There’s a scene in the 1933 comedy Duck Soup where two Marx brothers – Chico and Harpo – repeatedly raise their legs up high, putting their thighs into the hands of an unwitting lemonade stand owner.
Lately, my Instagram feed has been remarkably similar to this film, only instead of scruffy scamps in wide-legged ’30s trousers, it’s attractive young women showing off how flexible and comfortable their clothes are.
In lockdown, trackpants became “the height of fashion”. Anna Wintour wore a pair; Shalini Papas, a buyer for young women’s high street brand Sportsgirl, tells me their sales of the product increased 300% online, and on TikTok, videos of women dancing in sweats proliferated.
It’s not just trackpants – Sportsgirl also report huge increases in demand for “cosy knitwear”. In March, budget retailer Big W reported loungewear sales outstripped the sale of normal clothing, while Natalie Kingham, the buying director of high-end ecommerce store Matchesfashion, says “loungewear, nightwear and activewear have been bestselling categories”.
Now, in Australia, stay-home orders are easing. People can visit friends and family, and by 1 June, the whole country will be able to eat in a restaurants again. But after months of elasticated waistbands, can we bear to go back to normal clothes?
A quick search of social media suggests not. Jokes and complaints about jeans, bras and high heels are everywhere.
Francesca Muston, vice president of fashion content for WGSN, one of the world’s largest trend forecasting agencies, is inclined to agree with Twitter and Instagram’s assessment. “I don’t think there will be a normal again,” she says. “Everything will be fundamentally changed.”
Muston and Papas both say the Covid-19 shutdowns have accelerated trends that were already rising in popularity. Even before stay-at-home orders, women were wearing more trackpants, says Papas. Muston explains: “We’ve just come out the back over 10 years of athleisure, so already we have pretty high expectations around comfort.”
Raised on streetwear, sneakers and activewear, younger people were already resistant to uncomfortable clothing, but now Muston suggests that because shutdowns affected fashion on a “mass level … the expectation is going to be raised further still”, and it won’t just be demand from younger consumers.
Muston says people working from home, exercising at home, dining in on delivery services and being entertained by streamed TV are trends they’ve been tracking for over four years, and while they did not predict the shift would be “so extreme … certainly there’s a lot of evidence towards people spending more time at home anyway.”
People staying in more means a shift in our expectations of what a “flexible” outfit might look like. Sportsgirl have noticed a decline in the day-to-night dressing category, with Papas explaining it’s not presently relevant to their customers’ lives.
Muston says it’s also important to understand the “economic impact of coronavirus and what that does to consumer spending”.
In Australia, a survey conducted by the Australian Fashion Council found 75-80% of textile, clothing and footwear brands have had their businesses negatively impacted by coronavirus. Muston says with this “absolute deluge of overstock that has to clear, how do you create new stock that’s going to stand out? How do you justify that to the consumer? How do you justify that to the planet?”
Her answer is “versatility”. “Products that … can be worn for multiple things are going to be an easier sell. Maybe it’s a top you can work out in but you can also wear it out.”
“Items with longevity are most relevant,” Kingham says of her customers. “I think unprecedented times mean that people re-evaluate what is important.”
Muston notes that direct-to-consumer brands (such as the ones that have been flooding my Instagram feed) are excelling when it comes to differentiating themselves. “They often come with a problem-solving direction to them,” she says. Because these brands do not have hundreds or thousands of products, they spend more time in research and development, investing in highly technical fabrics that breathe well, or never wrinkle; or shoes that “really look at the arch of the foot and the position of the foot in the shoe”.
Papas and Kingham both believe that as the lockdown eases, their customers will want to get very dressed up again – with Kingham suggesting a hunger for “special pieces for evenings out”; and Papas saying “I think party dressing and Christmas is going to be really big this year.”
Muston is a little more cautious. “You always get trends that are seemingly opposing that run in parallel,” she says. “You’re going to get revenge spending, where people want to go out and treat themselves. But some people … just don’t have the finances. But more importantly it’s about the fear.” She says even if people are desperate to get dressed up and go out, they might be too nervous about the risk of contracting or transmitting Covid-19 to do so.
Furthermore, she suggests the pandemic will result in a shift in values. “There was this idea of ‘stealth wealth’ after the last recession … this is going to be even more compounded.” Muston believes as celebrities face backlash and previously less glamorous citizens such as healthcare workers and grocery store clerks are elevated to hero status, looking like a reality star in chafing raw denim and vertiginous heels may no longer hold the same appeal.
But a more subdued, comfort-focused style of dress does not mean the end of people wanting to look nice. Papas and Kingham have both noted sales increases in above-the-waist items such as earrings and smart shirting, for instance. “She can look good while being comfortable,” Papas says of her customer. “I think that will play a big part in how she dresses moving forward.”
“I don’t think we’ll live forever more in some kind of dystopian loungewear future,” Muston says. But, “I think we’re going to see a breaking down of what are at the moment fairly clearly defined categories of fitness and activewear, casual-wear, formal and tailoring and party-wear. We need to start breaking down those boundaries because that’s just not how people are living their lives.”
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