Opinion | Fashion Will Not Disappear. It Will Transform.

This has been, economically, the worst year in the industry’s history. And yet fashion is more relevant than ever.

Credit…Martin Nicolausson

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By Rhonda Garelick

Dr. Garelick is the dean of the School of Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons/The New School and the author of “Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History.”

In an April interview about the pandemic, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek said we should “forget about the economy we have now” and “treat simply as irrelevant things like the fashion industry.” He was voicing a prejudice usually unspoken: a contemptuous disregard for fashion. For him, the industry is merely about conspicuous consumption and self-indulgence — and should simply be allowed to die.

But Mr. Zizek is wrong. Not only should we not let the fashion industry die; we couldn’t if we tried.

It’s true that economically, 2020 has been the industry’s worst year in history. Many companies have struggled badly and even collapsed in the pandemic: J. Crew and Brooks Brothers filed for bankruptcy; Diane von Furstenberg is closing 18 of 19 stores; Zara is shuttering 1,200 stores worldwide; and the 194-year-old doyenne Lord & Taylor is closing everywhere, forever — just to name a few.

But neither the industry nor fashion itself will disappear. Instead, they will transform. And new companies, with new designers and new ideas, will replace those lost.

This is because fashion is integral to our existence, not an irrational indulgence. It springs from deeply rooted impulses to adorn the self, to communicate sensuously, to participate in the social collectivity and lend it shape and legibility. Fashion is a daily practice wherein culture touches the body in the most literal, intimate way. It’s no more likely to die than is art or architecture, music or fine cuisine — all of which are also suffering in this pandemic, though Mr. Zizek targets none of those for extinction.

Why then banish fashion? The answer is simple: Fashion codes as “feminine,” as a woman’s realm (although all genders participate in it). And even brilliant philosophers can succumb to the ingrained misogyny that denigrates women’s culture as irrelevant, wasteful, even destructive.

Removing the blinders of sexism, though, we see that the pandemic has given us a valuable chance to reconsider fashion’s enormous cultural importance. Covid-19 and fashion are not, in fact, antagonists. Rather, they are in dialogue, for they are natural interlocutors. They both live at the intersection of culture and the body.

Yes, the pandemic has changed the way we dress. In public, we now cover and constrain ourselves as never before, masking our faces, gloving our hands. Yet in private, the opposite happens: We are shedding constraints, exchanging “real world” clothes for loungewear and pajamas. Those fortunate enough to work from home have jettisoned virtually all encumbrances of professional attire: suits, jackets, ties, briefcases, heels, skirts and Spanx. And millions of us have forgone rituals of self-maintenance we once thought indispensable — from haircuts to manicures, facials and beyond.

These pared-down habits of dress and grooming (and crucially, spending) account for the dire predictions about fashion’s future. But we should not mistake these superficial and temporary alterations for the more profound sorts of changes the coronavirus will bring.

We will sometime soon return to dressing for the “outside” world, to adorning and beautifying ourselves. But things will not be the same, because we will not be the same.

Covid-19 grants each of us newly heightened awareness of our bodies: how they work, how we “wear” them in society. Such changes are culturally profound and will necessarily alter fashion. It behooves us to take them — and fashion — seriously.

While fashion has acquired more gravitas in recent years (entering university curriculums, for example), anti-fashion prejudice has a long history, intertwined with sexism and misogyny. Critics and philosophers have been deriding fashion for millenniums, using it as a symbol for every manner of human weakness: duplicity, depravity, narcissism, frivolity, greed — attributes also ascribed traditionally to women. Often, fashion becomes a kind of literary shorthand, a metaphor, for the failings of the female sex.

When Plato derided democracy as a form of government too reliant on easy promises, he likened it to fashion. In “The Republic,” he compares democracy to an “embroidered robe which is spangled with every manner of flower,” whose eye-catching colors appeal “to women and children” — something unmanly, in other words, which seduces immature (i.e., female) minds.

When Euripides’ unhinged heroine Medea seeks vengeance on her husband, Jason, she turns to fashion. After Jason abandons her to marry the young and beautiful Glauce, Medea sends Glauce tainted “wedding gifts”: a silken robe and a golden coronet, both infused with a lethal and combustible poison. The bride, vain about her beauty (another feminine weakness), rushes to try on her gifts and dies in agony, engulfed in flames.

This aura of menace hovers over fashion throughout the centuries. Jean-Jacques Rousseau denounced fashion as a threat to moral society — an incitement to desire and covetousness, writing that finery is a “stranger to virtue.” In “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” by Hans Christian Andersen, excessive interest in fashion proves to be the sign of a dangerously vain and foolish leader. Karl Marx inveighed against the “murderous, meaningless caprices of fashion.” And even Simone de Beauvoir lambasted fashion for “enslaving women.”

If it’s so unimportant, why does fashion remain such an irresistible literary and philosophical motif? If it’s trivial and irrelevant, how can it also be so powerful and dangerous? Why does fashion get invoked so often only to be renounced or exiled from depictions of ideal or moral societies? Why is fashion conjured only to be repudiated?

The answer lies precisely in the allure of this very process — this cycle of fascination followed by rejection. The rhythms of this process mirror the deepest parts of our conflicted, decadent, yet anhedonic Western psyche: an attraction to pleasure, sex, bodies and beauty, followed by the swift denunciation of these same elements. It’s the superego battling the id, the Catholic confessional. Indulge, repent.

In a patriarchy, women bear more of the stigma for these “moral failings” because they occupy (metaphorically) the realm of flesh and sex, of indulgence and aesthetic enjoyment. Fashion occupies these realms too, and so winds up shouldering the burden of cultural and psychological ambivalence.

As the pandemic changes our dress and appearance, it changes our relationship to our bodies, granting us a new consciousness of our physical selves. We think more now about our breathing, heart rate, oxygen levels. In everyday conversations, we discuss death rate and contagion, symptoms and treatments. We are attending to our biological, mortal selves as never before.

At the same time, we also attend to one another’s biological selves as never before. We measure our distance from others in the street or the grocery store. We assess whether someone nearby poses a physical, even deadly risk.

Such vigilance may come more easily to women than to men. Women are accustomed to estimating what constitutes a safe distance from strangers, gauging their potential to harm us. We already think about our bodily vulnerability in a daily way. We already understand that our bodies are permeable.

Women are the bearers of “bodiliness,” the sex whose biological form and function get staged and noticed. Traditionally, women’s clothes more often outline and emphasize individual body parts (hips, legs, breasts), making female sexuality a public spectacle. Men, though, tend to glide unnoticed — their clothes skimming their bodies, their sexuality implicit rather than staged. They are, in linguistic terms, the “unmarked” sex — default “neutral” persons. But a pandemic re-corporealizes us all, re-rooting everyone, including men, in fleshly reality in all its precarity.

To navigate the world during Covid-19, everyday transactions such as travel, attending school and entering businesses may require temperature checks, health questionnaires and perhaps even lab tests. Private bodily information is becoming a new shared currency — tokens exchanged for small freedoms. While such sharing raises serious privacy concerns, it also reminds us of the deep, physical connection among us all.

Could this be a good thing? Yes, if we pay attention.

We are learning that our bodies extend beyond their physical borders, mingling with the biological ambit of those around us. I might imagine, for example, that my spoken words or shouted greeting belong solely to me, but the airborne transmissibility of this virus teaches me otherwise. We now keenly grasp that one person’s speech, song or exhaled sigh has physical substance — those invisible particles that travel from one body into another, potentially bringing illness, even death. Of course, we’ve long understood viral transmission. But we’ve never contemplated it as vividly before. We’ve never had a starker lesson in our shared physicality.

Nothing makes this clearer than the wearing of masks — the fashion accessories of the pandemic. We wear masks because we’re all just fragments of one vast, collective organism: What I breathe out, you breathe in. My exhalation is your inhalation. And so while masks signify painful human separation — the impossibility of kissing or whispering — they equally highlight the startlingly conjoined nature of our breath. (Studies show that women wear masks more regularly than do men.)

Beyond this shared physical, body-to-body reality, the pandemic brings new appreciation of our shared global reality. Covid-19 spreads from country to country, irrespective of borders. If we truly absorb this lesson in planetary interdependence, then the pandemic could bring renewed urgency about climate change. In a post-pandemic world, climate change denial will feel impossible.

Such heightened planetary awareness could translate into increased demand for fairer and more humane labor practices in fashion and for greater sustainability. Fashion is among the most toxic industries, producing over two billion metric tons of greenhouse gases annually. We could start turning away from the global, jet-set model of fashion, with its extreme dependence on fossil fuel (for travel, shipping, etc.), and toward a more regional, local model, creating openings for new, more diverse designers (who normally can’t compete with corporate behemoths).

Finally, in demanding we attend to our bodies in newly thoughtful ways, the pandemic could help make fashion — even haute couture — more comfortable and embracing. We are already seeing softer, more flowing, less painful clothes on the runway (including more athleisure, even nightwear-inspired looks). This could enhance body positivity and physical diversity in the fashion world, which is still limited by constrictive stereotypes of beauty and size.

Fashion has always played a more critical role in culture than most of us assume, but it acquires far greater significance in a pandemic. In the months and years to come, fashion can help us create a path forward for our bodies, our culture and the planet itself.

Rhonda Garelick (@rkgar), the dean of the School of Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons/The New School, is the author of “Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History.” She is working on a book on the future of fashion.

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