Fashioning New Norms

by Samir Knego

I keep going back to 2020 as the year that change became something tangible. And with that, the mix of terror, confusion, and hope that such dramatic shifts bring. Social justice work is based in a deep and profound faith in the power (and possibility) of remaking society for the better, but for many people the idea of sweeping transformation seems mostly theoretical. If there’s one thing 2020 taught us all, it’s how quickly and dramatically our lives and habits can change.

'Between lockdowns and remote work, loungewear took over many people’s wardrobes.'

The most visible indicator comes in the form of clothing norms. There were runway shows last year, but for most people 2020’s big style takeaways came not from haute couture but from the trends prioritising comfort that have emerged in lockdown. Between lockdowns and remote work, loungewear took over many people’s wardrobes. Previously the domain of weekends and evenings, sweatpants and hoodies have increasingly dominated everyday clothing and even took up residence in some people’s workwear (long considered loungewear’s polar opposite). Many men tried growing beards and moustaches for the first time, with mixed success. For those who did leave the house, mask wearing revised the approach many people take to wearing makeup — with lower faces covered, there’s a lot more focus on making one’s eyes pop. Of course, others have moved away from using makeup much at all. The pandemic has even spawned a new fashion category, ‘Zoom dressing’ — think a business shirt or otherwise stylish top combined with pyjama bottoms.

Pandemic fashion is a genre of its own not because the clothing, styles, or impulses were absent before, but because they've taken on a new cultural and social significance. The speed at which the social shift has happened, not to mention how widespread it has been, stands out. The pandemic hasn’t reversed the prevalence and influence of fast fashion, but it has illustrated that our society is capable of the sort of cultural transformation necessary for such a thing.

I believe that seeing revolution as possible is a key part of making it happen, and in that way the turmoil of this year gave me hope. But while believing in the power and potential of change may prime us for action, it’s not a substitute for actual change. Issues like environmental degradation and climate change are immediate and severe, and we must work to make our vision of a better future real.

'Fashion brands now produce nearly double the amount of clothing they did before 2000...'

Environmentalists have long argued that reducing the fashion industry’s disastrous environmental impact will require a sharp transition away from fast fashion. Fashion brands now produce nearly double the amount of clothing they did before 2000, the year that fast fashion emerged in force. If current trends persist, that amount is only expected to increase — from the 62 million tonnes of clothing currently produced per year to a whopping 102 million tonnes per year by 2030, according to a report published in the journal Nature Reviews last year.

There’s an immediate human cost to fast fashion in addition to environmental concerns, with many garment workers getting paid little (or nothing) for their work. The industry also uses both child labour and the forced labour of Uighur people imprisoned in work camps. In the pandemic, there have been a number of reports of garment workers being denied PPE and safe working conditions.

Reversing damaging trends in fast fashion consumption is daunting, to say the least, but it’s also necessary. That’s often the case with justice work. The people we’re up against are powerful — sometimes mind-bogglingly so — but history tells us that power can shift, and ethics tell us that we’re right to work to make it happen.

...the potential for a cultural eco-fashion revolution is very much in our hands.'

As environmentalists and social justice activists, we often talk about the need for widespread shifts in practices and attitudes. The new pandemic fashion norms illustrate that the potential for a cultural eco-fashion revolution is very much in our hands. While a shift to more of us wearing loungewear hasn't solved our problems, it can give us hope and empower us to take the momentum of this moment and point it in a greener direction.

The takeaway here is not a silver lining in COVID or our upturned lives, but an acknowledgment of how relatively quickly certain norms — like fashion and grooming — can change, and a hope that those norms can be refashioned in ways that benefit the environment. For example, the increasing popularity of loungewear, clothing that people typically wear for longer, could lead to a decrease in the consumerist pattern of buying a new item of clothing for every occasion.

It remains to be seen if and how lockdown trends carry into a post-COVID world, and if they will lead to minimised or different consumption. What we do know is that the way many of us think about clothing changed this year, and can change again. It's up to all of us to decide and shape what those new norms look like.

Samir Knego lives, writes, and occasionally paints in North Carolina, USA with a bright green wheelchair and a little black dog. He's the Life Editor for dubble, an online publication focused on work by disabled and chronically ill people, and a reader for the literary magazine Decolonial Passage.