American Fashion Changed After the Depression, and It's About to Reinvent Itself Again
This is Future of Fashion, where we break down the latest trends, tricks, and news, long before the rest of the world catches on.
“Unprecedented.” That’s the word we keep hearing for the level of disruption that COVID-19 has brought to our economy and our social lives.
As we hunker down and see our collective incomes contract, the fashion industry is also in crisis. Factories in Europe and Asia are shutting down, either to stem the spread of coronavirus, or because brands are closing stores and canceling orders. The Boston Consulting Group predicts that fashion sales in 2020 could drop by a quarter or even a third compared to 2019, representing up to $600 billion in lost revenue.
In fact, this crisis isn’t completely unprecedented. It’s just that there are very few women still alive who remember what it was like the other times something this disruptive happened: The 1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. And if we draw on the expertise of fashion historians and trend forecasters, we can learn from the social, financial, and fashion upheaval of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s to predict how our style will change in the coming months and years. In short? It’s not going to be all leggings all the time: Dressier days are on the horizon already.
We’ll prize simple clothing that is easy to wash.
Before the 1918 flu epidemic, “People didn't wash their clothes nearly as often as we do now, with the exception of undergarments,” says Allison Pfingst, fashion historian and archivist, and advisor of the Fashion Studies department at Fordham University. A decade after the first electric washer hit the market, very few households had one.
“You can imagine how difficult it would be to do your family's household laundry by hand, especially in the midst of a highly contagious pandemic when you're likely taking care of someone who is ill,” Pfingst says. That pushed delicate or fussy clothing and voluminous undergarments out of women’s closets, bringing in slimmer clothing shapes, sturdy fabrics, and colors that don’t fade in the wash.
Today, as we peel off our “outside” clothes and stick them straight into the washing machine on the ultra-hot sanitary setting, we’ll likely also pivot to easy, washable clothing and away from “dry clean only” fashion. That means cotton, linen, washable silk, and washable merino wool are in. Delicate beadwork and lace, plus fabrics like rayon or regular silk that shrink and stain at the mere sight of water, are out.
In-your-face luxury will be out.
Pfingst sent over a New York Times article written in the depths of the Great Depression describing the society ladies wearing last year’s dresses and jewels: “Many of the wealthiest women who have not yet felt the pinch are dressing more simply than last year, since they felt ostentatious costume is in bad taste these days,” the author opined in 1932. Barbara Hutton, heiress to the Woolworth department store fortune, became infamous for throwing a lavish ball during this time.
Today, celebrities are already getting blowback for complaining about social isolation on social media inside their mansions and compounds. “Most likely, we’ll see cultural mores about displaying wealth or status change when so many people are out of work,” says Natalie Nudell, a fashion and textile historian at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. She points out that fur and ornate decoration slipped away during the 2008 recession, but had started to creep back in over the past five years in the form of sequins, peplum, and puffed sleeves, big gold jewelry and feathers, and even hoop-skirt ball gowns. (Let them eat cake, indeed.)
No longer. “We’re probably going to go back to an aesthetic of scarcity,” Nudell says. Simple sheath dresses, tees, wide-leg pants, and humble jeans in rustic fabrics like linen and cotton have so far been popular only with a certain subset of minimalist, sustainable influencers. But you’ll probably start seeing them even on the most high-end influencers soon.
We’ll make do, mend, and shop secondhand.
Because materials were being diverted for the war effort, “Make Do and Mend” became fashion’s official slogan in the 1940s. Before that in the Great Depression, many women resorted to upcycling empty cotton flour sacks into dresses, leading food companies to start printing colorful floral patterns on their food bags.
We probably won’t need to turn our reusable grocery bags into blouses, but women are taking the time spent at home to organize their closets, mend their clothing, and learn how to knit, embroider, and crochet. Jeremy Scott of Moschino gave a fashion crafting tutorial to Miley Cyrus’ fans. Others are dragging their sewing machines out of the closet so they can sew their own face masks. “More and more people are going to be busting out any hotel sewing kits they have stashed away to replace buttons, mend tears, and maybe even hem those pants they have in the back of their closet,” fashion historian Pfingst says.
The online secondhand fashion market is also set to explode. “It’s been gaining momentum before this happened,” says Melissa Moylan, a trend forecaster for womenswear at Fashion Snoops. “Even retailers like Nordstrom dipped into that. But it hasn’t yet had mass acceptance.” She sees that changing, as more people shop at places like The Realreal, Poshmark, and ThredUp to save money, and others clean out and sell from their closets to make a little extra cash.
Fashion trends will slow down.
After a decade of experimentation, with boyish silhouettes with dropped waistlines, the Great Depression and the 1930s brought in a more feminine, classic silhouette. In our time, minimalism, capsule wardrobe dressing, and an emphasis on classics have slowly gained ground on lightning-fast fashion trends in the past few years, but our experts think longlasting classics will become the norm now. “Less disposable income means less money to throw away on clothing each season, and priority will go to clothes that will be fashionable longer than a couple of months,” Pfingst says.
Designers including Donatella Versace, Rick Owens, and Guram Gvasalia of Vetements have indicated they are looking forward to slowing down and creating seasonless clothes. “People are asking, what am I going to invest in?” Moylan says. She thinks we’ll focus on what she calls “wardrobe builders,” things like blazers, wide leg pants, sweater dresses, and pleated skirts.
“People are going to be eager to buy stuff, if they can afford it. But I don’t think they will jump on something new,” agrees Nancy Deihl, Director of the M.A. Program in Costume Studies at New York University. “They’ll just want something that will be reassuring to them.”
We’ll fall back in love with the house dress.
Gabrielle Korn, author and Director of Fashion and Culture at Refinery29, says she spent her first few weeks of social distancing in New York City in loungewear. But since decamping to her girlfriend’s home state of North Carolina, she’s already switched to long and loose cotton house dresses so she can enjoy the weather on the front porch. “The weather change combined with the semi-public outside space called for something just slightly elevated that still is cozy,” she explains.
She’s following in the footsteps of housewives in the 1930s and 1940s, who needed something they could wear when cooking at home and visiting with their neighbors (their equivalent to the working from home Korn and many of us are doing right now). While house dresses during the Great Depression were humble and hand-crafty, that changed in 1942, when Claire McCardell, the designer credited with defining the American Look, invented the Popover Dress, a radically simple and comfortable yet flattering wrap dress (which came with a matching potholder) that any woman could own for $7 ($111 in today’s dollars).
Once we get sweatsuit fatigue (it’s coming), we’ll reinvigorate the kinds of clothing that are one step above PJs: wrap dresses, caftans, easy blouses, and wide leg loose-fitting pants that make us feel like queens of our realm instead of prisoners.
We’ll long for the escape of movies rather than the relatability of influencers.
In the 1930s, all of America went to the movies for affordable entertainment. Even as the general population made do with mending their old dresses, fashionable images from that era feature movie stars in luxurious satin dresses, furs, and sparkIing jewels. Movie stars capitalized on that fantasy by endorsing sewing patterns, makeup, and affordable copies of their glamorous outfits.
“Even though people were aspiring to glamour, they weren’t spending tons,” Deihl says. “Mrs. Middle America wasn’t wearing sables the way Gloria Swanson or Joan Crawford were. But maybe she was wearing rabbit fur from this year’s catalogue.” These were fashion’s first mass-market dupes and copies.
Now, instead of gleaning fashion must-haves and travel recommendations from influencers, we’re turning to Netflix for entertainment, to forget what is going on. “I think we were almost at the point of exhaustion with influencers,” Moylan of Fashion Snoops says, of recent pre-pandemic days. “Now that this has hit, if they were to put on something, it’s like, where do you think you’re going?”
But period costumes worn in the movies? More of those, please.
When this is all over, we’ll want to look sharp.
“The style that we really think of as being 1940s style — the boxy look, shoulder pads, that man tailored look — it actually came into fashion at the tail end of the 1930s,” Deihl says. When the war broke out and material rationing started, the style stuck around.
Similarly, Moylan predicts that when we’re back out in the world and in our offices, we’ll run in the opposite direction from schlubby loungewear and toward tailored looks. “We are going to want to dress up,” she says, citing recent collections shown by Proenza Schouler, Jonathan Simkhai, Jil Sander, and Sies Marjan with tailored classics.
We’ll DIY our beauty and wellness routines and spend on makeup.
During the Depression, women spent what little money they had on makeup to emulate the movie-star look. Now, with shelter-in-place orders spreading across the country, WWD reports that sales of Tata Harper’s at-home facial bundles, Avène’s Soothing Sheet Mask, and Olive & June’s Mani Kits are all up. “People will still be buying makeup and beauty products. It’s a way to continue your self-care,” Nudell says.
Moylan agrees. “I’m still comfortable buying beauty at this time, but I can’t bring myself to buy another piece of clothing right now; it’s just too scary,” she admits.
But we’ll ditch the last of our uncomfortable, gendered work clothing.
According to Pfingst, sportswear was invented in the 1920s, while Rosie the Riveter encouraged women to dress comfortably in slacks and coveralls so they could take over the men’s jobs in shipyards and factories.
“While it is still advisable to look presentable from the chest up, no woman is putting on a thong or an underwire to attend a Zoom meeting,” she says. “When we have to go back to the office, there’s a good chance it will no longer be in uncomfortable heels, or hard-to-tuck-in blouses. Expectations of impractical, uncomfortable work attire are floating away along with a feeling of obligation to appear ‘attractive’ at work in the MeToo era.”
Looking sharp but feeling breezy and comfortable? That’s something we can look forward to.