Fashion & Culture

Psych 2020: What We Learned About Comfort and Chaos in the Year of the Micro-Trend

Today's fashion trends move at the speed of memes, but COVID-19 hit pause, giving us a unique lens into the social psychology of how micro-trends emerge, evolve, and eventually fade away.

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Macro trends tend to stick around for a while, making them easily recognizable to even the most fashion-averse. Think Roaring '20s glam or '90s-era grunge. But then there's micro trends — the fashion moments that go faux pas just as soon as they're en vogue. They're mere blips on a macro trend timeline, germinated in an opaque cloud of celebrity, entertainment, politics, and economics. And in the age of social media, they're moving at a rate that's almost impossible to keep up with.

But pandemic-era lockdowns slowed things down, providing a way to watch, participate in, and study micro trends in a controlled environment. With everyone under the same restrictions and on the same news cycle, consumer behavior was magnified. People turned to influencers and celebrities for quarantine fashion cues and relied on social media for inspiration, leveraging personal creativity and online connection to manage extended periods of uncertainty. The fashions of 2020 were about comfort, both physical and psychological.

In retrospect, 2020 was a rare, concentrated look at how micro trends appear, pick up speed, and leave us. Here’s a look at 10 of the micro trends that defined a year we’ll always remember, and how they came about.

The Nap Dress

Given all the time spent at home (and escaping reality by nesting and napping), it’s only fitting that a nightgown-esque dress was one of 2020’s hottest trends. The Nap Dress, introduced by New York-based Hill House in 2019, “became a viral sensation during our collective quarantine due to a combination of canny marketing, genuine consumer enthusiasm and (accidentally) impeccable timing.”

In other words, comfort wasn’t the only driver behind the frock’s success. “Hill House Home’s strategic use of Instagram as a platform for both image-building and selling cannot be overstated,” The Wall Street Journal explains. “Like many direct-to-consumer fashion companies, it buys targeted ads, and uses Shops on Instagram, the platform’s integrated e-commerce experience.” Couple that with massive amounts of consumer-generated content across social media, and the gown's popularity was almost inevitable.

The Harry Styles Sweater

Pop singer Harry Styles appeared on the Today show wearing a color-block patchwork cardigan by British fashion label JW Anderson in early 2020. Soon after, the #HarryStylesCardigan took TikTok by storm. Fans and fashionistas were knitting their own versions of the sweater, so JW Anderson capitalized on the free advertising by sharing the pattern with the public, posting a YouTube tutorial, and inviting consumers to tag the brand in their social media posts.

At a time when shoppers were stuck at home and looking for ways to keep busy, the sweater served as a fun way to fill their newfound free time. It made such a mark on popular culture that the Victoria and Albert Museum added it to their permanent collection “as an emblem of the DIY creativity sparked by coronavirus lockdowns ... and of a more general move towards more eco-friendly practices in fashion.”

Tie Dye

Consumers continued to embrace DIY fashion by turning to tie dye. The tie dye trend has ebbed and flowed for decades, but its roots run deep: while typically associated with 1960s counterculture, it’s actually been used in countries like India, China, Indonesia, and Nigeria for hundreds, even thousands, of years.

“There's been a resurgence in craftsmanship and handmade goods over the last several years, popularizing '70s hobbies (macrame, weaving, tie-dyeing), but in a modern way," Stitch Fix color expert Ryen Anderson told Today. The trend also helped ease anxiety amid widespread uncertainty: “The appeal of tie-dye is also metaphysical. There’s a powerful, if slightly ineffable, emotional charge from engaging with fabric and color. It soothes us and restores us.”

Monochrome Sweatsuits

Remember the Juicy Couture track suits of the ‘90s? Monochrome sweatsuits returned with a vengeance as comfort and convenience became priorities amid COVID-19 lockdowns. Refinery29 described the trend as “a comfy PJ-adjacent look that's appropriately conducive for wearing during a day full of important Zoom meetings.”

The number of American employees who worked from home nearly doubled in 2020, so leisure wear was certain to spike. Why did consumers gravitate toward the monochrome sweatsuit, in particular? Celebrities and influencers — like Saturday Night Live star Aidy Bryant and Instagram’s Director of Fashion Partnerships Eva Chan — shared photos of themselves clothed in Entireworld and other leisurewear brands.

Dark Academia

In late 2020, TikTok was inundated with images of button-down shirts, tweed skirts, and knitted sweater vests straight out of Cambridge University’s hallowed halls. Known as dark academia, the trend was the stuff of lofty dreams: “Dark academia captures a kind of nostalgia for a life which is yet to be lived — dreams of being an art history student at Oxbridge or studying classical literature at Harvard,” explains Refinery29.

The timing of this micro trend is also important; it gained traction in the fall, a season that’s associated with back-to-school, checkered patterns, and neutral tones. The romanticized image of school life evoked by dark academia became even more appealing as students were sent home from their studies in droves.

Crocs

Somewhat controversial early 2000s fashion statement Crocs became mainstream in 2020. According to W Magazine, which published a Cultural History of Crocs, “it’s often said that tough times accelerate trends, and that very same concept applies to Crocs.”

Social media played a big part in this trend’s resurgence, too. One expert told W, “Referring to the waist-down ironic style, people post different angles of the camera and play with formal and non-formal wear. The highly visual aspect of Crocs—its materials and colors and a significant symbol of humor—has amplified the [conversation].” In other words, we all needed a laugh in 2020.

‘90s Style

Nostalgic nineties trends returned in 2020 as Gen Z consumers discovered Y2K styles for the first time. The hashtag #90sfashion has more than 4.6 million posts on Instagram, where emblematic ‘90s apparel like pleated miniskirts and oversized blazers appear en masse. According to PureWow, we’ll be seeing ‘90s bike shorts — cousin to the ever-popular and functional leggings — linger eternally, while the ‘90s animal print revival born of Tiger King waned before 2020 was even out.  

Bucket Hats

Another ‘90s trend that returned in 2020 was the bucket hat. Originally used by fishermen and later immortalized by the movie Clueless, Cosmopolitan called the hat “THE secret weapon to instantly turning any outfit into a winner.” Celebrities, fashion editors, and influencers of all kinds donned the accessory over the course of the year, but one has to wonder whether lockdown-level access to hairstylists had an impact on its sudden rise to popularity. What better way to conceal those bothersome roots?

Victorian Sleeves

Victorian-style sleeves started gaining popularity in 2018, but didn’t explode until designers began experimenting with various puffy styles. In July 2020, Vogue reported that “the puff-sleeve trend is here to stay.” While Victorian sleeves date back centuries, this trend is likely to stick around because its timeless appeal outlives many other micro trends. Puff sleeves never completely disappear from the public consciousness, so their commercial traction is especially strong.

Jumpsuits

Jumpsuits were primarily worn as workwear by factory employees and airline pilots before they made their 1960s debut in Vogue. In 2020, the comfort and ease of jumpsuits attracted a new generation of fans adjusting to their new normal. As celebrities like Eva Longoria and Margo Robbie “flaunted their figures” in jumpsuits, and New York Magazine published a guide to “jumpsuits for tall women,” women put jumpsuits to work once again.

Micro Trends at Large

Micro trends inevitably wax and wane, but in their wake they sweep up fandoms across the globe. Modern brands aren't just tasked with keeping up — they need to set the stage. We've long waved goodbye to 2020, but the lessons learned are unforgettable: if you can read the micro moment, you can win the macro trend.

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