In recent weeks, as the New York City weather has warmed and my second vaccine jab has clocked in at full, immunized capacity, I've started to go "out." By "out," I mean to an indoor meal at an actual restaurant or to a museum that now requires advance reservations. No matter where I've gone and no matter what I've worn for the occasion, though, I've been objectively, decidedly underdressed.
It's not that I've ventured into Manhattan's pollen clouds wearing my rattiest tracksuit, exactly, but rather that I seem to have missed the dress code specification on the post-pandemic RSVP card. Because for some, this titillating new world is already offering a reprieve from the last 15 months of extreme duress and elastic waistbands. Others (present company included) are perhaps less eager to swan dive back into their (my) wardrobe from "before."
In April, artist and writer Julie Houts encapsulated this dichotomy in an illustration depicting two types of post-pandemic sensibilities: One woman rejoices, arms wide open, while clad a stringy tribute to 1970s Cher, while a second sits curled on the ground, whimpering in loungewear beneath an invisible tarp.
As consumers begin to gravitate toward one of these two camps — dressing up or dressing down — retailers are appealing to both. At press time, Net-a-Porter's homepage featured a $2,190 Tom Ford bodycon dress immediately alongside a tie-dyed pair of glorified Soffe shorts. In such a moment of profound social upheaval, neither garment, neither camp, feels any more appropriate than the other. Can we finally just wear whatever the hell we want?
Since the turn of the 20th century, fashion has evolved following a significant cultural event that sets a new standard into motion, where a growing majority adopts a new way of dressing that more appropriately fits the times. Deirdre Clemente, a historian and curator of 20th century American material culture, says the last time we saw this happen was in the immediate aftermath of World War II. In 1947, a rising star in the Parisian haute couture circuit named Christian Dior introduced a style he called the "New Look." Then two years past V-Day, Dior created this regressive aesthetic — cinched jacket waists were paired with cumbersome A-line skirts — to cater to a post-war nostalgia that was cropping up across Europe.
In the U.S., where women had grown used to wearing tailored suits that not-indirectly resembled the nation's military uniforms, the New Look had more of a complicated reception. "There was a group of people who wanted to go back to more formal dress standards, where women's bodies were being constrained," says Clemente, who works as an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and who authored the book, Dress Casual: How College Kids Redefined American Style. "But then there was another group of women, a younger group, who were more, like, 'Nah, we don't distort our body that way.'"
Over the last 25 years, psychologists have studied this mindset, the one that just seven decades ago prompted American women to start wearing trousers en masse. Today, it's even claimed its own psychological theory, posttraumatic growth, which clinical psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined in 2004. As the name might suggest, Tedeschi and Calhoun define posttraumatic growth to be "the positive psychological change that is experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances," like war, serious illnesses or, naturally, a pandemic.
"We've learned that negative experiences can spur positive change, including a recognition of personal strength, the exploration of new possibilities, improved relationships, a greater appreciation for life and spiritual growth," Tedeschi wrote in Harvard Business Review last July. "So despite the misery resulting from the coronavirus outbreak, many of us can expect to develop in beneficial ways in its aftermath."
Clemente tells me the particular shift we're seeing now has been in the works for nearly 100 years. She calls it "the rise of the individualized wardrobe."
Now, on the grand scale of post-pandemic posttraumatic growth, changing our wardrobe habits isn't exactly on the same impact plane as that of developing a richer existential and spiritual life. But for Fashion Psychology Institute founder Dr. Dawnn Karen, dubbed "the world's first fashion psychologist," it's an indication — and an important one — that many of us have been busy reflecting on every last facet of the lives we led before March 2020, all the way down to the very shirts on our backs.
"People are reevaluating what they want to wear, maybe for the first time ever since they were kids," argues Karen, who serves as a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and who, last March, released a book, Dress Your Best Life. "They don't have all these Draconian measures and rules to follow, except to wear a mask. People are thinking, 'Okay, well, what do I want to wear, if I could wear anything I want?'"
Which brings us back to Houts' illuminating illustration: Are you dressing for "Mamma Mia" night at your local dive or a couch-bound weekend spent nursing your gallon-sized water bottle? If it feels like these are your only two options for your post-pandemic uniform right now, that's because, in the most extreme sense, they are — according to psychology, at least. And your answer might say a lot about your own posttraumatic growth, and what clothing could mean to you in the future.
See, the dresser-uppers are those who associate more casual wardrobe standards with the pandemic, which they're already hungry to leave behind. The dresser-downers are ready to move forward, too, but there's something about the wardrobe they've developed in quarantine that they'd like to take into the world as they reenter it this summer.
Karen has established theories for both groups: Dresser-downers tend to adhere to what she calls "mood-illustration dress," in which individuals dress to perpetuate their current mood, while dresser-uppers' "mood-enhancement dress" is intended to optimize the mood. But where this breakdown was once more tied to overarching cultural norms (à la the exaggerated femininity of the New Look), mood-illustration and mood-enhancement alike now represent personal satisfaction — nothing more, nothing less.
"I don't think we'll be dressing up because of social standards imposed by an elite group of tastemakers, which is what fashion traditionally has been," says Clemente. "Think of 75 years ago, when people who were the formal-dressers would say, 'You don't have your panty hose, Miranda. Go put on panty hose.' They were doing it out of a sense of protecting the old ways. And I just don't see that as the reason why people are wanting to wear a $500 suit they once bought for a friend's wedding."
The difference now is that fashion's traditional gatekeepers carry much less weight than they once did. As Business of Fashion's Chantal Fernandez wrote in 2019: "The internet, and the blogs, forums and social media platforms that came from it, shifted the balance of power to regular consumers, armed with direct access to creatives and celebrities and endless options of what to buy."
This isn't new news, of course: Fashion's once-hierarchical balance of power has been teetering for more than a decade. An unparalleled global health crisis didn't necessarily alter this trajectory, but it did expedite it.
"The pandemic accelerated this tension between formality and informality we've been wrestling with for 100 years," says Clemente. "But the wrestling match isn't as interesting as it was 100 years ago, because people just don't care about what the old guard says."
So we're dressing up, and we're dressing down. We're dressing to enhance our mood, and we're dressing to optimize it. We're wading through rivers of posttraumatic growth, and we're documenting the rise of the individualized wardrobe. We're interviewing historians and psychologists to both grapple with and assign meaning to this cocktail of grief and joy sloshing inside all of us, suddenly faced with reopening society once again.
What if — hear me out — it isn't all that deep? What if we don't let it be? What if we're just wearing the clothing we want, whenever we want, because after a long, arduous, tragic year, who's going to tell us not to?