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How The Coronavirus Could Shape Fashion Choices


Now, we don't want to assume too much, but it's probably safe to say that you've been wearing sweatpants a lot more lately - or if not, leggings, maybe. Or perhaps you've customized your own facemask. For many of us, these statewide stay-at-home orders have influenced how we dress, how we think about clothes.

And that got us thinking about how this historic moment might shape the future of what we wear, so we've called Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell to help us think about this. She's a fashion historian and author of "Worn On This Day: The Clothes That Made History." And Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

KIMBERLY CHRISMAN-CAMPBELL: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So you were recently quoted in the online publication Quartz saying that the biggest changes in fashion actually don't come from trends. They come from big societal disruptions like wars.

CHRISMAN-CAMPBELL: Yes. Well, the French Revolution, for example, did away with a lot of the over-the-top fashions associated with the old regime - hair powder, hoop petticoats, lace. Anything associated with the aristocracy - that was all gone, and that was a political change as well as a fashion change.

MARTIN: How about World War II? How did that change the way people dress?

CHRISMAN-CAMPBELL: Well, after the extreme deprivations of World War II, when things like food and clothing were rationed and were really hard to get because so much production was going towards the war effort, people went in the opposite direction. And Dior's new look brought in a fashion for very long skirts and corset waists and very over-the-top fashions that would not have been available or politically correct during the war.

MARTIN: Well, how about the current moment? What are the trends that you think might come out of this moment?

CHRISMAN-CAMPBELL: One of the first things that I sort of predicted happening was the same thing that happened during World War I, which is beards are going out of style. And, in fact, very early on in this pandemic, the CDC issued guidelines for things like beards and fingernails because those can be vectors of the virus, but they can also interfere with your protective gear. For example, it's hard to wear latex gloves over long fingernails. It's hard to put a face mask or a breathing device over a beard.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the business side of things for a second. I mean, you have to believe or assume that the industry, the fashion industry, has to be feeling an economic impact because manufacturing has been halted in so many places, because so many retail stores are closed. And, of course, you know, tens of millions of people are out of work. So presumably, people aren't shopping for clothes right now. So do we - what do we know about how kind of shifts in the business of fashion affects the kinds of choices that consumers might make?

CHRISMAN-CAMPBELL: Well, it's been fascinating to me to observe how fashion brands and consumers are adapting to widespread lockdowns. Athleisure will get maybe a natural boost from this because people will continue to wear it after the lockdown maybe more than they felt comfortable doing before. It's sort of a double-edged sword, though, because we are buying less because we're not going anywhere.

But retail therapy is a real thing, and a lot of people are shopping online for entertainment or out of necessity, maybe even for the first time, and they'll continue to do it. I mean, I bought groceries online for the first time a couple weeks ago just because I had to. But it's something I'll probably continue to do. And retailers are, of course, adapting to this.

MARTIN: Have you seen any examples of kind of fashion responding to what we are now considering as, like, norms for hygiene?

CHRISMAN-CAMPBELL: Designer masks are certainly becoming a thing but they already were, actually. In the fall and winter 2019 runway shows, there were a lot of masks on the runway - both the protective kind and sort of the carnivalesque face masks. So things that were already sort of percolating in the high fashion arena are now accelerated.

MARTIN: But before we let you go, as a fashion historian, what kinds of things do you think you'll be most interested in as the economy begins to reopen, whenever that is?

CHRISMAN-CAMPBELL: Well, I think we're going to see a renaissance in personal style. There's a sense that people are looking forward to having a reason to go outside again. Rachel Syme, the fashion reporter for The New Yorker, started a movement to get people to dress up at home every Sunday and post pictures of their outfits just to have the fun of getting dressed up and looking pretty. We may see a real renaissance of fashion of people going way over the top just because they've been cooped up and had that personal expression stifled for so long.

MARTIN: That's Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell. She's a fashion historian and the author of several books, including "Worn On This Day: The Clothes That Made History." We reached her in Los Angeles.

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, thanks so much for talking to us.

CHRISMAN-CAMPBELL: Thank you, Michel. Stay safe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.