In February, things were looking up. Life was not "normal," per se, but we may have been heading that way. The COVID-19 vaccine rollout had progressed such that more Americans were vaccinated against this brand-new disease than were infected with it. And with the promise of mask-free days to come, our sanitized Gollum hands clung onto long-awaited flight reservations and slinky clothing buys as we plotted for a Hot Vax Summer.
Fashion was in on it, of course. When designers began releasing their fall collections that month, they appeared as ready to pack up their leggings as the rest of us. The Fall 2021 runways were a glittering champagne tower stacked with sequins and silks, this new-wave flapper sensibility only being offset by punchy knits and polished tailoring.
That the season served up a heaping spoonful of escapism was no accident. These were collections largely produced in quarantine, where clothes could spell a different, blissfully uninhibited future. Come summertime, U.S. consumers were clearing out their pandemic wardrobes in droves, particularly on the secondhand market.
You can probably guess where this is headed.
By the end of July, the devastating Delta variant had been detected in more than 130 countries around the world. Among those nearly 190 million Americans vaccinated, the strain spent the summer churning out a slender spate of breakthrough infections. And among those still unvaccinated, well… Unvaccinated people are 29 times more likely to be hospitalized with the virus, according to a recent CDC study.
So here we are, not quite back to square one, but certainly no closer to a post-pandemic Shangri-La, due in no small part to those opting out of vaccinations entirely. It's no secret that Americans are now experiencing rising frustrations at best and blazing rage at worst, a burnout The Atlantic's Amanda Mull deemed "pandemic senioritis." Our closets — practical extensions of our lifestyles and emotional extensions of our moods — are burning out, too. Which begs the question: With another uncertain season ahead, what happens to all those jazzy fall clothes if the world isn't quite ready (and let alone able) to wear them?
Back in May, just as post-vaccination momentum was gaining steam, I wrote about a set of contrasting wardrobe theories Fashion Psychology Institute founder Dr. Dawnn Karen dubbed "mood-enhancement dress" and "mood-illustration dress." For the former, so-called "dresser-uppers" seek out clothing to optimize their mood; for the latter, "dresser-downers" get dressed to perpetuate their mood. In practice, this plays out in two major camps: those purging their quarantine leggings and those seeking comfort in them.
"People are reevaluating what they want to wear, maybe for the first time ever since they were kids," Karen, who works as a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, told me in the spring. "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?'"
In the four months since Karen and I last spoke, mindsets haven't changed. But Karen suspects that dresser-downers — i.e., those generally adhering to mood-illustration dress — may be growing in numbers.
When we catch up, she explains she wouldn't go so far as to equate the increasingly fatigued psychological state with that of post-traumatic stress disorder. Instead, she uses the term "whiplash." Demoralized individuals are trending more toward melancholy, and that's tracking in their clothes.
"Someone was telling me that she doesn't even want to wear makeup anymore because she still has to wear a mask all day, every day," Karen says. "What's the point?"
But consumers aren't going so far as to reup on the pandemic sweats they've already offloaded. There's still a willingness to dress to the nines, the execution of which is made more tempting with high-gloss fall collections hitting Net-a-Porter as we speak. Cieja Springer, longtime fashion marketer and founder of the "From the Bottom Up!" podcast, anticipates that even those who never really cared to "get dressed" are hankering to bust out of their shells. Springer herself may have said it best: "Catch me at the grocery store in a ballgown!"
Instead of the wardrobe extremes Karen predicted this spring, before the Delta variant began its surge in July, experts are now betting on a more familiar middleground. For Agus Panzoni, a trend researcher who shares miniature versions of her own trend reports on TikTok, fall style will be all about balance — if only because we're more balanced ourselves.
"Lockdown helped us realign our priorities with our values," Panzoni says. "Long gone are the days of glorifying grind culture and wearing mindless outfits for the sake of productivity. We're in the age of maximalist styles, gravitating towards expressive clothing that reflects our personality."
Still, runway trends have long been disconnected from consumer style. This fall, Panzoni explains, dresser-uppers are set to infuse some dressing up into their wardrobes, and vice versa. So though some shoppers may be prepared to ditch tracksuits for good, they're not necessarily darting straight into the Roaring ‘20s, either. Instead, Panzoni forecasts a move toward subtle formality, with a renewed focus on comfort and versatility.
Per Panzoni's estimations, the summer suiting trend will metamorphosize into its own fall version with artfully layered composites of oversized workwear in expressive colors and prints. In footwear, she says, loafers are becoming a key item as prep bubbles up across categories. We can also brace for what Panzoni calls "horse-girl fall," in which preppier staples are giddy-upping with haute Western garb.
These are trend predictions that extend between dress codes, where you can and can't wear what. You need not look further than an Aimé Leon Dore lookbook to know dresser-downers can hang a right toward leisurewear without slouching into sloppiness. Dresser-uppers can deliver lipsticked glamazon without having to step into teetering stilettos.
The forthcoming sense of wardrobe equilibrium doesn't spell doomsday for the fall collections — actually, it supports them. Financially speaking, people are shopping: Luxury sales turned out an unusually strong first half to the year, with Paris-based mega-conglomerate LVHM posting record revenue (to the tune of 28.7 billion euros, or roughly $34.0 billion) through July. Odds are, consumers aren't just buying for retail therapy's sake. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci surmises that here in the U.S., we're unlikely to return to full-scale lockdowns even when, not if, the Delta-driven outbreak worsens. Safety precautions will have to be taken, again, until the pandemic takes its final planetary lap. Someday.
"Most people will meet the virus eventually," science journalist Ed Yong wrote in a recent piece titled "How the Pandemic Ends Now." "We want to ensure that as many people as possible do so with two doses of vaccine in them, and that everyone else does so over as much time as possible."
In the meantime, dresser-downers and-uppers alike can continue plugging ahead into the unknown, clinging onto the glimmering optimism of the fall collections, and all those after. That's what fashion is there for, after all.
"At this point," Springer says, "nothing is going to stop us from getting fly. Even if we have to be at home looking the best we ever have."