Sequin sweatpants. That’s what flashed through the London king of glitzy party dresses Michael Halpern’s mind when the pandemic hit. ‘I thought, “Oh my God, are we going to have to become some kind of glam leisurewear brand?”’ says the designer, whose dresses are so va-va-voom that Donatella Versace scooped him up to work for her after seeing his graduate collection. But then something happened: as his new season hot-pink, feather-strewn gowns and zebra-print satin minidresses dropped at Harrods and Net-A-Porter, people started to buy them, no matter that it was lockdown and everywhere was closed. ‘It really solidified the point of view I have about fashion, which is that it is all about joy and hope,’ he says.
The fashion pack might not have a reputation for being a happy clappy kind of crowd, but Halpern is far from alone in his hopeful mood. As we emerge from our homes, the message from the catwalks is as black and white as that zebra-print minidress: optimism is hot right now.
So-called dopamine dressing shot through the autumn/winter 2021 collections via joyful neon brights and textures galore — Feathers! Sequins! — from Versace to Victoria Beckham. Halpern says that he’s now making his collections more festooned with sequins than ever, and even Miuccia Prada, the thinking woman’s fashion oracle, sent spangly green midi-dresses and a punchy array of rainbow tailored coats down her purple faux fur catwalk. In London, Roksanda Ilinčić’s billowing moiré taffeta silhouettes were modelled by the actor Daisy Bevan, who said: ‘Roksanda garments shout out with enthusiastic optimism. [Her] creations feel like they have superpowers sewn into them.’
And wouldn’t some feel-good superpowers be handy at present? It’s a sentiment that the poet Amanda Gorman tapped into when she wore a crimson satin Prada hairband for her drop-the-mic moment at Joe Biden’s inauguration. Schitt’s Creek’s Moira Rose practically makes leveraging the power of clothes into an art form, wafting around her dank motel room bedecked in tricky tailoring, Isabel Marant lamé minidresses and an armour-like rotation of jewels, sunglasses and wigs to will herself into a happier, more glamorous reality. She even wears a waistcoat to bed.
But in dark times, is the hit of dopamine dressing actually real? According to professor Carolyn Mair, a behavioural psychologist and author of The Psychology Of Fashion, it is as much to do with our perception of our clothes as it is to do with the clothes themselves. ‘When there is a strong belief in the symbolic meaning of an item, it can influence the wearer’s behaviour,’ she says. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that pieces that literally have joy written all over them have become best-sellers. How can you be sad wearing JoosTricots’s sell-out smiley-face jumper or Stella McCartney’s impossible-to-get-your-hands-on knit, strewn with rainbows and the word ‘SMILE’? ‘Expecting something good to happen when we wear something can give us confidence and this comes through in how we interact with others,’ says Mair. ‘It’s the same as believing in yourself, a self-compassion mantra.’
Fashion as escapism is nothing new, from Christian Dior’s post-war confections to the Lo Lifes raiding Polo Ralph Lauren stores for their bear sweaters in 1980s New York. But for JJ Martin, the La DoubleJ designer who says she is in ‘the business of joy’, the difference with 2021’s optimistic outlook is that it throws fashion’s old rulebook into the fire. ‘What we need right now is based more on the feeling clothes give us rather than, “Is this cool or not?”’ she says. ‘This is about engaging with your clothes on a personal level and asking yourself what is your experience of wearing it: does the fabric make you feel nurtured? Has it been made by someone happy and does that make you happy?.’
Not only is there no rulebook, but right now, who’s even judging? So if it makes your heart pop, try the sequin zebra-print minidress, buy the red satin headband, wear the waistcoat to bed. As Billie Eilish said when she was thrust into question for swapping her usual baggy T-shirts and shorts for a pink Gucci corset for the cover of Vogue: ‘It’s all about what makes you feel good. If you want to get surgery, go get surgery. If you want to wear a dress that somebody thinks you look too big wearing, f*** it — if you feel like you look good, you look good.’