As an institution that acts both as a social mechanism and a system that places value on the average taste of the moment, fashion is inevitably influenced by politics, culture, movements, and even pandemics.
And as no stranger to the face of a pandemic, fashion has always known how to tailor itself to the circumstances it finds itself in. An article published on W24 this week, provided a timeline of the history of social distancing in fashion. "In the past, maintaining distance – especially between genders, classes and races – was an important aspect of social gatherings and public life. Social distancing didn’t have anything to do with isolation or health; it was about etiquette and class. And fashion was the perfect tool," it highlighted, referencing the larger-than-life ballooning crinolines (voluminous skirt) of the mid-19th century.
READ MORE: The fashionable history of social distancing
As such, you can't recall major historical events without referencing the sartorial visuals of a given era. A lecturer at the Institut Français de la Mode, neatly surmises the meaning of fashion by saying, "fashion in a sense, is change," also describing it as a social paradox - a source of both stability and instability.
Look to the way world wars shaped women's fashion, the feminine - yet equal parts dapper- style of the 1950s, and the way the Roaring '20s popped the cork of stylish extravagance and glitz that had been bubbling under wartime ruin. And after apartheid stripped black South Africans bare of their dignity, the youth found ways to clothe themselves boldly in the township streets the regime had brutally designated them to, while the wealthy and privilege adjacent robed themselves in slightly reimagined remnants of colonial fabric.
These were expressions of reclamation, and they've prevailed well into the latter years of the 2000s, thanks to the collective nostalgia of emancipation that for a long time, probably seemed uncertain.
Wealthy South Africans at the Nederburg Estate for the Nederburg Wine Auction in 1995. The participants enjoy a lavish lunch and a fashion show along with the wine auction. (Photo by David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Young models pose for pictures on the street while shot by a local photographer on April 14, 2013 in Orlando section of Soweto, South Africa. They shot in places of historic value such as here on Vilakazi Street. Both Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela once lived here a few blocks from each other. Soweto is a mix of old housing and newly constructed townhouses. A new hungry black middle-class is growing steadily. Getty Images
Another historical event that has spread as much uncertainty as it has itself on people and surfaces around the world, is the Covid-19 pandemic. It has temporarily (or rather, indefinitely) shut down industries and enterprises, postponed gatherings and individual movement, yet has still prompted action towards aid and simultaneously, preventative measures against contagion.
Facing change, mask-on
The latter precautionary aspect has given rise to masks and gloves as accessories. Paris Fashion Week streets saw sprinklings of attendees rigged out in masks - both medical and homemade - as well as purses full of hand sanitiser. At some shows, models walked the runway in masks.
An attendee at Paris Fashion Week in March 2020. Image: Getty
An article published on W24 earlier this week intended to inform readers on the efficacy of homemade masks, detailed how masks made their way into modern fashion, stating that "during the 1919 Spanish Flu outbreak masks became mandatory for Australian medical professionals. Other workers, including gravediggers, also started wearing masks and soon they became a fashion statement."
In this article, it was also mentioned that "Melbourne’s The Social Studio has moved its production away from contemporary fashion to making scrubs at cost price for Australian health care workers," while "prominent U.S. fashion labels owned by Christian Siriano and Dov Charney are starting to manufacture PPE. French luxury group Kering will provide three million surgical masks to France. Gucci will make 1.1 million masks for Italy."
To see a list of other fashion labels who've rallied towards coronavirus relief, see this article below.
South Africa's fashion community has also not been resting on its laurels. Local fashion label, ERRE, announced last week that they would now be "solely producing medical masks for @ecg_clinicalwear to distribute to hospitals." As we know, the global medical fraternity is facing a massive PPE shortage, also partly due to ordinary citizens panic wearing (understandably) masks to run necessary errands.
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We are so happy to announce that from today we are solely producing medical masks for @ecg_clinicalwear to distribute to hospitals. What a privilege to be able to use our years of sewing skills to help in anyway possible. To all SA fashion designers; let’s not despair, let us work together and fight this terrible #coronavirus together, let’s stitch swiftly, separately in our own homes, but together with determination and purpose! Thank you so much @bamcollective for organizing this initiative ??
While AFI Fashion Week called off the last day of their showcase in March due to coronavirus, SA Fashion Week declared to go all-digital and later announced a postponement.
Stop chasing the clock
Business of Fashion (BoF) has been providing analyses on how flattening the curve might also inspire a need to plateau fashion's seemingly aimless spike. With its conscious, green, ethical, see-now-buy-now bandwagon culture, fashion has been on overdrive trying to reverse its past ignorance and elitism, when perhaps what it needed to do, was to be stationary for a while.
But of course, by its very definition, fashion establishes a relationship with time, and being behind the clock would compromise its purpose (the inception of trends). As a time-dependent industry, how do you dictate relevance when the arms of your delicate timepiece suddenly stop?
But perhaps what fashion should've been considering, is the old saying that "a broken clock is correct at least twice a day" - as it was with the six-month cycle that presents Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter collections, respectively. All the other peripheral mid-season extras - pulchritudinous as they may be - have contributed to a mild fatigue.
As a BoF reader remarked, "Fashion needed to slow down and rethink itself long time ago."
Furthermore, several members of fashion media (myself included) were already starting to find the fashion week cycles redundant and financially inexpedient.
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Jean Touitou felt like the loneliest man in #Paris during fashion week at the end of February, writes BoF’s Tim Blanks. The day before the shows started in the French capital, he got a message from his daughter’s school. Anyone — teachers, students — who had been in Northern Italy should not come in the next day. But that directive could equally apply to the huge number of #fashion industry insiders winging in from the shows in Milan: designers, photographers, journalists, the hair and makeup teams and all the young models who would soon be lining up for castings. “If something is right for a school, why is it not right for us?” Touitou tortured himself with that question. Three days before his A.P.C. show was due to take place, on March 2nd, he cancelled. “It was a terrible feeling, but I didn’t want to be responsible for a fashion cluster.” In his industry, he was almost alone in his decision. “For ten years, people have been saying this has to stop,” he says emphatically. ? ? The French designer also points out how difficult travel has become. “Think about fashion shoots,” says Touitou. “Why schlepp ten people from the studio to a location in Arkansas when you can just shoot in Paris? I can see how this will inspire a different kind of creativity. Let’s not travel so much. We have to shrink down everything we do.” Same with fashion shows. “My ideal would be one fashion week a year. I don’t think I will want to belong to the circus anymore. I have some bitterness, I must say — people saying, ‘continue dancing’ when the boat was sinking — but if I hate the circus, I don’t hate fashion shows. I get high on them. I love to prepare the looks with Judith and Suzanne [Koller, A.P.C.’s stylist]. So maybe we won’t do shows, but we’re going to do the look of a show because we ourselves need to dream about fashion. So, we’ll finish the collection and take it somewhere else, maybe once every two years, create a new format around the schedule. Look at Azzedine Alaïa. He succeeded in doing exactly what he wanted.” At the unknown end of it all, he has faith in fashion’s continuity. “Desire cannot disappear,” Touitou declares. [Link in bio]
See, if fashion continues to chase the White Rabbit exclaiming "Oh dear! I shall be too late!" with its approaches to fast fashion production, to going green in a bid to ethically align itself with its beauty counterpart, and trying to be body positive so late in the game, it will find itself in a wonderland of stagnancy despite its quest for enlightenment, unable to climb out the rabbit hole.
After the coronavirus curve has flattened, fashion ought to flatten her own curve of garment worker exploitation, consumer pressure (less "You need to buy this leather jacket now!" articles perhaps?), and the uninspired churning out of collections for the sake of producing something. As a faction of art that once hated curves so much, one would think this particular task ought to be easy for our dictators of taste and threads.
The Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland says, "we're all mad here!" - a symbol of how change incites antagonism on the grounds of it being "crazy". The coronavirus pandemic is a mad hatter's tea party - in our stillness we're still chaotic - and it has changed our lives in a frightening way, but we're going to have use this time apart to reconsider the model and reinvent our runways and rails.
Celebrity stylist Jason Bolden, recently said "now is the time to study your craft and study it well." To add to that, now is also the time to foster new shopping habits in order to subvert the way fashion is marketed to us - there's some value to be extracted from the ongoing sustainability conversation.
Or maybe we'll let these '20s roar and continue embracing the maximalism ushered in by interior design authorities circa 2018. We're indoors anyway, so we might as well get ready to dress like the furniture we're slowly but surely finding companionship with.