When artist Julie Houts began to shop for dresses to wear to her first post-lockdown events, she realised people were dividing into two tribes: those embracing a “fun and sexy” look and those seeking a low-key, don’t-look-at-me vibe.
“Even among my friends, I’ve noticed they fall roughly into two camps,” says Houts, who was previously a womenswear designer at J Crew. “Women who are feeling like they’re ready to put on something really fun, sexy and outrageous and get back out into the world, and another camp who are feeling like they want a quieter approach to dressing themselves post-pandemic.”
The statistics seem to bear out the theory that, as more of us are vaccinated, many are ready to ditch their work-from-home sweatpants and flip-flops in favour of skin-baring, going-out clothes. Digitalloft found that internet searches for high heels had increased last week by 14% while “loungewear” and “sweatpants” were down (by 58% and 24% respectively). According to retail analysts Edited, the word “sexy” features in 10% of all retailers’ recent product descriptions.
“Sex appeal is back,” says retail analyst Avery Faigen, from Edited. “People want to look and feel good again.”
This is certainly visible in pop culture. Billie Eilish ditched her baggy style for corset and fetish gloves on the cover of British Vogue; there’s been an increase in sales of micro shorts for men; and TikTok star Addison Rae wore a micro-bralette on the MTV Awards red carpet last week. Recent covers of Elle and Vanity Fair feature, respectively, singer Kacey Musgraves and actress Issa Rae in some of the most provocative poses of their careers. Brands such as men’s fashion retailer Suitsupply and Wrigley’s have both suggested we will be dressing for a bacchanalian age of “single and ready to mingle”.
If 2019 was Hot Girl Summer as per rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s breakout hit, and 2020 was all about staying home and wearing a mask, 2021 is being branded “vaxxed and waxed” by online commentators describing the fully vaccinated, ready-to-emerge-again mentality. Saturday Night Live even did a sketch, featuring guest host Maya Rudolph hosting a pandemic gameshow entitled “Snatched! Vaxed! or Waxed!”
But not all of us are comfortable with adopting a “sexy look” for summer. Far from Hot Girl Summer, one writer nicknamed this state of being “blob girl summer”.
Houts’s latest artwork shows two women in their post-pandemic garb: one dressed in a Cher-like hot pink, revealing strappy dress, and a second in grey-green loungewear, nervously sitting under a tarp. It came from a personal place.
“I made this drawing after spending way too long trying to find dresses to wear to the first events I’ll be attending,” she says. “Most of the dresses I was seeing on the market were super-extroverted and celebratory and body con – strong Hot Girl Summer energy.
“The woman on the left represents that exuberant perspective, and the woman on the right is more how I’m feeling, which is still soft and vulnerable physically, mentally, and emotionally. I’m obviously thrilled to be returning to a more normal life, but I still feel a little bit like I want to be un-viewed, invisible-at-will, and more anonymous. I feel like I want some privacy.”
Psychologist Dr Dawnn Karen comments: “Some people prefer external as opposed to internal validation, and they will be seeking that external validation that they missed for the entire year of the pandemic because they weren’t surrounded by loved ones, co-workers and friends.”
Ditch those sweatpants … home working may be coming to an end. Photograph: Jozef Polc/Alamy
It chimes with comments made by Gap’s CEO Sonia Syngal in March when she spoke of a “peacocking effect”: dressing to impress post-pandemic. Karen thinks that during the pandemic people began dressing for themselves and looked for internal validation, but post-vaccination they will pivot in the opposite direction, going for what she calls “dopamine dressing”.
“They will get a kick out of the compliments they get in person – the compliments that they missed throughout the pandemic.”
Karen believes that people who’ve learned to access a level of internal validation during the pandemic will stay in their loungewear. “Those who have learned how to seek internal validation will just wear whatever they want to wear – sweatpants, comfortable clothes – because they seek validation within. Neither is right or wrong,” she says.
Fashion buyers are seeing these looks combined into a hybrid aesthetic which Natalie Kingham, global fashion officer at Matchesfashion, calls the “new sexy”. “Casual and relaxed elements of our current daily dress code have evolved,” she says, “into a more effortlessly cool look which is contrasted with elegant and empowering pieces that feel sexy and uplifting but are still very versatile.”
Holly Tenser, womenswear buying manager at Browns, predicts that “even our sweats (will get) more daring”. Echoing Katie Holmes’s viral moment last year combining a bra and a cardigan (“bradigan”), Tenser mentions New York-based designer Danielle Guizio and “safety pin cropped cardigans and knits designed to be worn with nothing underneath”.
Karen concludes: “I would say: just strike a nice balance.”
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