The Ups and Downs of Fashion in 2020

What happened in 2020, when everyone’s life (and wardrobe) was turned upside down.

By Vanessa Friedman, Elizabeth Paton, Jessica Testa and Guy Trebay

It is a truth generally acknowledged that 2020 will be known as the year that changed everything: our attitude toward our health, technology and the fragility of democracy; the economies of the arts, hospitality, sports and travel.

Will it also be the year that changed what we wear? How could it not? When our sense of identity evolves, so, too does the clothes we use to express that sense and the industry that enables us.

Some of the changes are obvious: the rise of leggings and loungewear; the mask as accessory; e-commerce as the most popular form of buying and selling; the dominance of the Zoom top. Ditto the fall of department stores — at least the department store as we know it — as well as the red carpet.

But more subtle shifts also took place. If style were a stock market, these are the ups and downs in fortune that charted the course of the year.

Crocs 👍🏼

If we hadn’t spent this year desperate for comfort and security, would Crocs have made such a strong comeback? (The company says its revenue, compared to this time last year, is up by more than 15 percent.)

Possibly. Its status as the Official Shoe of Quarantine was sealed more by the fashion world, with its tendency to resuscitate things once considered ugly or uncool. When Crocs began collaborating with celebrities like Post Malone and Bad Bunny, the brand went street, selling out after each new product dropped.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss the perforated rubber duckbills as just a player in the ugly/comfy shoe trend. Crocs are functional; there is a reason they’re popular among people who spend hours on their feet. Now, with their high markups on resale sites like Grailed or StockX, it can be easy to forget that Crocs aren’t just for Instagram. Healthcare workers have relied on the shoes to get them through long days and nights on the front lines. — JESSICA TESTA

Closets 👎🏼

Remember closets? Since March, when lockdowns began in this country, few of us have had much occasion to visit the cramped and jumbled spaces Marie Kondo considers graveyards of energy and marketers spend billions trying to get us to organize. Why bother, when you can just pick up yesterday’s sweats off the floor?

“Everything that was so important became meaningless,” said Sasha Charnin Morrison, the style director of CBS Watch! magazine. Those 10 beloved variations of the little black dress? Forgotten. That “crucial” pair of Miu Miu platforms with six-inch heels? Doorstops. The Zara shmattes bought in multiples because they cost so little? Hauled to Housing Works.

For a brief time, Ms. Morrison was so determined to flaunt the style she spent a lifetime cultivating that she made a point of dressing in complete looks to walk the dog, for school visits or even to cross Broadway for a cup of coffee. Then schools closed, the coffee shop went out of business and she realized the dog had more pressing concerns than her Norma Kamali sleeping bag coat.

“I don’t even look in my closets anymore,’’ Ms. Morrison said last week. “I can actually hear the clothes kind of crying when I walk by.” — GUY TREBAY

Aviators 👍🏼

The category is: Cool Grandpa Realness. Imagine you are running for president. If elected, you will become the oldest man ever to hold that office. Everybody by now knows that politicians micromanage every aspect of their appearance. Your challenge is to serve vitality for the benefit of younger voters without alienating the Metamucil set. No element is too trivial to be considered. (See: Mom jeans, campaign ’08.) Your suits will be slim, denims unironed, ties blue and sober, footwear confined to Oxfords and the occasional driving shoe. For a cool prop, look to shades.

It was in the before times (i.e., 2014) that Joe Biden first posted an Instagram showing his Ray-Ban aviators casually tossed on a desk. Political eternities have elapsed since Mr. Biden took these classics of military eyewear and so successfully owned them that hardly anyone recalls anymore that General Douglas MacArthur, hippies, ’70s gay porn stars, Tom Cruise and Tom Ford got there first. — GUY TREBAY

TikTok 👍🏼

TikTok hit mainstream culture in 2020, knocking Facebook off the top spot to become the most downloaded app of the year as millions of content-hungry consumers stuck in lockdown looked for new ways to socialize and stay entertained. And since February, when Charli D’Amelio, one of TikTok’s top influencers, sat front row at the Prada runway show, the flirtation between the social media platform and high fashion has become increasingly impossible to ignore.

Keen to build relationships with the next generation of luxury shoppers, an army of big-name brands created accounts, including early adopters like Gucci, which took on TikTok’s quirky communication style, and later arrivals like Balenciaga, Dior and Louis Vuitton. In July TikTok livestreamed its first fashion show, a socially distanced Balmain extravaganza on a barge in the Seine, and in September the platform hosted #TikTokfashionmonth, during which brands jostled to showcase their latest collections alongside a schedule of product drops, styling tips and after parties. — ELIZABETH PATON

Evening Wear 👎🏼

Remember the days of the taffeta mermaid dress? The fairy princess tulle extravaganza? Remember, even, the attention-grabbing little bits of latex that could barely be called a dress, but were? Remember when party dressing was a thing?

The pandemic put a stop to traditional red carpet events, not to mention glitzy mega-weddings, bar mitzvahs, birthday and anniversary celebrations — and proved disastrous for the evening wear businesses. Celebrities did their darnedest to get back in the mood by social distancing in style at events like the American Music Awards (Hello, Jennifer Lopez in silver, midriff-baring Balmain), but it just didn’t have the same filter-down effect. — ELIZABETH PATON

Elastic Waists 👍🏼

Isolation may have made us all ever more aware of the importance of the ties that bind us together, but it also made us reject the belts, and any other garment, that physically bind us. For those more frequently at home, who were most often in a chair in front of a screen for hours on end, their exercise regimens on hold, comfort clothes became the fashion choice of first resort, even after we got over wallowing in comfort food.

It may have started with leggings and sweats, but the elastic waist has now infiltrated every part of the wardrobe. Sequin skirts and trousers? Suit pants? It’s in there. From stiff to stretch: That’s evolution for ya. — VANESSA FRIEDMAN

Savile Row 👎🏼

“The most famous men’s clothing street in the world is gasping for life,” a November article on Savile Row in The New York Times declared. Even before the pandemic, changing tastes and rising rents had long been weighing on the 100-meter-long stretch of the Mayfair neighborhood, which now has at least 10 empty storefronts. Kilgour, French & Stanbury closed in March, following Chester Amies and Hardy Amies in 2019.

With international fittings limited by travel restrictions (70 percent of Savile Row tailors’ revenue comes from overseas trunk shows) and little need for power suits in lockdown, London tailors found themselves alone with their shears and an existential question: Has Covid-19 broken the back of the bespoke tradition? Some tailors are now offering digital consultations and fittings, but it remains to be seen if the exactingly cut uniforms of the Masters of the Universe (and the royal family) will rise again. — ELIZABETH PATON

Masktivism 👍🏼

Face masks were many thing this year: crucial health measure, sign of communal solidarity, political football, important income stream, fashion statement and, latterly, highly visible call to action. Naomi Osaka paid homage to Black men and woman killed by police by wearing their names on her masks during the U.S. Open. Snoop Dogg, Sandra Oh and Hillary Clinton (among many celebrity others) wore “Vote” masks, and Christian Siriano handed them out to guests at his September show (which also featured a “Vote” dress).

Together they helped masks become the personal poster board of choice in 2020, proving you could be sensitive to the welfare of others and make a statement, too. After all, if you have to wear a piece of cloth around your mouth whenever you leave the house, you might as well make it say something. Literally. — VANESSA FRIEDMAN

The Fashion Calendar 👎🏼

It is possible that when we look back in fashion history, February-March 2020 will be understood as the last time the hordes of editors, retailers and influencers moved in lock step from New York to London to Milan to Paris on the four-city fashion circuit. The switch from physical to digital shows didn’t just demand a rethink of how to unveil a collection: It freed fashion from its allegiance to the increasingly calcified slots on the official show schedules. The latest round of shows began in September and stretched through mid-December.

Was it spring? Was it summer? Was it fall? Who could tell! Remember the Me Decade? This was the Me Season. And though a lot of lip service was paid to the value of in-person runway experiences, and we may indeed go back there again (some shows are definitely better IRL), it’s doubtful that anyone will be able to claw back the calendar. It never made much sense anyway. Spring-summer in September? Fall-winter in February? And fashion wondered why the rest of the world kept scratching its head. — VANESSA FRIEDMAN

Shopping 👎🏼

Malls and department stores have been declining for years. Brick-and-mortar has been struggling to survive the rise of e-commerce. But these hardships were nothing compared to what the pandemic had in store. Even if you wanted to go shopping, it either wasn’t possible (in the early days) or advisable (um, now).

But something happened to shoppers, too, when they stopped getting dressed for work, meeting up with friends or attending events. Shopping habits were reconsidered. It became harder to justify buying something if you couldn’t imagine wearing it at home. Which was a boon for the piles of loungewear ordered online, but not so much for the wedding guest outfit, the job interview ensemble or the holiday party look you may have browsed for at Zara, Neiman Marcus or Jeffrey. — JESSICA TESTA

People Watching 👎🏼

Once there was a time when we explored our physical surroundings by moving through them. Now we wake each morning and immediately fall into our screens. This was the case long before a mysterious virus forced us indoors for safety or obliged us to conceal half our faces behind masks.

The pandemic accelerated the decline of cultural pleasures already faltering. Sadly among these are the joys of strolling, sauntering, people watching or window shopping (“window-licking,” the French call it) immortalized as flânerie by the philosopher Walter Benjamin, via Baudelaire. While Bill Cunningham may have managed to find some compelling fashion thematic in the sight of crowds shambling about Midtown in hoodies and Uggs, the crossroads of 57th Street and Fifth it is not the same now that the city mice that used to disport themselves there in glad rags are hunkered down at home. — GUY TREBAY

Reinventing the Fashion Show 👍🏼

When live shows were canceled everyone in fashion suddenly started jumping on the digital bandwagon. There were fashion shows that were music videos and fashion shows that were mini-series; fashion shows that looked like perfume commercials and fashion shows that looked like documentaries. But the most unexpected alt-fashion shows of all passed up pixels for … paper dolls.

Instead of high-tech, Jonathan Anderson, the founder of the JW Anderson line as well as the artistic director of Loewe and a Moncler Genius collaborator, went tactile for his namesake line, shrinking his lookbooks into toy-size cutouts complete with fabric swatches and backdrops so that all his onetime invitees could construct their own D.I.Y. runways.

For Loewe, he took the same idea and upsized it to a wallpaper roll — application at the discretion of user — and for Moncler, he transposed it into a portable gallery: Hang photos as you will. In between, he crocheted a multicolor cardigan for Harry Styles that launched a thousand TikTok challenges and gave multitudes of fans a lockdown project.

In other words, even in isolation, Mr. Anderson figured out how to create interaction, and proved sometimes thinking outside the box actually means going inside the box. — VANESSA FRIEDMAN

The Work Lives of Garment Workers 👎🏼

The fashion industry has long depended on the exploitation of cheap labor in developing economies. But, this year, the pandemic fallout threatened the very livelihoods of the millions of garment workers who power its murky supply chain.

In the spring, scores of retailers canceled or returned orders to factories in India and Bangladesh, leaving low-income workers without work. As factories closed and layoffs mounted, laborers, some indentured, were trapped thousands of miles from home. And as allegations of slavery and union-busting increased and the risk of infection grew in factories that stayed open, basic labor rights unraveled. With the World Bank warning that as many as 150 million people could fall into extreme poverty by the end of 2021, the future remains uncertain for garment workers across the world. — ELIZABETH PATON

Converse 👍🏼

At some point this fall, people began noticing that Kamala Harris really liked to wear Chuck Taylors All Stars. (Elle nicknamed her “the Converse candidate.”) In an interview with Complex, the Vice President-elect acknowledged the fascination; she suspected her shoes resonated because “we all wanna go back to some basic stuff about who we are as a country.”

Chuck Taylors are not political. They’re not a white pantsuit or MAGA hat. They’re a casual wardrobe staple, as ordinary and basic as any white T-shirt or pair of jeans. But they don’t feel so ordinary when the first woman and first woman of color vice president wears them. Converse, the 112-year-old brand that has sold Chucks for 103 of those years, has a sudden and unusual chance to recapture the public’s imagination. — JESSICA TESTA

Depop 👍🏼

For a minute there, it seemed as if the upward trajectory of the secondhand clothing market had been derailed. In the pandemic’s early days, people were worried about Covid-19 and reasonably skittish about touching other people’s things. But environmentally conscious youths and bargain hunters kept the market growing. This summer, the platform ThredUp (in partnership with GlobalData) projected that the $28 billion resale market will hit $64 billion by 2024.

Which of the online platforms for thrifting, consignment and upcycling benefits the most? For the fashion crowd, it has been the app Depop, based in London. If you buy Madewell jeans on Poshmark, and your rich aunt prefers selling her Gucci on RealReal, Depop is where your cool teenage sister follows D.I.Y. fashion brands you’ve never even heard of.

It’s where Bella Hadid got her vintage Jean Paul Gaultier puffer; it’s where a cult sunglasses seller turned designer was discovered; it’s where a coterie of Gen Z celebs sell their old clothes to fans. And it’s where many major brands are now looking for answers, trying to figure out how to incorporate resale’s success into their own business models. — JESSICA TESTA

Model Hounds 👎🏼

Obvious win for 2020? Some of the diversity that for too long had eluded fashion. Gone are the days of lily-white catwalks and magazine covers and the seedy rationales for why things remained that way. Yet the irony is lost on few in fashion that, at precisely the moment when an epochal shift in representation occurred, the modeling business effectively shut down.

“Models have a year, maximum five, these days to hit, peak and earn,” said James Scully, a former casting director notable for his discoveries — think Liya Kebede and Alek Wek. “Now every career is stalled.”

This is bad news for the genetically blessed. But it’s also grim for the legions of model hounds that track their every move. Call it a lose-lose when models are deprived of bookings and fans can’t get a fix. Many young talents are marooned without visas in their countries of origin, and model hounds are left with no choice but to zone out on endless loops of Naomi Campbell or Linda Evangelista killing the Versace catwalk on Instagram.

“Models make fashion,” Mr. Scully said. And it’s true. If our ideals of perfection are ever evolving, one enduring delight of fashion is seeing what variety of consumable beauty it will send down the conveyor belt next. — GUY TREBAY

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