At my birthday party last year in a Soho restaurant, I imposed a rather uncool dress code: absolutely no trainers. Give or take a few grumbles – "Haha, you’re so annoying" – all my friends obliged. This slightly dictatorial move was a response to feeling alone in wanting to get dressed up. After one friend’s celebratory dinner, I stood up and noticed I was towering over everyone, the only person in heels. Ahead of another friend’s housewarming, I eagerly asked what the vibe was for the evening only to be told, "Literally just trainers." Disheartened by the lack of effort made on even special occasions, I’ve been quietly waging a war against dressing down which, in lockdown, has reached its apex.
In her charmingly out-of-touch style, the legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland once declared that unshined shoes would be the end of civilisation; were she to return to Earth today, she might deduce that the apocalypse had occurred. The mid 2010s normcore trend is partly to thank and while the word itself has fallen out of parlance in recent years, its staples – sports shoes, dad jeans, cycling shorts – remain. Meanwhile the booming wellness industry and our new 'health is wealth' ideology have turned athleisure into not just everyday wear but a status symbol of sorts. Fashion houses once known for the highest levels of craftsmanship and creativity now slap logos on a pair of trainers, charge us £600 and call it a day. In the social bubble I inhabit, making any sort of effort is considered kind of sad.
I worry I sound a little Jacob Rees-Mogg when I complain about the gradual casualisation of our culture but despite a love of Mad Men and the Jazz Age, as a young Black woman, I don’t exactly dream of 'the good old days'. In reality, it’s a concern that’s for the most part existential. My friends and I are in our mid 20s, child-free and – let’s face it – not getting any hotter. Like many young people, we share a hedonistic appetite for adventure but at the same time, we’ve forgotten the pleasure that a marvellous wardrobe has to offer. Two kids and a mortgage down the line, I’m sure we’ll wonder why we spent our salad days so underdressed.
My desire to switch things up every so often has only been accentuated by the pandemic. Since being placed on furlough, I’ve been on a steady drip feed of period dramas, Sex and the City and the literary classics I now have time to read, all of which have provided a whimsical escape from the views of my neighbour’s patio. And while I’m certainly lapping up the details of parties, restaurants, holidays and all the other pre-lockdown luxuries, it’s the clothes I obsess over: Carrie teetering around New York in ruffled pink sandals and snakeskin boots, Helena Bonham Carter in The Crown sporting a rotation of silk scarves, brightly coloured skirt suits and taffeta frocks, a sleek cigarette holder always to hand. I match neither of these characters in lifestyle or budget but that hasn’t stopped me from craving a slice of the fun.
Sadly, before coronavirus my wistful ideas of grown-up dressing were often met with a grungier reality where the go-to party accessory was a bumbag and my favourite sequinned pochette would’ve made me look like the weird chick who didn’t get the memo. However it’s the 'sneakocracy' that’s been my real point of bother, even as I’ve willingly taken part in it. Working in the creative industries, there’s no strict uniform and, pre-pandemic, I wore the same pair of Nike Teknos to commute to the office every day. Now, in our locked-down universe where until very recently the only trips have been to the supermarket and the park, there’s been little call for anything else.
Like most, I’ve become a sucker for comfort, but spending most of my working life in trainers has given me an aversion to wearing them on every other occasion. When I did go out, swapping into fancy footwear made any outfit feel more elevated and any event more special. In a stubborn commitment to shop for the life I want, I’ve been saving my pennies and building a small collection of grown-up shoes: white mules from Neous, lace-up boots from By Far and, most recently, a pair of Malone Souliers black flats which are so versatile that I calculated it was actually financially shrewd to buy them. Thanks to coronavirus, these all lie comatose in my wardrobe, stuffed with tissue paper. Is there any chance of them ever being stirred from their sleep when even New Year’s Eve no longer warrants getting glammed up?
To be clear, this isn’t a call for more of us to swan around in ballgowns (unless of course that’s your flavour). Personally, I’m not nearly grand enough to be invited to anything that requires black tie; I also feel silly in dresses and haven’t worn one in years. Instead, I’m a proponent of low-key glamour – the kind that works for a more down-to-earth social calendar of dinners, drinks and dates. In these instances, I’m drawn to clothes that feel smart but not stuffy: silk blouses, statement earrings, tailored trousers, jumpsuits and, yes, heels of varying heights.
When I finally have the chance to play hostess again, I’ll be urging my friends to go all out; latecomers will be forgiven only if they arrive in their finery. And as a handful of invitations start to creep in – socially distanced picnics, Sunday roasts, a potential birthday party in late summer – I’m dusting off my glad rags. After more than three months spent in loungewear, I’ll be relishing every opportunity to slip into something less comfortable, however overdressed I might look. I promise a free drink in solidarity to all who get on board.