October 31, 2022 at 1:21 p.m. EDT
(Washington Post illustration; iStock)
Susanna Schrobsdorff writes the It’s Not Just You newsletter on Substack. Previously, she was an executive editor at Time magazine.
What we wear is never an accident, even if it looks like one. Clothing trends track the political and social zeitgeist. They’re often a barometer of our state of mind. And if that’s true, then it’s hard to look at what’s happening out there in fashion-land without asking: Are we okay?
This year’s looks range from a survivalist vibe reminiscent of the final scenes of a “Mad Max” movie to what can only be called emotional support clothing — i.e., pieces that look as though they’re made of marshmallows and the pelts of a thousand stuffed animals. Society appears to be having a sartorial fight-or-flight response to our collective angst.
The pandemic may be abating, just maybe, but other existential stressors are accumulating at an eye-twitching pace. Droughts, hurricanes, spiking interest rates, political instability — it’s all looming. In September, a federal task force recommended anxiety screenings for American adults under 65 to meet a “critical need” for mental health support.
Little wonder fashion magazines are touting clothing that sounds like therapy: “cocoon cardigans,” “soft footbed” slides and this fall’s couture pick: robe coats that look like you’re wearing a belted comforter or perhaps becoming your own bed, #robelife. Crocs are back with a line called the Mellow Slide, perhaps for those who think their regular foam-resin shoes are uptight.
For anyone still making an effort, there’s “dopamine dressing,” or intentionally wearing mood-lifting colors and shapes. Meanwhile, Brad Pitt has partnered with a holistic healer on luxury cashmere “made for your well-being,” including $1,980 shirts with gemstone buttons that represent the seven chakras. The pair have shared the brand’s unconventional origin story, which involves a dream of co-founder Sat Hari’s and Pitt saying he “wanted more green cashmere and softness” in his life. (Me too, Brad. Me too.)
On the flip side is a survivalist trend, or what one magazine called “dressing for doomsday.” Think bomber jackets, cargo pants, parachute pants, utility jumpsuits and lug sole boots — the sort with massive treads that enable you to walk uphill in a mudslide. It harks back to ’90s grunge, with that era’s nihilism and alienation implied. And it’s perfect for cowering behind barricades in a slow-burn civil war. (Kidding. Sort of.)
Then there are the hundreds of “core aesthetics” blooming on TikTok in which followers dress according to a subculture identity, such as clowncore (rainbow prints, face paint), dragoncore (nature, mysticism), “dark academia” (brooding houndstooth), cottagecore (chunky sweaters), various grandma looks and “weirdgirl” mismatchedness.
The rise of the -cores is a creative, ground-up fashion movement. It is perhaps also a sign that many of us would rather be in an alternate reality. And in one of those realities, there are no eyebrows. I thought this was just a Brooklyn thing, but then 64-year-old Madonna was recently photographed browless.
Strange days. But as Elsa Schiaparelli, legendary surrealist Italian designer of the 1930s and ’40s, said: “In difficult times, fashion is always outrageous.” #WeirdGirl.
This explains why you might be in an airport, as I was recently, and see more than one adult wearing a bralette, comically baggy cargo shorts and enormous purple furry slippers that look to have been designed by muppets. Or you might notice headlines about fashionista Bella Hadid “nailing” the “Adam Sandler look” (basketball shorts, wrinkled dad shirts).
No matter how often the clothing industry says it’s time to put our bras back on and buy dry-clean-only separates, we’re clinging to our clogs, jumpsuits and pandemic “nap dresses.” Sure, some women are in suits, but this season they’re gloriously oversized and candy-colored (#dopaminedressing). Meanwhile, men are going for more ease than usual with drawstring work pants that look professional, but, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “the waistband whispers ‘pajamas.’ ”
To meet the moment, Stitch Fix, the online style consultants, have christened a new category of office-wear Business Comfort. It sounds like an airline seat but is a nod to our contrarian mood.
Fashion houses are adapting by making expensive versions of casual clothes. If you can’t beat them, join them at a higher price point. Hence, in a breach of the space-time continuum, both Dior and Manolo Blahnik (king of masochistic heels) are making shoes with Birkenstock, icon of earthy-crunchy ugly-shoe ease. There’s also the rise of “athluxury,” which leads to the inexplicable “track-suit maxi dress.” And for the rest of us, the muddled masses yearning to stay free, Victoria’s Secret, that purveyor of cartoonishly sexy women’s lingerie, has rebranded itself with regular-people undergarments that promise not to put the suffer in suffragette.
History suggests the pendulum will eventually swing back to more conformist, constricting looks. Women don’t usually get to be comfortable for too long; it makes people nervous. Just ask the Rosie the Riveters who had to turn in their coveralls after World War II. But while calmer fashion might mean the world is stabilizing, won’t all that #normcore be boring?