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Essay: Coronavirus and Modern Fashion

by Amy de la Haye and Bella Gladman on 31 July 2020

In the final essay of the Fashion in a Time of Crisis project, Amy de la Haye and Bella Gladman ponder the immediate impact of COVID-19 on the ethos, design, production and presentation of fashion, within this multi billion pound global creative industry.

In the final essay of the Fashion in a Time of Crisis project, Amy de la Haye and Bella Gladman ponder the immediate impact of COVID-19 on the ethos, design, production and presentation of fashion, within this multi billion pound global creative industry.

As the Fashion in a Time of Crisis series of illustrated essays has revealed, fashion and dressed appearances have weathered multiple crises over the last 100 years or so: from clothing an army of land girls in a breeched uniform which challenged prevailing notions of femininity; police brutality against Black and Latino people in the US which increased the potency of the zoot suit as a sub-cultural signifier; Nazi diktat on the Parisian haute couture industry which threatened its very survival; and the AIDS epidemic which robbed and thwarted male fashion talent, whilst inadvertently paving the way for female designers. In the final essay of the project, Amy de la Haye and Bella Gladman ponder the immediate impact of COVID-19 on the ethos, design, production and presentation of fashion, within this multi billion pound global creative industry.

The most immediate and profound change–as in all areas–was the shift towards digital communication. However, for an industry that is so inherently social and driven by hype, and a product so profoundly multi-sensorial in its appeal, this was a major challenge. The lockdown brought an almost immediate moratorium on the social side of fashion. Fashion’s mystique and allure is made in large part by the networking, the dinners, the showroom visits, the PR lunches, the parties - all the parts of fashion where fashion as a total lifestyle takes place. Without them, fashion is simply the clothes, and in many ways, fashion hasn’t been simply the clothes for a long time.

As Jeppe Ulgevig notes in his book Fashion Work: 25 Years of Art in Fashion, brands like Nike and Tommy Hilfiger started to divorce themselves from the manufacturing of product and transforming themselves into dream hubs–brand building–in the 90s. Approximately three decades later, we are way past the point where fashion is or can be simply about clothes: certainly reviews across recent years have rued the lack of focus on the clothes in favour of stupendous presentations. Brands have increasingly developed the spectacle, the celebrity guests and technological gimmickry associated with shows, leaving the clothing a slightly overlooked sibling, to some eyes, even an afterthought: how would fashion cope, without the coveted aura of power bestowed by being in the room where the spectacle happens?

A working from home outfit, from @wfhfits

A DIY aesthetic, previously deemed unthinkable, was necessarily embraced. Filming became grainier and filtered through webcams and video conferencing apps; angles and lighting less professional and domestic life and spaces replaced the colorama backdrops of the studio. This was also evident in the revived interest in amateur craft skills and a hand-crafted aesthetic. And, whilst we accepted that our own appearances were less groomed, it was more shocking to see celebrities, who usually appear so very glossy, looking less so as their access to professional beauticians and hairdressers was curtailed.

Of course, for most people, fashion took a back seat as life and death concerns took grip. Further, loss of work (a high proportion of fashion workers are freelance) and precarious personal and business finances, combined with the lack of social occasions, cancellation of holidays etc. saw a dramatic reduction in the desire and demand for new clothes. After an initial spike of selfies on Instagram, as immortalised by the popular Instagram account @wfhfits, this practice soon fell into decline (their last post was on 14 May 2020). As life became confined to the home and visitors were no longer allowed, comfort became paramount, and sportswear and luxury leisure apparel became mainstays. Occasion shoes and handbags became redundant and fashion’s focus shifted to what could be seen on screen – the head and torso.

Instagram Live, FaceTime and Zoom conversations grew in popularity (as seen in this one between Jonathan Anderson and Tim Blanks).

In public spaces and on television, face masks became the most visible commodity of the crisis: retailers big and small rushing to develop fashion-forward masks for the trend-conscious, and functional suppliers doing big business on medical grade masks. Many people simply wrapped a fabric scarf as a bandana around their face - Wild West gunslinger style. After years of confrontation about the potential security threats of religious face coverings which were deemed to mask personal identity, wearing face masks might well prompt similar concerns as lockdown eases. In the UK, where we have received mixed messages about their efficacy and whether we should be wearing them, they have been made mandatory on public transport and in hospitals, and subsequently in supermarkets and other public areas. The wearing of face masks also generated discussion during the Second World War and formed the subject of a short newsreel public information film A-Tish-Oo!, with a strong case being made for face mask wearing in order to keep workers working for the war effort.

Winding back to fashion processes and production, during the lockdown we have born witness to humanity at its finest, most desperate, and utterly despicable. On the finer side of things, as in wartime, designers and brands re-directed their production to the manufacture of vital goods; in this instance personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers. Supplies were critically low because the Conservative government had ignored advice about ensuring stocks of PPE in preparation for an anticipated future pandemic, and when coronavirus was announced in Wuhan, they sold PPE to China. Large-scale fashion corporations Burberry and Prada reorganised their production units to make PPE and independent fashion designers Phoebe English, Holly Fulton and Bethany Williams banded together to form the Emergency Designer Network to co-ordinate volunteer PPE producers, and many other small groups of people with the right skills did likewise. In Italy, one of the hardest-hit European countries, Bottega Veneta donated significant financial support to medical research and hospitals.

Scrubs made by the Emergency Designer Network

Fashion desperation can be seen in the sad losses of both long and recently established brands and retailers filing for bankruptcy. They include Brooks Brothers, House of Holland, Sies Marjan, and also British high street brands Oasis and Warehouse. Luxury retailers Harrods and Selfridges have announced significant redundancies as well. The British Fashion Council called for UK government support on 16 July, citing Oxford Economics data that predict over a quarter of British fashion industry jobs will be lost through the pandemic. The shockwaves sent through the supply chain do not stop there; with existing orders cancelled and new orders stopped, payment delays and raw material shortages, workers across the world are facing significant uncertainty across the board.

Significantly, the supply chain has become more visible than ever before. In a bid to investigate a resurgence of coronavirus in Leicester, slave labour was discovered in overcrowded factories and workshops. The Sunday Times reported that the fast fashion powerhouse Boohoo–one of the UK’s biggest fast fashion retailers, whose product includes mass-production of celebrity style and whose billionaire owners enjoy a celebrity lifestyle–are alleged to have paid their Leicester workers just £3.50 an hour (well below the legal minimum wage), and forced said workers to come in even with coronavirus symptoms, endangering themselves and others. This news has been received with outrage and has caused an 18% fall in Boohoo's share price.

We must, of course, note that exploitation is not exclusive to fast fashion retailers - the more you pay for a garment does not necessarily mean it has been made within more ethical circumstances. Leicester’s fashion factories may not be the only example of dangerous business practices. Indeed, recent reports on the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Chinese clothing factories would indicate that exploitation is, has been, and continues to be rampant, coronavirus or not.

Giulia Mensitieri, in an interview with 1Granary about her forthcoming book, has struck a nerve with her incisive exploration of precarity in fashion: from garment workers in developing countries working with low pay, without rights or health and safety measures, to seemingly glamorous freelancers in the major fashion capitals, dressed in new season pieces but with salaries that barely cover the basics. With the fashion system in flux from top to bottom, without the perks that exclusive access, freebies and socialising provide, and with lives on the line, it’s not unreasonable to expect fashion workers to request tangible material improvements from their employers.

The fantasy that fashion deals in feels somewhat like a Marie Antoinette scenario (a queen playing fancy dress as a milkmaid at a time of impending revolution) during this time of devastation. Amidst the crises of the coronavirus pandemic and many hundreds of thousands of deaths, and widespread protests against racism and police brutality, the toll of living weighs heavily. To be able to–even momentarily–glance away from the deaths of hundreds and thousands of people; the continued brutalisation of black people, immigrants, and people of colour; and victimisation of LGBTQ lives, feels like a luxury only a few can afford. Sure, we all need release, entertainment and levity in life, but fashion as the face of capitalism is on a knife edge. It has to care about people, because it’s people that keep it alive and wear it. We've witnessed and continue to witness a seismic change that is evolving over time; we can only hope that firstly, as many people come out of this alive as possible, and secondly, that the fashion industry changes for its workers to live better within it.

A scene from the protests in Los Angeles on 27 May 2020

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