Have months of self-isolation, lockdown and working from home irrevocably changed what we will put on once we go out again? For a long time, the assumption was yes. Now, as restrictions ease and the opening up of offices and travel is dangled like a promise, that expectation is more like a qualified “maybe.” But not every country’s experience of the last year was the same, nor were the clothes that dominated local wardrobes. Before we can predict what’s next, we need to understand what was. Here, eight New York Times correspondents in seven different countries share dispatches from a year of dressing.
Retail reports, fashion magazines and personal accounts agree: When working from home this past year, many Italian women found solace in knitwear. Those who could afford it favored cashmere wool knitwear, the kind Italian Vogue called “a luxury version of classic two-piece sweats.”
Fabio Pietrella, the president of Confartigianato Moda, the fashion arm of the association of artisans and small businesses, said that while consumer trends indicated a shift from “a business look to comfort,” it was “not too much comfort.” Italian women, he said, had eschewed sportswear for “quality knitwear” that guarantees freedom of movement but with “a minimum of elegance.”
A seat-of-the-pants poll among a random sample of working women, mostly in their 40s and 50s, revealed that many continued to dress as if they were going to the office, even while favoring comfort over smartness.
One woman said she made a point of getting dressed — knit top and slacks — and going out each morning to a corner cafe to grab a coffee before sitting down at her desk. Another said she dressed as she had in pre-Covid times to set an example for her two teenage children, who (she joked) had stopped washing altogether after months of distance learning.
Astrid D’Eredità, a cultural consultant and new mother, said she had forgone pajamas “even when I was pregnant” and opted for a casual but put-together style. Pajamas and sweats also got a thumbs down from Simona Capocaccia, a graphic designer who has been working from home since last March. “Dressing for work cheers me up,” she said.
Milena Gammaitoni, a professor at Roma Tre, one of Rome’s main universities, can spend entire days at the computer, between Zoom departmental meetings and her lessons with students (whom she asks to not wear pajamas), but she still dresses as she did in pre-Covid days, with a colorful jacket over more casual slacks.
“Recently I’ve even started wearing perfume,” she said, laughing. “I think I’m totally fried.”
The actress and director Francesca Nanni, who worked on a documentary about Italian women during last year’s lockdown, said one woman continued to wear high heels during Zoom meetings even though no one could see her feet. Another insisted on dressing up for dinner at home, choosing a different color every night. “But that didn’t last too long,” she said. “Her husband got fed up.”
According to Mr. Pietrella of Confartigianato Moda, one study found that Italian women opted to dress for work at home to erect a “psychological wall” of sorts to separate themselves from the rest of the family.
“Dressing sends the signal that Mom is home, but she’s working,” Mr. Pietrella said. “So, no ‘Mamma, help me with my homework, Mamma, did you go food shopping? Mamma, I need this or that.’ Mamma is working, so she’s adopted a look that makes it clear to the other family members that she’s in work mode.”
Not even a pandemic has diminished Dakar’s claim to being the flyest city on the planet.
In the Senegalese capital, at Africa’s westernmost tip, men in pointy yellow slippers and crisp white boubous — loosefitting long tunics — still glide down streets dredged with Saharan dust. Young women still sit in cafes sipping baobab juice in patterned leggings and jeweled hijabs. Everyone from consultants to greengrocers still wears gorgeous prints from head to toe.
Occasionally they now wear a matching mask.
While much of the world was shut up at home, many people in West Africa were working or going to school as normal. Lockdown in Senegal lasted just a few months. It was impossible for many people here to keep it up. They depend on going out to earn their living.
And in Dakar, going out means dressing up.
Even if you’re going to work on a construction site. The young men who stream to them each morning, with sardine baguettes wrapped in newspaper under their arms, have not changed their look of tracksuits — pants on the skinny side — with transparent jelly shoes or Adidas sliders over socks and sometimes one of the black-and-white woolen hats that the poet and revolutionary Amílcar Cabral loved.
Still, many citizens have had to tighten their belts, and the ban on big gatherings for baptisms and weddings means fewer new clothes are required.
As a result, there are fewer alteration jobs for the itinerant tailors who stride around residential areas, sewing machine hoisted on a shoulder, clinking a pair of scissors to advertise their services. And the couturiers who have little ateliers in converted garages in every Dakar neighborhood, doors flung open ready to run up an emergency outfit in an hour or less, have in many cases had to let apprentices go because there’s not enough work.
Like many Senegalese women, Bigue Diallo used to get a new dress for every event — and if it was a close friend’s party, she’d get several. These days, she doesn’t see the point.
“I’m not going to waste my money if I can wear my outfit for just two hours among 10 to 15 people,” said Ms. Diallo, the owner of a restaurant in Dakar. “I’d want it to be seen by many people.”
Ruth Maclean and Mady Camara
Carla Lemos was rarely at home in February last year, before the pandemic hit Brazil. The author and influencer was dressed in black jeans, a cardigan and oxford shoes at chilly airports and meeting rooms or in a V-neck cropped shirt, high-waist skirt and fashionable shoes on summer nights in Rio de Janeiro.
One year on, her wardrobe has changed as much as her lifestyle. “I used to be attached to things because they were beautiful, not comfortable,” she said. “I came to realize that clothes need to fit me and make me live better,” she said. That meant loose dresses, kimonos and flip-flops.
Indeed, flip-flops are the sartorial success story of the pandemic in Brazil. Although clothing sales plunged 35 percent last year, according to estimates by the market research firm IEMI, the flip-flop label Havaianas saw sales grow 16 percent, compared to 2019.
Enter new toe socks, glittering flip-flops for Reveillón and ones with themes inspired by Brazilian biodiversity and the L.G.B.T. community.
Ms. Lemos fought the gloom with a dopamine-friendly dressing style that she traced back to the hardships of growing up in the suburbs of Rio.
“The city is colorful, and where I lived, we mixed textures and prints because we reused clothes from an older sister or cousin,” she said. “That’s who I am today, and this is a strong part of the Brazilian fashion identity as well.”
Working professionals in their 30s and 40s have embraced comfort over style in the last year. Formal outfits have been replaced by athleisure, shoes by flip-flops (as in many other Asian cultures, most Indians don’t wear shoes inside their homes), and formal shirts are often worn on video calls with pajamas, track pants or shorts below.
India went through one of the strictest lockdowns in the world between 25 March 2020 and the end of May 2020; the only shopping allowed was for essential groceries and medicines. Even online retail came to a complete halt save for essential items. As a result, clothing sales dropped nearly 30 percent last year according to a joint report by the Boston Consulting Group and Retailers Association of India.
While infections were low during the winter, the past few weeks have seen cases rising to staggering levels in many parts of the country. Right now, it looks as though many people will be working from home for most of 2021 too.
For Ritu Gorai, who runs a moms network in Mumbai, that means she has barely shopped at all, instead using accessories like scarves, jewelry and glasses to jazz up her look and add a little polish.
For Sanshe Bhatia, an elementary schoolteacher, it has meant trading her long kurtas or formal trousers and blouses for caftans and leggings. In order to encourage her class of 30 kids to get dressed in the morning rather than attending lessons in their pajamas, she takes care to look neat and makes sure her long hair is brushed properly.
And for Ranajit Mukherjee, a politician with the Congress party (the main opposition party), being home instead of traveling to different constituencies has meant swapping his normal political uniform — white kurta-pajamas, used to distinguish party members from corporate workers, and a Nehru jacket for more formal events — for T-shirts and casual pants. Most of his colleagues, he said, did the same.
Shalini Venugopal Bhagat
Nathalie Lucas’s hair fell stylishly down on a bouffant black shirt with large lapels. A thick silver chain necklace circled her neck, and bright red lipstick conveyed a splash of color. But below the waist, she wore a pair of relaxed black track pants — “by Frankie Shop,” she said, “just like my shirt and necklace.” And, said the general merchandising director at the Au Printemps department store, “I am barefoot.”
“Working remotely has really changed customs,” she said.
And yet Zoom dressing is “something the French worry about,” said Manon Renault, an expert in the sociology of fashion. “Especially Parisians, who feel they represent elegance.” And while a certain laisser-aller recently had the conservative weekly Le Figaro Madame fretting about whether home-wear habits would drag fashion into a tailspin,” interviews with a range of Parisians suggest a compromise of sorts had been reached.
When Xavier Romatet, the dean of the Institut Français de la Mode, France’s foremost fashion school, went back to work, he didn’t wear a suit, but he did wear a white shirt under a navy blue cashmere sweater and beige chinos, as he would at home. He paired his outfit with sneakers by Veja, a French eco-friendly brand.
Similarly, Anne Lhomme, the creative director of Saint Louis, the luxury tableware brand, dresses the same whether remotely or in person. A favorite look, she said, includes a camel-colored cashmere poncho “designed by a friend, Laurence Coudurier, for Poncho Gallery” and loosefitting plum silk pants. Also lipstick, earrings and four Swahili rings she found in Kenya.
For his part, Thierry Maillet, the chief executive of Ooshot, a visual assets production platform, developed a work from home uniform that involved his old work uniform from the waist up — “light blue or white shirts, which I buy at Emile Lafaurie or online from Charles Tyrwhitt, with a round-collar sweater if it’s cold” — and, from the waist down, “Uniqlo pants in stretch fabric.”
And Sophie Fontanel, a writer and former fashion editor at Elle, said, “I am often barefoot at home, alone, wearing a very pretty dress.”
Since last spring, when many Japanese began working remotely, fashion magazines and online sites have featured tips on how to look good onscreen. The highest priority was not relaxation or comfort, but looking tidy and professional.
One woman who works as a sales agent for an internet directory service attends online meetings a few days a week, and each time she puts on a bright knit top and a full face of makeup. She said she would not appear onscreen in a sweatshirt or a T-shirt or any garment that suggested taking it easy at home.
A woman who works in the accounting section of a design company always puts on a jacket for online meetings with clients, though she still wears jeans below.
For both, colors, texture, and design of collars and sleeves are key.
Fashion magazines and stylists have recommended elaborate shirts with puffed sleeves and one-piece dresses because they look eye-catching onscreen. Fast-fashion brands like Uniqlo, GU and Fifth, as well as high-fashion labels, have focused on bright satin, silk and linen shirts with bow ties or stand-up collars, striped patterns or gathered sleeves. The trend for such showy tops has led to a boom in clothing subscription services.
One such platform, AirCloset, announced that 450,000 users had subscribed in October 2020, three times more than in the same period in 2019. Often users request tops only (one bottom item is usually included), and there is now a limit of three in any one order.
“Customers prefer brighter colors to basics such as navy or beige for online meetings, or they prefer asymmetric design tops,” said Mari Nakano, the AirCloset spokeswoman. About 40 percent of subscribers are working mothers for whom the subscription service saved time because they didn’t have to be bothered with washing. They just put the tops in a bag, return them and then wait for the next package to arrive with their new items.
As often happens in a country of multiple revolutions, a disaster that shakes up the system often fast-forwards already brewing change. In dress terms, closed borders meant a more isolated Russia, which meant more attention on local designers.
“We used to travel, and I used to see what people wear in Paris and Rome,” said Nastya Krasnoshtan, who used the free time during the pandemic to start her own jewelry brand. “Now we cannot do that.”
As incomes shrank, especially among the middle class in large cities, many Russians also could no longer afford even the most popular foreign brands. Anna Lebedeva, a marketing specialist from St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city, is now mostly buying local Russian ones.
“People used to hide that they wear anything Russian,” Ms. Lebedeva said. “It wasn’t hip.”
The pandemic made Ms. Lebedeva a fan of Ushatava, an independent label of sleek, geometrically tailored sleek designs in mostly muted natural colors. It was founded in Yekaterinburg, a city in the Ural Mountains that in the last few years has turned into a Russian fashion hub. 12Storeez, another rising brand from Yekaterinburg, saw its turnover balloon by 35 percent over the last year, even as the market overall shrank by a quarter, said Ivan Khokhlov, one of the founders.
Nastya Gritskova, the head of a P.R. agency in Moscow, said the effect of the pandemic was that for the first time in the Russian capital people stopped “paying attention at who wears what.” Yet last fall, when the government eased coronavirus-related restrictions, things started going back to normal.
“There isn’t a pandemic that can make Russian women stop thinking about how to look beautiful,” she said.
Elisabetta Povoledo, Ruth Maclean, Mady Camara, Flávia Milhorance, Shalini Venugopal Bhagat, Daphné Anglès, Hisako Ueno and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.