film adaptation of “The Devil Wear Prada.” As the chilly editor Miranda Priestly, Ms. Streep excoriates an underling for not recognizing the origins of her “lumpy blue sweater.”
But the hierarchy described by Miranda bears almost no resemblance to the way fashion functions today. Designers and editors are no longer the gatekeepers they once were, and the people pushing the sartorial conversation forward are just as likely to be high schoolers in Tulsa, Okla., as New York fashion editors.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, it was possible to walk into a store — or, more likely, browse an e-commerce website — and encounter jeans that were skinny, straight-legged, high-rise, boot-cut or tapered.
“The cycle of trends has sped up to such a degree that it’s basically impossible for any one thing to really catch hold and proliferate and become ubiquitous,” said Rachel Tashjian, a style writer at GQ.
The multiplicity of options is also driven by the astonishing variety of taste preferences that have grown with the onset of social media.
“Platforms like TikTok celebrate and frankly reward people for retreating into their own niches and discovering their interests,” said Ms. Tashjian.
But the pandemic has widened our sense of what constitutes acceptable dress. Without the pressure of an audience of peers, putting on clothing has become something we do for fun, or perhaps not at all. The planned obsolescence of clothes — already out of favor, thanks to the rise of sustainable fashion — has melted away, and in its place something truly freaky that has come to pass: Fashion has become nonprescriptive.
Of course, trends technically do still exist — there’s this summer’s crisscross bandeau halter top and the cropped polo shirt worn by Ariana Grande and Bella Hadid that’s more or less a glorified bra — it’s simply no longer important that any one person follow them.
Despite the agitated millennials on TikTok defending their side parts and skinny jeans from perceived insults, skinny jeans remain a best-selling style. The concept that anyone ought to be wearing anything other than what they’re comfortable in represents the last gasp of an old system that is fading into irrelevance.
We’ve arrived at a place where a new season doesn’t usher in an accompanying new silhouette. Instead, the dominant way of consuming fashion now is through niche aesthetics like cottagecore, none superior to any other. Of the possible postpandemic identities one can assume, there’s the early 2000s nostalgist in ironic Juicy Couture sweats, the granola slow-fashion influencer wearing nubby cardigans and clogs, the streetwear hypebae and the Fashion Nova fan worshiping at the altar of all things Kardashian.
“Historically, in these moments of disruption, there is a lot of confusion in the fashion world,” said Justine De Young, a professor of art and fashion history at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “We all lived through this, and nobody knows exactly what people want — not just on the part of the consumer but also on the part of the designer.”
Dr. De Young said that in moments like this, brands try out several different styles to see what consumers respond to. The fast-fashion emporium and Gen Z favorite Shein, for example, sells everything from barely-there crocheted crop tops to grungy oversize flannels.
Now is the time to explore different styles and experiment with items you perhaps always wanted to try but never had the courage to. Figure out which items in your prepandemic wardrobe still resonate with the person you’ve become; otherwise, start from the ground up. Use this moment to figure out exactly what you like to wear, because nobody else is going to make that decision for you.
“Postcalamity, there’s often a turn to a celebration of exuberance,” said Dr. De Young. “Deprivation and loss pushes you to want to celebrate life.”
After the Black Death in the 14th century, which wiped out 60 percent of Europe’s population, she said, clothing became much more vivacious and form-fitting. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, emerging fashions were referred to as the upholstered look, owing to a preponderance of ribbons and other fussy details. “My students term it the YOLO moment,” said Dr. De Young.
As the fashion world slowly welcomes concepts like inclusivity and diversity into the fold, the acknowledgment that not all people look the same has led to the epiphany that not all people necessarily want to dress the same, either.
Jonathan Walford, the curatorial director of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario, suggests this shift has led to an increase in freedom in how people express themselves.
“In the early ’80s, when I went out to the clubs, I put on a bit of mascara and eyeliner and certainly got a lot of looks,” said Mr. Walford. “I think that sense of judgment about how other people look has largely fallen away.”
There’s a cynical part of me that believes the current yen for personal style might itself be a trend, an exhaustion with the hype cycle manifesting as a rejection of all fashion rules. After all, fashion’s pendulum tends to swing. But the ability to dress however we want is not a freedom that’s easily given up.
We’re entering into a brave new world, and it’s important to dress for it — which is to say, exactly how you want.
Isabel Slone is a fashion and lifestyle journalist from Toronto. She has written about the “cottagecore” aesthetic, the counterintuitive appeal of prairie dresses, freaky alien cyborg makeup and the joy of eating at Hooters restaurants.
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