Last week I performed a ritual that once seemed commonplace but now feels thrilling: I went shopping, in person, to some Manhattan stores to buy clothes for summer. But as I perused the garments (after first sanitising my hands, while wearing a mask), I was hit by unexpected angst.
I’ve never been particularly interested in fashion. Before the pandemic, I had a good — albeit utilitarian — sense of what type of clothes I liked: simple shift dresses and jackets with clean, structured lines, usually in jewel colours, and shoes with enough heel so I could meet people eye to eye.
To my surprise, as I reacquainted myself with clothing rails, I found I was recoiling from what I once loved. After a year of wearing sneakers, jeans and shirts, all I can imagine myself buying now are floppy, flowing clothes that are comfortable, flexible and practical. My style sensibility has changed. Wearing heels feels almost unimaginable.
Will this endure? In fashion, there has already been a wave of heated debate about what to expect in the post-pandemic world. When it hit, Covid-19 caused demand for tracksuits, pyjamas, hoodies, sportswear and other leisurewear to surge; according to Women’s Wear Daily, sweatpant sales at Net-a-Porter jumped 40 per cent in the first week of lockdown alone.
Some designers think this has sparked a permanent move towards more comfortable styles; baggy jeans are replacing tight ones, apparently. But others believe (or hope) that when lockdown ends, a glitzy, flamboyant mood will emerge as a reaction to the past year. Designer Roksanda Ilincic recently put it well in an interview with the FT fashion team: “I would like to think we’ll dress up, there will be a desire for colour and something optimistic and powerful.”
Maybe so. But, as a report from BCG consultants notes, “Fashion won’t — and shouldn’t — return to what it was,” since “the behaviour, preferences and shifts in mindsets that people have adopted during the pandemic will lead to permanent changes.”
What’s interesting is that a shift in sensibility appears to be under way not just in those aspects of our lives where we consciously make design choices, as with clothes, but also in areas that most of us normally ignore.
Consider the typography used in magazines, packaging, advertising and so on. A decade ago, the most fashionable typefaces were futuristic ones, with clean, hard-edged fonts, Charles Nix of Massachusetts-based type-design specialists Monotype tells me. During the pandemic, however, fonts have become friendlier and softer, with more curves.
“Typography is not an innocent bystander,” Nix says. “It is always there, subtly massaging us psychologically in ways which we are not always aware of.” Handwriting-style fonts have become popular, even for digital products. “I think we are going to see a lot more character in typography than we have seen in the last two decades,” Nix says. “We are defining ourselves in contrast to text messages.”
Nostalgia is another big theme: companies from Burger King to Fisher-Price to Dunkin’ Donuts are reviving designs from their past to create a sense of timelessness and joy. In a typographic sense, this is like offering comfort food to disoriented customers who want a taste of the familiar to reassure them.
So too for interior design. The pandemic has sparked some obvious changes in how we imagine our homes: people have been swapping city centres for the suburbs (and beyond); building home offices and gyms; and moving away from open-plan design as families realise that working in a trendy loft-style space with kids in the same room is challenging.
What is less obvious is the psychology around home furnishings. “There has been a value shift,” observes Katie Lydon, founder of New York-based Katie Lydon Interiors. She says that “comfort” rather than display is now the dominant issue when her customers assess designs — which is a striking change in a place such as Manhattan, where the wealthy have often been obsessed with using luxury goods and real estate to display status and power to other people as well as to themselves.
Other designers say there is now demand for hues that invoke nature, such as sea green; nostalgic prints, for example old-fashioned florals; and flowing lines rather than hard edges. The dominant theme, it seems, is a gentler style.
It would be nice to think these subtle style shifts mark a bigger social reset, towards a world that is less obsessed with competitive displays of status and more focused on human connection, nature and taking pleasure in our immediate surroundings. If nothing else, the last year of lockdown has shown us that we are creatures of our environments and that it pays to cherish whatever gives us pleasure there — be that green walls, baggy jeans or swirling letters.
But perhaps that is over-optimistic. When I returned from my shopping expedition, I had a couple more shirts in my bag — but no heels. Then, a few days later, I went for my first work lunch in a year, at a New York club, and suddenly started worrying (once again) about whether I looked smart enough to pass muster. The future of human interaction seems more uncertain than ever; fashion is just a symbol of a wider flux.
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