As fashion history can attest, the art of social distancing began long before the outbreak of Covid-19. Whether through shoulder pads or panniers, veils or gloves, military dress or punk spikes, style has often engaged in the creation of space.
The signalling can be as overt as Dior’s postwar New Look, which with its full skirts reclaimed space on Parisian boulevards previously occupied by the Germans.
Or it can be a little more subtle. The multi-layered tulle dresses and sculpted, broad-shouldered trouser suits and giant puffers that trended on the catwalk pre-pandemic also telegraph “keep your distance”.
“Designs create space, whether through grand gestures or structure,” says Emma McClendon, associate curator of costume at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. The museum’s exhibition Power Mode: The Force of Fashion (on hiatus during the city’s lockdown) examines the aesthetics of assertion and includes both a late 18th-century pannier dress and an oversized Balenciaga puffer jacket from 2016.
“In the case of volumetric clothing, there is a sense of visual impact and taking up space, particularly in relation to status,” says McClendon. Whereas today we might safeguard against pathogens, traditional “social-distancing garments”, such as capes, ruffs or pike shoes, with their long pointed toes, were about defining hierarchy, she says.
Ironically, the voluminous skirts that created distance in earlier centuries, such as the French “cartwheel” farthingale in the early 1600s and the crinoline in the mid-1800s, were ultimately abandoned for hygiene reasons.
“While some may have seen these [garments] as a means to preserving a lady’s moral health, the hems of the skirts and gowns trailed along the ground and harboured not only detritus but germs,” says Judith Watt, historian, author and a course leader at London’s Central Saint Martins.
In the 19th century, widespread fear of disease led to the shortening of hems and the slimming of volumes. “London’s East End experienced outbreaks of cholera; the infection could pass from clothing to people,” says Watt. “Many of the seamstresses involved took their work home to the slums. Stories abound as to how completed ball gowns and mantles would be laid out on top of sleeping children — picking up viruses that were then carried back to the West End or countryside to infect more people. The ‘hygienic dress’ movement of the 1880s fought against fashion that could harbour disease.”
In the late 20th century, creating spatial barriers through clothing became intertwined with ideas of identity and individuality. The spikes and rivets worn by punks were a deterrent to social contact, while in the 2000s giant hoodies and down-filled jackets put up physical barriers between crowded urbanites. The bold “power suits” of the 1980s, with their padded shoulders, conveyed authority, masculinity and ambition.
Hats have also often played a role during health crises, says British milliner Stephen Jones. He notes that doctors wore full leather masks with beaked fronts and eye slits during the bubonic plague. During the 1918 Spanish flu, broad-brimmed hats were worn with a scarf for added protection. “Wearing a big hat means that you cannot physically kiss each other, you have to ‘air kiss’,” explains Jones.
Today, the most potent symbol of social distancing is the face mask, and institutions including the V&A are already researching examples to collect. It captures our fear and our desire to hide away; it helps to prevent the spread of the virus, and reminds others that invisible pathogens abound.
And what of the future? “Wearing a mask and sunglasses, you think you are hidden, like Zorro,” observes French stylist and creative consultant Camille Bidault-Waddington. On the other side of the pandemic, fashion may be less about making a statement and more about serving “a craving for touch”, through sensual fabrics and cuts, she says. There will also, Jones predicts, be a postwar-like appetite for joy and luxury: “I’ve worked for [Dior] for 25 years and never have really understood that craving for the New Look, that exuberance, until now.”
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