The Pandemic Has Changed the Way We Dress and Shop

We're buying less, buying better, and supporting local retailers.

pregnant woman shopping

Getty Images/LeoPatrizi

Recently I took stock of the clothing and footwear I've purchased in the past year. Here's the unofficial list:

  • Winter coats and boots for children.
  • Rain pants to wear on my electric bike.
  • Sweatpants, thrifted and new.
  • A couple of Patagonia sweaters as Christmas gifts.
  • Replacement black leggings.
  • Lots of wool socks and mittens.

A theme quickly emerged, as I realized that everything I'd bought revolved around getting outside and staying warm and cozy. 

I'm not the only one who has noticed this. Retailers in Canada told Laura Hensley of The Walrus that there's been a sudden surge of interest in high-quality outerwear. Hensley writes,

"During past winters, when the bulk of socializing took place in cozy bars, restaurants, or our living rooms, it was a lot easier to get away with wearing a pea coat and a pair of unlined boots. Now that our lives and sources of entertainment have moved outdoors, we’re starting to rethink the way we dress — both in terms of functionality and sustainability."

This is true. Our clothing has had to start actually working for us in ways that it didn't before when we were always dressing for the endpoint, rather than the transition zones between our mode of transportation and indoor destination. Now, we have to figure out how to keep warm while huddled around campfires or outdoor dining tables in midwinter, which forces us to make purchases with a new list of criteria.

Comfort Over Novelty

There have been other significant shifts in the way we buy clothes since the pandemic started. Consider the idea of novelty, and how often purchases were driven by a desire to have a new look for another occasion, whether it be in person or portrayed on social media. That expectation has evaporated now that there are no occasions to attend. And even if those occasions happen to be outdoors, as so many are here in Ontario, Canada, outerwear generally doesn't change so it doesn't matter what's underneath. 

Then there is the mental exhaustion of having endured the past year. The last thing anyone wants to do is put on uncomfortable clothing. It disrupts the creative flow! And it's doubly pointless when there's no one to see. Why would I squeeze myself into jeans for a workday at home? Even on Zoom, no one sees past my shirt. No, sweatpants have become the unabashed uniform du jour, and for good reason.

Nor do we go into physical stores nearly as often as before. I've only just realized how often I bought things because I encountered them randomly and suddenly wanted to own them. Remove those serendipitous encounters and there's no reason to open one's wallet. Of course, this is terrible for store owners, who rely on people falling in love at first sight with their products, but it's been great for many a bank account. Furthermore, some stores have done away with their changing rooms, which makes shoppers like myself less inclined to buy; if I can't try it on, I don't want the hassle of bringing it back because it doesn't fit properly.

Buying Local Matters

Hensley writes that more people are expressing a desire to shop local and support small businesses, which is another merciful nail in the coffin of fast fashion. While sites like this one have been advocating for years for this shift to happen, I think that witnessing lockdown measures firsthand has really driven home the point about how vulnerable small businesses are to other market forces – and how bereft our communities would be without them.

Francis Guindon of Canadian coat-maker Quartz Co. told Hensley, "I think people understand more now that buying locally is not just about helping your neighbour. It’s like: you actually have to do this to make sure your country is doing well." This reflects what the Retail Council of Canada found in November, with 90% of Canadian acknowledging the importance of buying from local retailers.

There have also been stories in the news about major brands canceling mass orders and failing to pay garments workers for work they've already done. The #PayUp campaign has been hugely effective at raising awareness, and I think that hearing this has turned many people off the brands they once swooned over. The pandemic has destroyed the illustrious sheen that once protected many brands, and now we're seeing them with clearer perspective. As we cope with our own versions of pandemic-induced hardships, we feel new compassion for those distant garment workers and have less tolerance for corporate greed.

Rise of the Digital Marketplace

The world of shopping will change going forward. Stores will continue to exist (those lucky enough to survive the lockdowns), but the digital marketplace has grown enormously and will remain a major player. José Neves, founder and CEO of luxury French brand Farfetch, told Fast Company, "I don’t think there is any scenario in the future in which fashion will exist online only. Fashion is a physical object: We’ll never be able to entirely digitize it, the way Spotify did with music or Netflix did with movies. But fashion needs to embrace digital if it is to survive." 

Indeed, I've been impressed by some of my own local businesses' efforts to innovate using social media. One storeowner hosts weekly live sales on Instagram, showing off products while people place orders in the chat; they're expected to come pick up items the following day. Another hosts monthly online auctions, where the items are modeled and bids start around 50% of the price tag. While there may be some bidders who don't follow through, it's a smart and effective way to bring customers together with products that they might not see otherwise.

We have changed and the world has changed. It's not going back to how it was before, but within the context of fashion, that might not be a bad thing. There was so much room for improvement, and the pandemic sped along some of the changes that needed to happen. It will be interesting to see what retail and our own shopping habits look like in another year or two.