But for historical clues about how Americans might dress after the pandemic, Valerie Steele, a fashion historian and the director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York, says that the most compelling comparison is probably to the Roaring ’20s. That period followed an extended flu pandemic and the First World War, both of which had exhausted and disillusioned many Americans. “Young people were like, This was just handled so badly. It was a debacle. How can you expect us to follow your rules? ” she told me. Sound familiar?
When the flu subsided, the country exploded into rebellion and exuberance. People danced to jazz and drank in speakeasies and smoked opium; the whole thing was unrepentantly lustful, a backlash against the sexlessness and deprivations of the preceding years, as well as against Prohibition, which tried and failed to head this hedonism off at the pass. Young women unlaced their corsets and opted for still-shorter hemlines. They didn’t just reject the previous era’s rigidity, though; they embraced libidinous pursuits, adopting makeup techniques previously associated with sex workers and short hairstyles that could be more easily smoothed into place after an active 15 minutes in the back room of a club. People who had spent years of their youth staring into the abyss wanted to have some fun.
This pandemic’s end might similarly light a fuse on a powder keg of frustrated desire. Sexiness isn’t the reputation-ruining taboo it was in the early 1900s, but it is fraught in new and different ways. As social norms around sexuality, consent, and gender have evolved at a breakneck pace in recent years, fashion has grown cautiously chaste, according to Lauren Sherman, the chief correspondent for The Business of Fashion. Trends have lately tended to obscure the body with volume instead of finding freedom in its shape. “The way our culture has moved—I don’t want to say it’s become more puritanical, but it’s become more politically sensitive,” Sherman told me. “People have overcorrected because they don’t know what is appropriate sexiness.”
Even before 2020, sexual frequency in the U.S. was decreasing, and celibacy was increasing. Add in a year of self-abnegation for singles and libido-killing co-confinement for couples, and we may well be looking at an unprecedented supply of horniness. Pop culture, in fits and starts, seems to be picking up on our looming lasciviousness. (See, for example, the biggest musical moment of the pandemic: the enthusiastic reception of “WAP,” Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s gleefully raunchy ode to female pleasure.)
But for many people, the quest to act on that pent-up desire and once again feel like a sexual being has at least one big obstacle in its path: a year-long pileup of stress and isolation. Nichole Perkins, a writer and podcaster whose work frequently focuses on sex and relationships, told me she doesn’t know how to dress going forward. “I don’t want to say I’m dreading it,” she told me, sounding very much as though she was dreading it. “I am having a difficult time imagining getting back out there, especially as a single person getting back into dating.” These anxieties go beyond clothes, but clothes may be where they manifest most acutely. Do you remember what you used to wear to feel cute? Have those outfits retained their magic? Do they still fit?