A YEAR AGO, an awe-struck child accosted me on Sixth Avenue as I was heading to the supermarket. “Are you Lady Gaga?” she shouted from a safe, 6-foot distance. Much to her and my chagrin, I’m not, but her question had validity. I was, after all, sporting 5-inch heels, fishnets and a new shocking-pink satin shorts suit—one of my more curious purchases given that I’m a color-averse New Yorker. As I shook my head no, her father chortled. She grinned and grabbed his hand. I welled up behind my Saturn-size sunglasses. This overdressed grocery run was my first outing after recovering from Covid. I felt lucky, relieved, giddy and, apparently, I looked Lady Gaga-level fabulous.
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According to Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner, a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., we humans use clothing to mark significant events, like making it through a global pandemic. And as U.S. cities reopen, friends reunite and the world becomes a smidgen less terrifying, women are reaching for exuberant outfits—like my I-survived-Covid pink suit—that proclaim “Woohoo!” and fete the occasion. I was admittedly ahead of the curve.
‘This year represents rebirth. I want my wardrobe to reflect that.’
We’ve spent the past year in sweatpants, consumed by uncertainty, said Miami clinical psychologist Dr. Christina Ferrari. “You’re going to see a lot of people overcompensating for what they couldn’t wear” during lockdown.
Jeremy Scott, the creative director behind irreverent Italian brand Moschino, sees Roaring Twenties-style decadence in this post-sweatpants rebellion. I call it Joy Dressing, but whatever term you use, the phenomenon has been brewing since early February, according to Libby Page, senior fashion-market editor at luxury e-commerce platform Net-a-Porter. During the pandemic’s darkest days, customers were buying a “sea of very neutral tones and loungewear,” she said. What she’s witnessed selling lately: spirited prints, swishy tiered skirts and jubilant ruffles as well as “very bright, bold, colorful dresses” by cheerful brands like Zimmermann.
That label’s creative director, Sydney-based Nicky Zimmermann, has always produced upbeat, feminine looks (like the dress at right) and stayed the course during Covid. Her brand’s elevated U.S. sales suggest it paid off. “We can see that women want to go out and feel beautiful,” she said, adding that her lushly floral collection was conceived to lift spirits.
Laura Vinroot Poole, founder of the boutique Capitol, with locations in Los Angeles and Charlotte, N.C., said customers are experimenting with eccentric styles they would have shunned pre-pandemic. One L.A. client, previously devoted to blacks and browns, splurged on an emerald silk Dries van Noten top and pink mules. “She’d never bought anything crazy before,” marveled Ms. Vinroot Poole.
With such unbridled style, women are responding to a traumatic year, said Dr. Baumgartner. “When you face your mortality, it’s like you get a second chance. You’re able to take more risks.… You’re more willing to fully live.” Another factor: We’re craving human interaction. Exciting fashion, said Dr. Baumgartner, elates the wearer but also delights viewers (at least those with good taste, like my awe-struck little girl). “We see our joy reflected in their eyes, [which] reinforces our joy.”
Erin Hazelton, a 41-year-old New York writer and producer, learned this firsthand while conquering cancer. “I thought I was going to lose my mind” during treatment, she said, so before her daily hospital trips, she’d armor herself in outré outfits. “People would laugh in this room where everyone’s usually so sad. It brought joy not only to me but to those around me. It made me feel less alone.” Now vaxxed, Ms. Hazelton is finding glee through fashion again with minidresses she never fathomed wearing in her 40s. “I’m gravitating more toward prints and happy things.”
Vaccination also catalyzed Elizabeth Graziolo, 47, to dress optimistically. After getting jabbed, she indulged in “a whole new wardrobe” heavy on hyper-hued dresses. “This year represents rebirth,” said Ms. Graziolo, founder of Yellow House Architects in New York. “I want my wardrobe to [reflect] that.”
Mindy Homer, 43, a pediatric dentist in New York, might not see the pair of “flamingo” shoes she bought in February as a symbol of personal renaissance, but they do boost her mood. “As soon as I saw them, I felt happy,” said Ms. Homer of the pink Sophia Webster shoes whose heels take the form of blush-colored water birds. When debuting them at drinks at her neighbors’ house in April, the longtime vibrant dresser never took them off—not even while inside. “They made me feel like me again.”
To those anxious about the jarring shifts (sartorial and otherwise) re-entry brings, Moschino designer Mr. Scott advised, “Start small, maybe with red lipstick. Then work your way up.” Dr. Baumgartner also supports gradual zestiness and contends that pushing yourself can prove rewarding: “Try the sequin jacket. See what it feels like.” Dr. Ferrari suggests gently wading into joy by pairing stylish accessories like “cute flats” with cozily familiar loungewear.
Last month, I brazenly reported for jury duty in a candy-red, eyeball-print dress coated in clear plastic that pleasingly snaps and rustles with each step. It didn’t get me excused and no one mistook me for a pop star. But one fellow juror excitedly screamed “Yasss!” while we waited in the security line. The guards, too, seemed amused.
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