Photograph by Ewen Spencer for THE FACE Issue 10

How the pandemic shaped the way Britain’s youth dress

Generation Covid: In the confines of our four walls, the UK’s young people created more subcultures, trends and styles than we thought possible.

Over two years of the pandemic (we know – mad), we’ve amassed more trends, crap purchases, subcultures and emerging street styles than we’d thought possible when locked inside with nothing to do.

We’re a nation obsessed with looking good (most of the time), from the rise of the Gen Z super-shopper to the beauty aficionados swapping lippy for eyeshadow to work around masks. It’s been a tumultuous time, but one that has carved a sartorial style bible for the ages. Kids, Covid was sort of, kind of, great for fashion.

We know it’s not a silver lining big enough to distract from all the horrible stuff. But at least it’s, you know, something.

The first official lockdown was announced on 23rd March. And as we scrambled to make any sense of it, with bosses frantically downloading Slack and nanas stockpiling the ultra-soft loo roll, we quickly became accustomed to life on Zoom and a mere 20 minutes of playtime (as in: popping to Sainsbury’s Local and back).

As we paced the living room in between the umpteenth catch up” call of the day, feeling increasingly repulsed by the reflections staring back at us on garish laptop screens, there was something odd happening down below.

Yes, our bladders were full from the fifth cuppa of the day.

But also, we were wearing sweatpants day in, day out.

Sweatpants, loungewear, trackies, comfies – your preferred term depending on which part of the country you come from (Bap? Roll? Sarnie? Same debate) – dominated the great fashion zeitgeist over the first half of the national lockdown.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? After years of unacceptability – Karl Lagerfeld once said they were a sign of defeat” – the elasticated waistband became a plush friend we’d welcome with open arms, away from the prying eyes of judgemental receptionists.

If it was entirely acceptable to roll out of bed and land at your desk-slash-kitchen table in the space of 15 minutes, trackies were the new, trustworthy best mate that would join you on your commute – the comfort blanket draped around your legs as you mooch around the flat hoping Covid will just disappear overnight.

Even Anna sodding Wintour was donning a pair for a quick photo-op inside her plush West Village townhouse to post on Vogues Instagram.

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Suddenly, a thousand and one thinkpieces were born on the rise of the sweatpant. And as the news bulldozed our brains with more uncertainty each day, and our once-glittering social lives plummeted to the lows of online cocktail hours, trackies were no longer a decaying wardrobe staple with baked beans on. They were the everyday trew, with baked beans on.

Out of nowhere, loungewear sales across the country rocketed by a mammoth 88 per cent.

As the months dragged on, our shopping habits changed – a lot. The high street was impacted momentously, so much so that in 2020 alone, 17,500 chain stores shut up shop across the UK. With shops closed, we inevitably reached for online stores. In 2021, the UK spent £51 billion on clothes and Retail Economics estimates that half of that would have been spent online. By 2025, the figure will be two-thirds of the total”.

Stats aside, you need only take a walk down any city high street on any given weekend to notice that bizarre novelty shops and boarded windows have replaced the shops once packed by groups of teens on a Saturday afternoon. Shopping has changed forever.

In THE FACE’s survey of Gen Z‑ers aged 14 – 23 asking how the pandemic has impacted them, many respondents noted how lockdown had a positive impact on their personal sense of style, such as 20-year-old Amina. During the lockdowns, I took to signing up for a crazy number of magazine subscriptions and doing an unhealthy amount of online shopping,” she says. This has actually led to a newfound interest in style and fashion and I have now taken a year out of uni to work on a few fashion projects.”

When I was finally able to get out of the house again I just thought, why am I wasting my time being afraid to dress the way I really want?’ I decided to take the plunge and start wearing my childhood dream fashion subculture, lolita”

DELILAH, 21

Jimmy Howe

This is also reflected in the rise of Depop. The online shopping mecca loved by Gen Z has seen insane growth since spring 2020’s first lockdown. By the summer of 2021, the app’s monthly annual users peaked at around 2.5 million users, almost three times the figure two years ago. And as it stands, 90 per cent of its users are under 25, making it the number one online shopping destination for Gen Z.

The Instagrammability of the app made it the perfect go-to for a spot o’ retail therapy. And the Y2K revival that put us in a chokehold for the past two years went hand-in-hand. An Evisu denim jacket circa 2001? With UKG rave sweat stains intact? Go on, then. A 90s Missoni polo that’ll match The Sopranos box-set I’ve watched… twice? Absolutely. And for that fateful day when the clubs re-open and I’m snogging a sweaty stranger on the dancefloor? An ice-cold Helmut Lang shirt from 1998. It’s pick-n-mix fashion, all available at the click of a button.

As the tides started to turn at the beginning of summer 2020, we lapped up the newfound freedom(ish) of the rule of six, sprawling out with mates on freshly cut grass like a boozed-up Renaissance painting. With pubs and clubs still closed, parks became the new meeting ground. All you needed was a six-pack of Stella, a speaker and some mates.

There was optimism in the air, so potent you could practically sniff it up and get a head rush. And as we ventured outdoors, so too did the styles worn by young people on the streets.

Suddenly, cool people were dressing like they were going camping, coming out in droves wearing practical Solomons on their feet, khakis with enough pockets for every gadget, Columbia fleeces and Gore-Tex inner jackets. The fuckboys at the pubs looked like foragers – and the pandemic-infused psychedelic revolution coupled with a return to nature after months indoors were to blame. Designers were in on it too, with Jimmy Howe, Robyn Lynch and Kiko Kostadinov going all-out camp.

But creeping up behind the happy campers was a hardcore glamour revolution, a triumphant return to sexy going-out clothes. After months of slumming it in those sweatpants, we were gearing up for all-out, red-hot sex appeal: mini skirts, skimpy lycra, frills, mega high heels and decadence in its purest form. Fake tan on, lippy sealed, we were itching to find our most extra selves again.

From THE FACE Issue 9’s “Hardcore glamour revolution” story. Photo by Briana Capozzi

But for some, like survey respondent Delilah, lockdown meant finding a hardcore glamour revolution all of her own.

I’ve always had a love for fashion, but that really picked up over lockdown,” the 21-year-old told THE FACE. When I was finally able to get out of the house again I just thought: Why am I wasting my time being afraid to dress the way I really want?’ I decided to take the plunge and start wearing my childhood dream fashion subculture, lolita, and while it definitely attracts a lot of attention, it has made me so happy and I haven’t looked back since.”

Think about it: has the pandemic changed the way you dress? Are you more experimental than you once were? Do you simply give less of a fuck, whether you’re in baked bean-stained sweats or head-to-toe glamazon get-up?

For all the doom and gloom of pandemic, it seems it’s had a positive impact on how young people are dressing now. The time we had to sit back, mope and yearn for some sort of Roaring Twenties had us all itching to make fashion statements, whether that’s through finding archive Gaultier on Depop, making our own clothes, forging entirely new identities or, like 16-year-old Molly, daring to wear an outfit that’s a little out of the ordinary – for pure pleasure.

As I wouldn’t go out as often, I would get excited to pick outfits that were a bit wacky and made the most of my daily walk with friends,” she told us.

Now, people do seem to be dressing less self-consciously in this tentative post-pandemic” period, wearing what they want, when they want. It goes hand-in-hand with the turn of the revival spiral, namely the filthy-fingered beckon of indie sleaze and all its hedonism lit up by the Cobrasnake’s flash.

And the never-ending Y2K cycle, with our feeds still ransacked by early-’00s paparazzi fodder, celebrating the girls literally gone wild era of tabloid glossies, dancing on tables and the white-hot sex appeal that sartorially followed? Just look at Blumarines rise in popularity over the past few seasons, or the multitude of Dior’s John Galliano-era saddle bag still doing the rounds on Depop.

Even the rise of slogan tees point to a generation of no-fucks-given.

Miu Miu SS22

Back on the runways, Miu Miu went to the classroom for SS22. But the Miu Miu girl was no straight‑A student. Rather, Miuccia subverted classics like V‑neck sweaters, trousers and pleated skirts, butchering them to micro-lengths and slashing shirts and jumpers into crop tops exposing the midriff.

It could read as the naughty school girl archetype, sure. But look at the 60s and the emancipation of women via the mini skirt, and freedom becomes the ultimate message here – taken up a notch (and again). There’s a call to youthful rebellion in there, too, since kids have barely even worn their school uniforms for the past two years. Now, here’s an image of a uniform literally being torn apart.

Meanwhile, the micro-mini doing the rounds in just about every fashion magazine in the past month, while meme-worthy, has felt like a long-awaited middle finger splashed on the covers and sat up in newsagents.

Two years into the pandemic and life is the most normal it’s been since, well, 2019.

The clubs have reopened, raves are back in full swing, pubs are packed and the youth are alright. Sartorially, what shaped us over the pandemic was a clamouring for something beyond the extraordinary-but-bleak reality of lockdown life. Sometimes that meant reinvention; sometimes it was innovation.

But the evolution of personal style over the past two years has always prioritised one thing: wearing whatever you want. And it showed us that British kids are best left to their own devices: subcultures were born, trends came and went, and a new sartorial language has been born altogether. It’s a rollercoaster of sex, angst, experimentation, the internet and sweet, sweet hedonism.

We wouldn’t want it any other way.

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