As New Year’s Eve 2019 approached, we waved goodbye to the 2010s as many spoke of the real Roaring Twenties that were just around the corner. We were all ready to put a full stop on the decade that ended with Brexit, one unelected prime minister after another, the housing crisis, austerity and a climate crisis at boiling point. The 2020s were brimming with potential, with GIFs circulating of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby raising a glass of champagne as fireworks lit up the sky behind him, teasing us with promise. This would be our year.
The decade has not unfolded that way thus far. 2020 began with the palpable threat of war thanks to the USA-Iran crisis, bleeding into Australia’s wildfires before COVID-19 forced us to batten down the hatches, putting the world on ice until further notice. It hasn't even been three months but already it looks like the new ‘20s will not be the liberated new frontier we were ready for. Perhaps if more people had actually read The Great Gatsby, they would realise the irony of posting such jubilant GIFs; the book isn’t a celebration of frivolity and glamour but – spoiler alert – quite the opposite.
Yet history shows that in times of trouble, humans turn to sparkle and shine, particularly in fashion. Why should this year be any different? King of sequins, Michael Halpern started his eponymous label this very way: his MA collection, which garnered critical acclaim and caught the eye of Donatella Versace, was born out of a turn to hedonism. "I was trying to find my voice and I started talking to my mum about her time in the '70s – her friends, what they did and wore," he told Refinery29 ahead of his AW19 collection. "I became fascinated with how in times of strife and confusion and sadness in the world, people constantly gravitate towards glamour as escape."
Whether it’s Josephine Baker, the booming postwar economy and the electrifying jazz of the Roaring Twenties, or Studio 54’s disco opulence in the wake of the Vietnam War, after dark times we’ve always sought a departure from the doldrums. Designers at SS20 proved that we’re still magpies seeking distraction. The bad news cycle we’re constantly exposed to set the backdrop to Christian Siriano’s high-shine serpent-green dresses and Halpern’s liquid gold gowns, Paco Rabanne’s silver sirens and Bottega Veneta’s shining halternecks. Twinkling creations glistened down catwalks in every city at Fashion Month. Even Balenciaga, poster kid for post-ironic cool, brought the shimmer – albeit in a tongue-in-cheek, supersize puffball gown.
At AW20, magpie materials were rife: JW Anderson did sequins the contemporary way while Christopher Kane added a punked-up edge to his sparkle and shine. Erdem, though, truly brought the Roaring Twenties glamour with a collection that took direct inspiration from photographer Cecil Beaton. The silver-laden catwalk snaked through the National Portrait Gallery, where a new retrospective on Beaton, Bright Young Things, has just opened. Beaton’s subjects – young and beautiful bohemian socialites of the 1920s – threw outlandish fancy dress parties, drank, took drugs and lived a debauched but glamorous lifestyle, while the photographer himself climbed the social ladder, from boy with big dreams shooting his sisters in his bedroom to rubbing shoulders with and capturing the aesthetic of the decade's enfants terribles.
Erdem’s collection, all shimmering ruffles, exaggerated pussybow blouses, iridescent gowns, neck-skimming crystal earrings and even spray-painted silver hair, took inspiration from the experimentation of the period, where class, gender and social constructs were thrown out in favour of opulence, fantasy and excitement. "Behind closed doors, rules were upended with irreverent glee and glamour," the show notes read. "Interestingly two of our main trend stories for SS20 are ‘Fashion Sparks Joy’ and ‘A New Optimism’," Liane Wiggins, head of womenswear at Matches Fashion tells Refinery29, "which really embraces a more hopeful mood and reflects the joy that designers such as Paco Rabanne, Molly Goddard and Marc Jacobs brought to their collections – through colour, texture, sparkle and print. We saw high shine and metallics from the likes of Ashish, Galvan, Gucci, Rochas and Christopher Kane – these types of fabrications epitomise what fashion is all about: dressing up, having fun and lifting the spirits especially in troubled times."
Ashish has always used sparkle to make an authentic political statement, embroidering his bedazzled pieces with pithy phrases and progressive ideas (remember his rainbow "Love Sees No Colour" shirts and "Fall In Love And Be More Tender" tees?). This time around, though, does such exuberance feel out of place? We all know how wasteful the fashion industry is, with the proportion of synthetic fibres doubling since 2000, and the global emissions from textile productions reaching 1.2 billion tonnes of C02. Now more than ever, consumers are looking for brands to be responsible with their output – and surely responsibility is the polar opposite of hedonism? "It’s important not to confuse hedonistic consumerism with creative optimism," Francesca Muston, vice president of fashion at WGSN explains. "The need for glamour does not give us permission to ignore our current constraints. Consumers are looking for products which are an expression of their beliefs and feelings, and they are applying greater scrutiny to ensure purchases measure up to this on all accounts."
Optimism seems to be the key sentiment here, and opulence can be done without tone-deaf frivolity. "Many of these brands are super glamorous and use innovative sustainable techniques too, such as Germanier who uses upcycled materials and discarded or surplus beads," Wiggins says. Research-driven material explorer Elissa Brunato is the first to create a bio iridescent sequin, which instead of petroleum plastic or synthetic resins, extracts "the crystalline form of cellulose, the wood-originating matter [that] can imitate the alluring visual aesthetics of beetle wings". It’s as lightweight and strong as plastic but compostable. Hopefully her findings will soon be used in fashion houses the world over. "People need their spirits lifting and glamour can be perceived in so many ways," Wiggins continues. "We have noticed a continued interest from our customers in glamour from designers such as By Walid, who uses beautiful recycled vintage fabric to patchwork evening and occasion coats, while Kevin Germanier and Gabriela Hearst offer super luxurious collections with a conscience that maintain glamour."
"There is a new set of non-negotiables in the development of any fashion product, and ethically we must be moving at pace towards a sustainable industry – but aesthetically this does not rule out glamour and creativity," Muston says. It goes without saying that sequins aren’t the only way to display excess: ruffles, bows, frills and volume all featured on the catwalks this season, while unapologetic Big Dress Energy has been stealing the show for the past year or so. You can pile on your old jewellery and shop secondhand sequins, too. "People are likely to express their reaction to global developments in different ways: there are those who will focus on simplicity and minimalism, and those who seek a release via creative expression," she continues.
Of course, with COVID-19 disrupting normal life, fashion as we know it is on pause right now. But as we all practise responsible social distancing and self-isolation, some of us are welcoming the simplicity of minimalism (think cosy basics) while others are channelling creativity, hope and optimism by dressing up to the nines and putting on their best ‘fits for Zoom calls with colleagues or to pop to the shop for more loo roll. As Muston says, because of coronavirus more immediately but also factors like the climate crisis, "we are going through a reset of our relationship with fashion, and what emerges on the other side, be it glamour or minimalism, will need to be a deeper and longer relationship between products and people."