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The Regalia Renaissance

How a global lockdown reinvigorated fashion.

If you’ve never opened your wardrobe and stared into the abyss thinking “what will I wear,” you’re lying. It’s the age-old question that plagues many of us on a daily basis, or did, at least, pre-lockdown. As Sydney entered its first snap lockdown since last year, I peered into my closet and asked myself that same question, despite having nothing for which to get dressed. I cast my mind back to 2020, trying to recall what exactly I donned in the peculiar few months of the first lockdown. 

Pre-pandemic, I used to find indulgence in comfort, in pulling on a pair of fleece-lined sweatpants and slipping into well-worn Ugg boots. As COVID-19 took hold and the world locked down, people traded business wear for loungewear and took comfort in being, well, comfortable. Zoom became the centre of socialisation, with people using it for both work and play. This sparked the evolution of a new dress code. Affectionately described by many as ‘The Mullet’ – business up the top, party down the bottom – permission was granted to team a crisp white shirt with some iteration of elasticated pants. But as the months in lockdown rolled on, people grew tired of remaining indoors and living exclusively in loungewear. 

Cue the at-home dress-ups. Harking back to the days when dinner parties were kosher and birthdays were to be celebrated in the great outdoors, many of us turned to our wardrobes. Reminiscent of the way a dress-up box could conjure a thousand adventures for us as children, we delved into our closets seeking that same sense of escapism.

From the neglected cocktail gown of yesteryear to the shoes worn to dance the night away, many of us rediscovered the joy these garments could bring. My friends and I experienced this first-hand when, about a month into the lockdown, we scheduled a Zoom meeting with a formal dress code. Everyone had to wear an outfit that had been worn to a high school formal – excessively teased hair and caked-on makeup included. As we virtually congregated in our finery, it reminded us of the delight that comes from getting dressed up, alleviating ever so slightly the uncertainty of the lockdown.

Unsurprisingly, studies have shown there is a direct correlation between what we wear and how we feel. This explains why many who work from home still choose to get dressed in the mornings, instead of opting for a camera-off, sweatpants-on strategy.

I remember the temptation I faced during the pandemic to resort to my daggiest tracksuits day after day – and yet I made the conscious decision to instead wear only jeans. A knee-jerk reaction to this might be “Um, why?” – as my friends asked – and, honestly, fair enough. Why would anyone voluntarily choose to be less comfortable when there is the option to wear a five-year-old pair of perfectly worn-in GAP track pants with no one there to judge you? My answer to that is simple. For me, tracksuit pants are either my ‘sick’ pants or my ‘it’s been a long day, take a load off’ pants. They’re not my work pants. Nor are they my uni pants. And they certainly are not my super focused, ultra-productive pants. So, in some attempt to pass a bizarre semester of uni whilst maintaining a skerrick of normality, the tracksuit pants stayed wedged into the top shelf of my wardrobe, beyond my sight and, quite literally, out of my reach. 

Distancing the (much loved) elasticated-pant section of my wardrobe from my daily outfit selection meant I rediscovered things I hadn’t worn in years, or even at all. A dress I had loved last summer but had since forgotten about, a pair of pants I had bought on a whim and never quite found the right place to wear, even the odd top my mum no longer wore, all became part of the rotation. Picking my outfit for the day became as important to me as turning up to my tutorials — maybe even more so, though I admit this cautiously. It seems I wasn’t alone. Lots of people opted for feel-good clothes in lockdown. Bright colours, fun patterns and bold shapes were employed as a means of boosting the moods of many cooped up indoors. 

As we tentatively emerge from months in lockdown, the way society sees fashion has shifted. A return to garments that make people feel joyful and optimistic is the flavour of the moment, and designers are responding accordingly.

Daniel Lee’s Autumn/Winter ‘20/‘21 collection for Bottega Veneta signalled a return to occasion wear in fabulous fashion. Dramatically long fringe swung from the hems of knit maxi dresses and coats, creating a line that spoke to the universal desire to once again be free. Sequin-covered gowns with bulbous sleeves floated down the runway in gold and aubergine, reminiscent of the disco era of the 1970s. Lee’s glimmering pieces reassured society that when we eventually return to the streets, the clubs, and the restaurants, head-to-toe sequins will not only be acceptable, but encouraged.

Harriet Crawford, Vogue Australia’s Junior Fashion and Marketing Editor, observed how incoming collections are reflecting society’s reignited desire to have fun with fashion. When I spoke with her over email, she discussed the way that “runway shows are flooded with shapes and colours that have an optimistic feeling to them. It’s interesting, eye-catching and utterly over the top!”

Interestingly, many designers used their time in lockdown as a welcome pause from the rapid pace of the industry. “During the lockdown, I decided to be radical,” recalls Valentino’s Creative Director, Pierpaolo Piccioli to British Vogue’s Anders Christian-Madsen. Judging by Piccioli’s Haute Couture Autumn/Winter ‘20/’21 collection, he certainly meant it. Piccioli presented fifteen looks of epic proportions for the show. The pieces, crafted exclusively in white and silver, heralded a rebirth of fantasy fashion. Despite being constructed amidst the pandemic, Piccioli’s ethereal collection transcended the nightmarish realities of a locked-down world. The ingenuity of the designs was matched by the expertise of Valentino’s craftspeople.

“Ironically, I believe parameters help us to innovate and push our limits and I think this is true of many of the collections produced in lockdown,” wrote Jen Nurick, former Fashion Features Writer at Vogue Australia over email. As designers pivoted to accommodate for our new-found lockdown lifestyles, there was an emergence of hybrid styles, which manifested on the runway.

At Balenciaga, Demna Gvasalia accommodated the reluctance to surrender loungewear for workwear by layering hoodies beneath dresses and teaming slouchy, tracksuit-like trousers with collared shirts. “I think we’ve welcomed a casualisation of dressed-up clothes that’s here to stay,” wrote Nurick.

Beyond catering to society’s adoration of loungewear, multiple collections also spoke to customers’ desire to invest in pieces that go the extra mile, with a serious focus being placed on sustainability.

The sudden slowing of life in lockdown was a wake-up call for the fashion industry. According to the UK House of Commons, each year textile manufacturing produces more carbon emissions than international flights and maritime shipping combined. The immense impact of the fashion industry on the environment became even more prevalent amidst the lockdown and signalled an urgent need for reform. Consequently, designers sought inspiration from the collections and fabrics of yesteryear, with fashion houses and small brands alike pivoting their practices to craft more consciously.

Consumers similarly looked to the past for style inspiration. British vintage fashion retailer Cloak Vintage reported a 134 per cent revenue increase between October 2020 and April 2021 whilst fashion resale app Depop reported record sales in the US, UK, and Australia during lockdown. I, too, tried my hand at a bit of reselling with all my free time. Given the abundance of hours for domestic duties, many of us took to our wardrobes in an “out with the old, in with the new (to me)” attitude. Uncovering pairs of shoes worn once and never to be worn again, or that pair of low-rise jeans that looked so good on Blake Lively circa 2010 yet did absolutely nothing for me, all found their way onto my Depop in an attempt to rid my wardrobe of dust collecting garments. Unsuccessful as I may have been, many of my friends managed to offload their own sartorial albatrosses whilst snagging some fantastic bargains. The major thrifting revival via apps and websites points to a return to feel-good dressing with sustainability at its core.

Now, as we emerge from a post-lockdown period and life slowly returns to a new normal, the world is putting their best (dressed) foot forward. Society is looking for any, and every, opportunity to get dressed to the nines, myself included – I had begun using my weekly trip to the supermarket as an excuse to blow-dry my hair and put on a new outfit. 

For his 40th anniversary show, Michael Kors tapped into the overwhelmingly enticing feeling of getting dressed up. He sent a glamour-injected, over-the-top collection down New York’s 45th Street which doubled as the runway. The collection melded classic shapes with contemporary details – think hip-high slits on plaid miniskirts – in a seamless merging of old and new. Discussing his inspiration for the show with Vogue Runway, Kors said: “People are going to want to step out, get dressed up — in certain instances get overdressed. Girls are going out for a hamburger in cocktail dresses and high heels.” Kors’ offer reminded the world that days of opulent dressing and celebrations are imminent.

So, as we step back into the world, dressed in whatever makes us feel good, we should remember the lockdown period as a time of reflection and a catalyst for change. May we recognise the value in what we put on our body, both in the way it makes us feel and the impact it has on the world around us. As Bill Cunningham said: “Fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life.” Let us dive into our new world, armed and ready for a fresh start.

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