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Elevating the basics: How the pandemic has changed our fashion priorities

By March 27, 2021No Comments

Covid-19 has forced us to reassess. To shed what no longer works. Sarah Macken speaks to three women about the clothes their pre-lockdown selves loved, that they are now happy to ditch forever…


For me, jeans were the first casualty of lockdown. Less than a week of staying indoors had passed last March and I had already traded my trusty denims for comfy leggings. Nearly a year – and multiple dalliances with leggings – later, nothing has changed. (In case it’s of interest, the fur-lined leggings from Penneys are my current sweetheart.)

If you’re like me, you may now define yourself in either pre-covid or present day terms. Such is the war that Covid-19 has waged on our sense of normality. For instance, old Sarah put all her energy into work; new Sarah seeks balance. New Sarah remembers to floss; old Sarah went to the gym. New Sarah cleans as she goes instead of letting her clothes pile up savagely, old Sarah let the clothes mounds build, only to exacerbate the sense of disorganisation in her brain.

It’s empowering to feel like this time can be used to reflect and recalibrate; to shed the parts of life that no longer serve you. It’s not that they’re necessarily negative; you may have just outgrown them. They no longer fit. Many will agree that the virus has acted as a catalyst, kickstarting certain aspects of our lives and viciously kicking other parts to the curb.

Take, for example, that routine night out with your pal Janice that you haven’t actually been enjoying for a while but that had become so routine there was no way of getting out of it. Flat, overpriced Prosecco; friendships that were waning; the inevitable two-day hangover: these are things you are happy to leave behind in the pre-lockdown world.

Can we edit our wardrobes in the same way?

You already have, to some degree.

Let’s assume you are still buying clothes (which is certainly not a definite for everyone right now): how would you categorise them? For many, they fall under the self-investment category rather than that of the frivolous splurge. Upgraded leggings, comfy socks, a decent bra, a good quality T-shirt: these are the things that appeal right now.

Outer layers aren’t forgotten about, either: We swathe ourselves in puffer coats until we resemble taquitos, while argyle dad sweaters and granny cardigans have never had such appeal. If your knit is the lovechild of an Etsy pattern and a Bridgerton binge on Netflix, then you’re my hero.

We all vaguely know what empowerment through dressing is. We’ve been fed the line enough over the years and might even associate it with a killer blazer or a very good red lipstick. So far, so predictable. But the last thing we need right now is a fashion designer crying ‘empowerment’ by embracing the idea of joggers instead of the navel-grazing skins they touted last summer. Don’t wrap a trainer in a bow and rebrand it as a ‘staple of our times’.

The definition of empowerment changes drastically during a crisis. Like success, it fluctuates in line with our hierarchy of needs. During lockdown, it might literally mean managing to put on a bra one day, or successfully showering on another. Right now, it might mean homeschooling your kids without having a breakdown and cracking open a box of wine before 5.15pm.

But what if there was another way to feel empowered? And, just like the aforementioned boozy nights out with Janice, what if it involves what we choose to leave behind rather than what we chose to buy.

This has been the case for Georgia Larsen, the London-based founder of Dora Larsen lingerie, whose brightly coloured designs and body positive images are catnip for millennials.

“In our pre-Covid-19 lives, we all knew there was something a bit wrong with working five days a week; starting insanely early and leaving the office insanely late. People have decided, ‘No we’re not doing this anymore.’” she says. “I think there’s a similar thing happening in fashion now. It’s quite empowering, actually.”

Environment has a lot to do with it, Larsen says. “In my previous job I was getting the tube into Topshop headquarters in central London each day… the things we used to wear! It was about looking overtly ‘high fashion’, we never thought about comfort. At the time, it was great fun but I think priorities have changed now. When people eventually start returning to office life, I don’t think things will be the same as they were.”

Now, it’s all about elevating the everyday basics – and feeling good, too. “The further into lockdown we get, the more and more I dress for myself. I’m back in dresses and skirts now, but the main difference is that my priority is 100 percent comfort,” she says.

Inevitably, some pieces have made the cull. “I’ve readjusted my relationship to heels. I’ve completely abandoned them; even a two-inch heel. I think apart from going to a wedding I’ll never wear them again. This whole experience makes you realise: if it doesn’t serve you, what’s the point.”

For PR professional Tara O’Connor lockdown wasn’t so much a challenge to overhaul her wardrobe as the opportunity to hone an already well-defined sense of style. A freelance PR and events guru who is used to working from a home office, O’Connor was already familiar with the #wfh uniform.

Four years ago, O’Connor returned to Kildare after a stint living in London and she continues to embrace the style tendencies of her UK counterparts. Mainly, a high-low look that’s heavy on loungewear. “It’s not unusual in London to see a mum at the school gates wearing a [faux] fur coat over work-out leggings and trainers.”

It’s a look that O’Connor loves, and is elevated by a good coat. It will, she says, be the most hardworking piece in your wardrobe that will pay dividends post-lockdown, too. “It’s the one thing I invest in each season. I’ve stopped doing a high street splurge and I keep the money and invest in a great coat that will last forever.”

When lockdown hit, O’Connor revisited what worked for her, and edited out what didn’t. “I immediately stashed my smart slacks, suit jackets, that kind of thing, in the attic. And my heels went up next. Now, if I want a bit of height, I wear a flatform. Otherwise my daily uniform is a knitted dress, a pair of chunky Grenson boots and a smart JW Anderson camel coat. I also love pairing a luxurious polo neck with tracksuit bottoms. It makes loungewear look more polished.”

“I ditched corporate suits years ago, nowadays it’s completely acceptable to wear trainers in a formal environment.” Will she keep the luxe tracksuit bottoms when IRL meetings start again? “Definitely not! if I was going to a meeting I’d forgo the tracksuit bottoms, it’s a step too far when you are dealing with luxury clients.”

Bethany Rowntree, founder of Studio B, a curated online store with an edit of independent and niche brands, knows a sell-out piece when she sees one.

The biggest trend Rowntree has seen in the last few months is an appetite for multi-purpose pieces: clothing that is functional but also propels a sense of delight. After all, just because we’re at home, we’re still sharing what we’re wearing. As I type, the hashtag #wfh has been used nearly three million times on Instagram.

“Brands such as Sleeper and its hit Atlanta dress have appealed massively in lockdown due to their versatility,” she says. “Because it’s the kind of dress you can throw over a bikini, wear with sandals, or dress up for a wedding.”

Function is key, according to Rowntree, who believes that a lot of the pieces people are purchasing are to enhance an existing outfit, rather than buying a whole new one. “For example, taking a printed summer dress and layering a T-shirt underneath and a knitted vest on top.”

Rowntree predicts co-ords are set to be huge as we come further into spring – think a soft and comfortable shirt with a matching pair of trousers. “They’re great because you can mix and match them in your wardrobe,” she says.

Another piece that is set to sell out is a gingham tent dress by US label April Meets October. “It’s got big pockets, which I love. You can wear it with slides, sandals or chunky boots. You can layer a turtleneck underneath,” she says. Again, versatility is key. “If we’re going to spend money right now, it’s on pieces with year-round wearability.”

Rowntree’s new style resolutions? “Be more retro,” she says. “There’s something about the colours, the patterns and the fun of it that I’m really enjoying. Besides I’m spending my lockdown evenings watching The Serpent and it’s really influencing me.”

Ditching that which no longer serves us – be it in life or in wardrobe – can feel good. If there’s one take away from the tumultuous events of the last year, it’s the ability to choose questioning over compliance.

The best ‘rule’ to follow post-lockdown and beyond? If in doubt, make a beeline for clothing that makes you feel good.

“We’re done conforming,” Larsen says. “It’s no longer, ‘This is on trend, I need to buy it.’ It’s where did this dress come from, who has made it, what’s going to happen when I’m done with it, do I actually need it and how does it make me feel.”


Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash