What To Wear Now: How Has 2020 Shaped Our Wardrobes?
What to wear in a year where the circumstances have been extraordinary
Fashion reflects the times. During a turbulent year, what we choose to wear speaks volumes — reflecting what’s going on around us, who we are now, and where we hope to go next. Clothing is the social framework helping us to communicate our identity and feel a sense of belonging, combining fantasy and reality, incorporating the past, present and future all at once. As we try to make sense of the historic period we’re living through, fashion can reveal how we’re coping with it all.
What is it?
We love looking back. The latter half of the 20th century has been mined intensively for inspiration in recent seasons, and there has been a renewed appreciation for the clothing of pre-industrial eras — think voluminous dresses, operatic sleeves and prairie-inspired silhouettes. Streetwear is getting bigger and baggier, with loose denim and bucket hats harking back to the 90s and the glitz of the early 2000s.
Menswear is particularly nostalgic at the moment, with a louche glamour combining 70s style with kitsch (hello, Harry Styles). Luxury fashion brands have delved into the archives to reinforce their design legacy; Gucci welcomed the return this year of the Jackie bag, popularised in the 60s.
The past is complex, however. Nostalgia can be a form of deception, both for ourselves and the time period we’re referencing. It all depends on who is doing the reminiscing, and whether critical thinking is being practiced.
The frantic pace of fashion, media and pop culture has meant repackaging the past is often easier than designing something new. Vintage pieces are easy to replicate, and familiar silhouettes are easy for consumers to digest.
Nostalgia can serve as a powerful tool to reframe history and spotlight cultural significance. Grace Wales Bonner is a prime example of this. The intellectual British designer recently explored the history of the Afro-Caribbean music scene of 70s Britain and its role in her own community.
Nostalgia is escapism. Given the global events of 2020, it’s comforting to look back. It assuages uncertainty and fear and allows us to grapple with periods of turbulence by thinking of a more stable time.
Nostalgic dressing allows us to reflect on the mood of the present by channelling values or ideology of a particular period — such as the counterculture movements of the 60s and 70s, the Gen-X apathy of the 90s, or the resilient austerity of wartime fashion.
What feels unique about now is the concurrence of our references — it’s not just that "the 80s are in", it’s that all these nostalgic homages and reinterpretations are existing at once — side by side, layered and intertwined, capturing the chaotic melange of our increasingly digital world. And for 2020, a year when time feels like a flat circle, a cocktail of nostalgia feels rather apt.
What is it?
An aesthetic driven by pastoral fantasy, this wholesome trend is tied to the expansively nostalgic mood. Though born on the internet, cottagecore is rooted in idealising a vision of rural life. The look is bucolic and quaint, with floral dresses, headscarves and hand-knitted cardigans, alongside a visual cornucopia of rustic bread, wildflowers, embroidery, straw hats and patchwork quilts. An evolution of the prairie dress trend that began in 2018, cottagecore encompasses a wider lifestyle, or at least the appearance of one; combining aesthetics with action, it celebrates simplicity, craft and sustainability.
Decidedly pleasant with its rustic charm and feminine sweetness, cottagecore is a far cry from the dystopian present, and it has understandably gained traction in the hermitage of lockdown. Taylor Swift’s latest album Folklore (created in isolation) is steeped in the aesthetic, as is the imagery deployed by brands like Simone Rocha, Jacquemus and Batsheva. By combining the idea of agrarian communities with the individualistic self-sufficiency of pre-industrial economies and domestic work, cottagecore provides a comforting sense of control and safety.
It all seems rather harmless and wholesome, however, ideologically cottagecore warrants a closer look. Initially this trend was driven by queer youth, as a self-care-adjacent way of embracing a sense of home, along with those rejecting the hyper-sexualisation of the media. Due to its celebration of domesticity and traditional femininity it has also been adopted by conservative groups. Additionally, cottagecore has even been viewed as being symbolic of frontierism and the ideology of Manifest Destiny.
Still love floral dresses and gardening? That’s okay. Cottagecore has its appeal and its faults, and as with all trends it’s important to understand the socio-cultural context around the movement and where it came from — be an informed engager.
What is it?
Balenciaga’s apocalyptic Paris Fashion Week show back in March kicked things off with prescient timing, as did the label’s unsettling newsreel-style campaign video the month before. A post-apocalyptic aesthetic feels apt this year, channelling the malaise and apathy that underscore the dystopian events of our present world through futuristic materials and distressed finishes.
Customisation and upcycling allude to a vision of the future where resources are scarce and waste isn’t an option, while survivalists are paid dues with camouflage, neon and utility details. Masks are the norm now. Rick Owens is enjoying an upswing in popularity, while the back catalogues of Alexander McQueen, Rei Kawakubo and Martin Margiela feel more relevant than ever. Cyberpunk, a genre and aesthetic first established in the 60s, unsurprisingly endures in fashion due to its framework of societal decay, failed states and technocratic hegemonies.
Another look that’s bound with nostalgia, TikTok trend “Dark Academia” is a sartorial tribute to learning and history. Scholarly with a vintage undercurrent, this intellectual aesthetic incorporates tweed jackets, turtlenecks, berets and knitwear. The trend combines Ivy League style with the visual culture of British boarding schools, and references to literary heroes like Donna Tartt. Unlike its preppier cousins, the look leans heavily towards classical and gothic. Romanticising academic life is an understandable fantasy for the students around the world who find themselves studying at home, and dressing the part feels even more important when the other trappings of a role are taken away.
Protest and social justice have defined 2020 as much as (and because of) the global pandemic, which has thrown the economic inequalities of minority communities into the foreground. The fight for racial equality is regrettably far from new, and many old stories and images of protest movements have resurfaced. Elements of the clothing worn by the civil rights movement have been adopted by a new generation as an homage to those that came before. Protest movements have long utilised the power of fashion to make a political statement; in the 60s the Sunday Best dressing of the non-violence movement challenged assumptions around rebellion (a tactic recently deployed by some Black Lives Matter protesters) while the reclamation of denim by activists like Joyce Ladner symbolised stagnation and oppression. The Black Panther Party’s striking uniform referenced the militancy of other resistance movements, and was powerful and combative in its unity; elements of their dress have been adopted by contemporary activists and designers.
You can’t deny that 2020 feels like a fever dream. We’re living in a dystopian film, arguing about climate change while populist politicians stoke culture wars, freedoms are eroded globally, and people protest their right to not wear a mask during a global pandemic. Dressing more seriously feels like the right thing to do.
GET IN CHARACTER
What is it?
There’s an upbeat novelty to character dressing — rather than be ourselves, we can be another version of us (or someone else entirely) by adopting a theme for the day’s outfit. To alleviate the boredom of lockdown, the Metropolitan Museum of Art encouraged followers to dress up as their favourite artworks, Fancy-Dress Friday was a thing for a while, and people are enjoying the operatic glamour of big dresses and bold makeup.
An age-related element is at play too, with fashion drawing inspiration from both the old and young. The former is seen in the emotive comfort of chunky cardigans and corduroy, the stuffy sweetness of a Laura Ashley dress, and layers of accessories and colour. Subversive if not edgy, character dressing celebrates sentimentality and the resourceful make-do-and-mend attitude of the older generation. This age-less attitude skews young too. There’s a touch of regression to current fashion trends, with childlike style having a resurgence — like T-bar sandals, smocked dresses, and twee prints.
Fashion right now provides a sense of freedom, and understandably so. When reality is unbearable, we try to lose ourselves in fiction — on the page, on our screens and in what we wear. From an early age dressing up allows us to explore our creativity and roleplay identities. Creative expression encourages a carefree feeling. With travel on hold, we’re finding other ways to venture beyond our own reality.
What is it?
Tangentially tied to cottagecore (both share some of the same foundational values) this approach to dressing is more rooted in practicality and action. It sees a return to purposeful, pragmatic clothes — designed for the outdoors or, at the very least, to look like they’d fit in there. The aesthetic incorporates hard-wearing fabrics like denim and corduroy, utility pockets, hats, sensible knits. Everyone’s wearing Crocs now, and donning brands like Patagonia signals an outdoorsy lifestyle and sustainable values.
Reflective of shifting priorities, this look signifies the pragmatism and resilience needed to navigate 2020. It’s nostalgic too — alluding to periods where we were less plugged-in and more self-sufficient. Nature is more alluring than ever after a great portion of the year spent indoors; locally, activities like hiking, camping, and scenic vistas play a key role in domestic tourism — so we dress accordingly. It’s wholesome and hopeful.
What is it?
More a wider movement (we hope) than a trend, an ethical approach to fashion has been a hot topic this year, as labels look to integrate better practices and increased transparency into their operations. Consumers and brands alike have been forced to pause and reassess how they do things, and the industry is currently undergoing a monumental period of flux, grappling with the issues of sustainability, globalisation and inequality. Locally, Mindful Fashion NZ launched its Love Local campaign in July to support the future of fashion here.
Meanwhile overseas, fashion leaders like Dries Van Noten have called on the industry to use this period to adjust the seasonal model and slow down the unrelenting pace. Above all it’s clear that the issues the industry must address do not exist in isolation, rather they are at the intersection of wider inequalities around race, privilege, gender and the environment.
It’s not just what we’re wearing that has been influenced by the events of 2020, the fashion industry itself has experienced dramatic change (what many see as a course correction after decades of unfettered growth, squeezing bottom lines, and profit at all costs) with disruption highlighting the fragility and inequalities of the global supply chain. The human price we’ve paid to see blue sky in Delhi has given us a brief glimpse of what our world might be like, starkly revealing the impact we have and how urgently we need to slow down — which may be the most important trend of all.
What is it?
Identity and individualism are being embraced by fashion as we seek to define who we are, celebrate our culture and share it with the world. As the industry begins to decolonise itself there are different stories being told and new voices at the table — or in spaces they have created themselves. Locally a new wave of emerging indigenous labels are coming through the industry, like Layplan, Adrienne Whitewood and Campbell Luke, joining established designers like Kiri Nathan.
Globally the Black in Fashion Council, launched in July, works with companies like Condé Nast and Glossier to address diversion and inclusivity. Fashion is being used to reframe Black identity in the mainstream, with Beyonce’s recent visual album Black is King a testament to Afro-centric history and culture — presenting both the unity and diversity of the continent and diaspora, elevating Black creatives, and spotlighting pre-colonial history.
Racial injustice has been a defining narrative of 2020, as much as the pandemic (the two are intertwined because of entrenched inequality) and the volume has been turned up on conversations around culture and identity. On the fashion front, sustainability and equality have fuelled a move for greater transparency and support, while the increased democratisation of fashion by social media (heightened by months spent indoors) has thrown the landscape of fashion wide open.