Our Year Of Nap Dresses & Tie Dye

What 2020’s Biggest Fashion Trends Really Mean.

Squiggly Line
Are you familiar with the Skirt Length Theory of economics? It’s the idea that shorter hemlines signal an upward market trajectory, while longer hemlines — like the ones many of us have been sporting for the past several seasons — are a harbinger of bad economy to come. According to Investopedia, the theory was first put forward in 1925, just four years before the advent of the Great Depression, by an economist at the Wharton School of Business. It’s since been largely disproven, and while you shouldn’t redo your investment portfolio (should you have such a thing) based on the whims of fashion designers, to begin with, a lot can be gleaned about a period of time by looking at what those who lived through it were wearing. 
Take, for example, the 1920s, during which the flapper aesthetic, with its dropped waists and abbreviated hemlines, signalled a sense of liberation brought about by new socio-political factors like women getting the vote, leaving home to go work, and frequenting speakeasies. Or the 1960s, when long hair, psychedelic prints, and often the very lack of clothes allowed young people to express their distaste for the Vietnam War, support of civil rights, and rejection of mainstream social norms. Or the punk movement, which took over the UK in the 1970s before spreading to the US and challenged gender norms and beauty standards in favour of anti-authoritarian views expressed via dark colours and heavily distressed garments sometimes held together only by safety pins. While all of these aesthetics have been flattened into deceptively one-dimensional caricatures of themselves, they’ve also provided a simple lens through which to understand what it felt like to be a young person during a given period of time. Only, in 2020, we’re not exactly doing the Charleston in beaded cocktail dresses at speakeasies, or dancing naked and covered in mud at Woodstock. Instead, people will probably look back on this strange time and remember us sending self-deprecating Twitter missives in colour-coordinated sweatsuits at home. 
“Fashion is intrinsically linked to consumer and societal attitudes, it gives us a true reflection of how we live our lives,” says Francesca Muston, VP of fashion at the trend forecasting firm WGSN. And as we are currently living our lives in a pandemic, it makes sense that our fashion reflects that.
Some of the trends that, based on last year’s catwalk reports, might have been en vogue this year were ultimately upended by realities including not just the pandemic but a widespread reckoning on systemic racism, and an economic crisis that has betrayed the long-festering flaws in our social safety net — or lack thereof. For example, in October, Vogue predicted that among the nine most important trends to emerge from the SS20 catwalks were ‘70s-style suiting, bias draping, and trench coats. While those are all things you can indeed find right now anywhere from Net-a-Porter to Zara, they aren’t what most people are really wearing, and they certainly won’t be what this year is remembered for fashion-wise. (Other trends from the list, like lingerie-inspired pieces and recycled fabrics, have fared better in our more intimate, more socially conscious new world.) 
Fascinatingly, Muston says the biggest trend WGSN was predicting for 2020 was something called “Considered Comfort,” which she defines as “a trend which was centered around the home, and something we’d been tracking for around four years. In particular, it examined the idea of the comfort we expect when we spend more time at home driven by flexible lifestyles and increased home convenience.” Sounds familiar, right?
Even before the pandemic stranded us all at home, fashion had been headed in an overall comfier direction for some time — the athleisure category has held strong for years, while big, walkable sneakers and dad-on-vacation-inspired sandals have overtaken sleek high heels as the footwear du jour for influencer-types. Best of all, there’s now a comfortable look for every kind of homebound individual. While a few years it ago, it felt like athleisure was mostly limited to the kind of skin-tight, all-black Alexander Wang ensembles favoured by impossibly cool people in L.A. and New York, or the Lululemon yoga pants beloved by suburban mums, these days, you can choose your go-to when it comes to the clothes that can take you seamlessly from bedroom to bodega (and also to all the Zoom calls in between). 
During the early days of coronavirus, back when being confined to our apartments for weeks on end still felt weird instead of disturbingly routine, Google searches for tie-dye shot through the roof, peaking higher in June than at any other point in the past five years, despite the fact that fashion mags have been heralding its return since about 2018, when it was shown on the catwalks at Chanel, Proenza Schouler, and R13. In its most 2020 iteration — the tie-dyed sweatsuit — it evokes a sunny California chic that’s easy for pretty much anyone to pull off. For those with room and time for activities, tie-dye is also a good DIY project, which as you may recall is something many of us were desperate for, back in sourdough-era quarantine. 
Personally, one of my only post-coronavirus clothing purchases, aside from the silk face masks I can’t seem to stop buying, has been a tie-dye sweatshirt from Agolde that I had on loan from Rent the Runway, couldn’t bear to return, and purchased for 60% off. My attachment to this object betrays what I think is another reason for tie-dye’s increased popularity: its colourful nature and connection to the past (hippies! the ‘90s! childhood!) reminds us of better days. “Tie-dyeing has been popular for decades and so, for many people, it also has an element of nostalgia. Nostalgia reminds us of a time gone by when things were better than they are now —usually in our imaginations only!” shares Professor Carolyn Mair Ph.D., a behavioural psychologist and the author of The Psychology of Fashion
But, if your vibe is less “crunchy-cool camp counsellor” and more “fashion-forward Victorian ghost,” there’s another quarantine fashion contender. Prairie dresses, an alternately beloved and derided style popularised by some of biggest brands of the moment, like Ganni, Brock Collection, and Batsheva (not to mention last year’s blockbuster remake of Little Women), are a little too fussy for fielding emails from your couch, but naturally, they have a successor. The Nap Dress, so named by Nell Diamond of the home goods brand Hill House, refers to any nightgown-adjacent frock one could alternately wear to bed or, with the right accessories, to a socially-distanced restaurant dinner or day at the park. Hill House’s cotton versions, which come in various patterns and styles and will set you back about £125, have been so popular they’re often sold-out, but other brands like Doen, Sleeper, and Christy Dawn have similar options, as do, suddenly, ASOS and Target. Dr. Mair posits nap dresses will be among 2020’s most memorable trends, citing their versatility, casual femininity, and the fact that they work on a range of body types. “We tend to feel more ‘dressed up’ when wearing a dress than other garments, and so choosing a comfortable style of dress during the pandemic makes perfect sense,” she explains. 
Of course, the article of clothing that’s actually most likely to be remembered in association with this period of time is probably the face mask, that humble piece of cloth that has come to represent both the vaguely apocalyptic vibe of this moment, and the ingenuity of brands and individuals to turn that into something fun and self-expressive. (As well as a deep-seated political divide that can now touch even the most seemingly innocuous of objects.) Before becoming a literal must-have item, masks had briefly appeared on the catwalks of edgy brands like Marine Serre and Richard Quinn, mostly symbolising concerns about pollution and surveillance, but perhaps also vaguely gesturing at a future: a then-unknown forthcoming pandemic that experts have reportedly been predicting for years. No one really knows how long we’ll be required to wear masks for, but, already, they’ve become an integral — and symbolic and polarising — part of our everyday lives. It seems likely they’ll outlast their specific utility, getting a second life as a fashion accessory. 
While some of us are itching for any excuse to dress up — personally, I’ve been known to show up to socially distanced outdoor hangs in attire that could easily work at a dressy casual wedding — in 2020, clothing has become less about impressing other people, and more of a thing to swaddle ourselves in as we watch the world around us shatter into a million pieces. It’s about physical comfort, yes, but it’s also about emotional comfort via familiarity, and finding things that make us feel like, if not the best version of ourselves, then at least a version of ourselves that can handle all that’s being thrown at us on a daily basis while still maintaining a bit of who we were before, and who we hope to be after. 
Those in-the-know may have called that from a mile away, too: “Of course, a global health pandemic did not feature in our trends, but many of the emotions which are associated with it did. For example, the idea of protectionism, fear, and the need for optimism which we address in a trend for 2020, called Designing Emotion,” says Muston. 
And what will our children, when looking back on pictures of us from this time, while we regale them with tales of canned bean-hoarding and Netflix marathons as an unlikely form of heroism, take away from these looks? It could inspire a level of fascination from future generations, not unlike the way many millennials grew up idolising the revolutionary glamour of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Whether kids in 25 years will be sifting through thrift shops for authentic early-‘20s nightgowns and face coverings remains to be seen, but the pictures we take now will be there in the history books, like all the things we once learned about that seemed so far away. 
When they see us, in our masked smiles, our colour-drenched clothes that barely saw the light of day, and our graphic T-shirts demanding the better and more equitable future in which they hopefully reside, they’ll see people doing the best they can in an uncertain time. They’ll see people using self-expression as a tool. They’ll see that trends can be about so much more than fitting in — that in fact, sometimes, they’re simply the best way to come together when we’re all so far apart. 

More from Trends

R29 Original Series