After the Spanish flu came The Roaring 20s — what fashion trend will follow COVID-19?

From yoga pants to high fashion, we take a look at how COVID-19 could change what we wear. Jonathan Walford from the Fashion History Museum in Hespeler takes a look at how clothing trends shifted after the Spanish Flu in 1918 and evaluates if something similar could happen now.

'People were tired of dying, they wanted to live instead,' says Jonathan Walford

A fashionable woman posing with a cigarette holder. The First World War and the Spanish Flu spurred what we now know as the Roaring 20s — a time of fashion and frivolity after a decade of difficulty. (General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

With so many people working from home, 2020 wasn't the most fashionable year.

A lot of us got accustomed to joggers and oversized sweaters. Others, craving an opportunity to dress up and go out, put on a nice outfit just to go on a grocery run. 

With retail stores closed to all but curbside pickup for Ontario's second lockdown in less than a year, the pandemic has even affected the way we access the fashion industry.

As director curator of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Jonathan Walford has been watching the developments closely.

He shared his observations with The Morning Edition's host Craig Norris. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

Craig Norris: We've been in a global pandemic since March. What has happened to the fashion industry and trends in the past nine to 10 months?

Jonathan Walford: It's a weird time because everything has happened and nothing has happened. So it depends which way you want to look at it. 

Style-wise, there really hasn't been an awful lot to change because there hasn't been an audience out there to change it.  One part of fashion which has done extremely well is athleisure. So if you worried about yoga pants or leggings or anything like that — they're going to be around, they're doing just fine, there's no problem there at all.

But any sort of dress-up fashion, high fashion has stagnated. It hasn't really gone anywhere at all, because there hasn't been anyone to wear it. Some companies have even saved their spring wardrobe from last year and they're going to be re-introducing it this year. So it's literally going to be the same clothes this year as last year.

So in that case, there has been very little change. However, there's been massive change — decades worth of change happening behind the scenes and how we buy our clothes, how those are being made, that kind of thing. That whole part of the industry has shifted dramatically. 

CN: So maybe the fashion trends we're going to see in 2021 will be part what we wear, and part how what we wear is made and distributed? 

JW: Exactly. We're not going to brick and mortar stores anymore, and the department store is dying on its feet; we're worried about what the few that are left it's all going to be online purchasing — that's going to be the main source of us buying clothes in the near future. 

circa 1925: Two fashionable young women at a public event. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

CN: What role has this pandemic played in influencing the trends you think we're going to see?

JW: It's hard to say because we're still in the middle of it, so I think in many ways we won't know what's going to happen for another year or two but a lot of people think we're going to become even more casual — I can't imagine how that's even possible.

Then other people think we're going to snap to the other side, going to become very fashionable and things are going to come from far more glamorous than they had been beforehand.

I think both will happen, because the one thing that's happening at the same time as COVID, and COVID is not the only thing that is influencing fashion, there's all sorts of things happening at the same time.

One of the things happening is there's now an acceptance — we're becoming more inclusive. And that doesn't mean just with Black Lives Matter, that means with all forms of society. So, I think there's more awareness and acceptance of the individual. And that means that probably in a year or two from now, you can probably go to work in sweatpants or in full drag and either way will be completely acceptable. 

CN: After the pandemic 100 years ago, fashion really took off. How does that compare to what you think we'll see?

JW: A lot of what I'm basing my thoughts on are based on exactly what happened 100 years ago.

Again, in the period that the Spanish influenza came about was a difficult era. There was women's liberation happening at the time — when they were getting the vote for the first time — there was the whole post-World War I, you know, trying to recreate an economy again. That was an issue because there are so many people unemployed because the munitions factories stopped making munitions, that kind of thing.

So it was a new world and there was a lot to adapt to very quickly after the First World War and the Spanish Influenza just kind of landed right in the middle of it. So fashion then was also stagnated between about 1918 and 1921. The fashion had very little change — there's about three or four years there when it's kind of hard to tell which year is which because tiny little things happened, but nothing major at all. 

The Roaring Twenties, I think was a reaction, partly to the Spanish influenza, but also to the First World War. People were tired of dying, they wanted to live instead.

So I think we're going to see a lot of tourism and that kind of thing. People are going to want to get out of the house — something they haven't been able to do for a while now. So we'll probably see clothes related to that, making a big influence in future fashion. 

CN: With people moving to shopping more online, what does this mean for the environmentally-friendly fashion industry in 2021? 

JW: That was something was already in the works before this came along and is something that's pushing faster now.

A lot of people are predicting that fast fashion is going to come to an end. We're going to be buying fewer clothes, better quality. We're certainly going to be worried more now about the dyes that that are poisoning the lakes and the cotton which is drying up the plains and things like that.

So there's going to be more awareness of that, and there already is more awareness of that. It's building steam and is getting bigger and bigger.

A ladies walking suit from 1918. The 1918 armistice celebration happened right at the peak of the second wave of the Spanish Influenza and many parades required spectators to wear masks, writes Jonathan Walford. (Submitted by Jonathan Walford/Fashion History Museum)