The way we wear
Lubna Abdel-Aziz, , Friday 9 Jul 2021

To say that Covid-19 has changed our lives is an understatement.

This pandemic has disrupted our lives to an unprecedented level in the last 100 years. Not since the 1920s have we experienced such drastic differences, such as those that followed the flu pandemic and the two world wars.

The change is likely to have a long-term impact on our behaviour, spending, priorities, lifestyles, and relationships, long after we see the end of it.

For one thing, our day-long shopping sprees are over. We have shifted from French perfumes, to hand-wash, soaps, sanitisers and such, which have already seen a spike of 300 per cent since 2019.

Even the clothes we wear will be different, or are already different. Wash and wear articles are far more desirable nowadays. All we need are self-cleaning clothes, and that may not be too far-fetched.

Let us pause for a moment and ponder on clothes. The have always been in the forefront of change following major global events. After World War I, the flu pandemic and the Russian Revolution, in came the 1920s roaring, with short, sexy dresses, loud music and jazz and Charleston steps, akin to a cleansing of a dismal past.

There was a time when everyone dressed in a similar way. The affluent upper classes were distinctly superior to the poorer, lower classes. Today, the class distinction has been rather blurred and everyone can follow fashion. Cheaper versions of the opulent designer runways are immediately reproduced to fit your pocket- book. The socio-economic difference may be apparent only in fit and fabric.

Besides, only a small minority dress in high-fashion runway styles. However, most of us choose to be fashionable.

Fashion, however, has taken a sharp turn, not only since Covid-19, but since the 1950s, when a casual trend took over. Some historians credit Steve Jobs for re-defining office-wear and the elevation of the casual style. The man/or woman, in the grey-flannel suit with starched shirt and tie is almost obsolete.

Despite the requirement of a dress-code of some kind, be it office or college, the trend has gradually moved to comfort and ease. We seek a middle-ground that retains our own style and individuality.

Why do we dress anyway? Do not smirk, it is a legitimate question that has plagued historians.

Since pre-historic times people in almost all societies have worn some kind of clothing. Different theories have been advanced as to why humans dress. One of the earliest is the modest/shame or fig theory, since the snake had Eve eat the fruit, and Eve had Adam bite it.

Perhaps that is why many theologians believe the fruit was the fig not the apple.

Other theories, with a non-religious view, is function. We dress to protect our bodies from the elements. Although in some societies people have worn little or no clothing, yet they have decorated their bodies with paint, tattoos, (still do) and other ornamentations, thereby conveying a message of who they are. We are obsessed with how we look.

No doubt what you wear is a form of statement, indicating some information about you, your individual personality, your economic standard, even where you are headed, a wedding, an opera or a business meeting.

In the aftermath of World War II more casual outfits became commonplace as women overtook men’s jobs. In 1948, a dashing young French designer, Christian Dior, introduced the “New Look”. Women went nuts over the longer skirts and the high waistlines. The war years had deprived them of such fastidious femininity, but it did not stick. Within two years women stopped buying them. They were not about to go back to cumbersome clothes.

Remember the little house-dress stay-home Moms used to wear? They were flung away in favour of shorts and pants, and that is when women really started to wear pants, copying Katherine Hepburn and Coco Chanel. Designers took notice and the pant-suit was born.

Following street trends, designers reproduced them with some refinement and rich fabrics. With denim there was little they could do. Americans made it popular globally. Designers took it from there, producing 300 styles of blue jeans, adding jackets, skirts, vests, shirts, even purses and sneakers, in that fabric that Americans love so much.

Denim, before it was blue, was milled in Genoa, Italy, which French weavers called Genes. Levi Strass arrived in San Francisco and realised that miners needed sturdier trousers. In the early 1860s he replaced canvas with the fabric milled in Nimes, France, “serge de Nimes” became denim in America, and until the young picked it up as their uniform, it was strictly a miner’s attire.

A cool Italian journalist predicted in the 1930s that in 100 years we would all dress in uniforms. We are almost there. T-shirts and Jeans, (tattered and torn) are the dress of the young, and some adults are picking up the habit.

Back to Covid-19, fashion’s flux is just beginning. Imprisoned in our leggings we can now lounge in bell-bottom pants and snazzy sweat suits. That old little house dress is embellished to a lounger dress fit for tea on the terrace. Designers are quick to oblige for as long as our restricted social activities last.

Of course there are always the classics that have stood the test of time — with minor changes to keep up with the trends.

Casual is the new chic, at least for now.

“Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 July, 2021 edition ofAl-Ahram Weekly