May 01, 2021 at 09:00AM

What to wear? Always an important question, though perhaps in a different way during the year of the pandemic, as workers around the world headed home from the office and shed their business casualwear for sweatpants, old T-shirts and slippers, working in the privacy of their own homes away from the prying eyes of co-workers and others.

The few, the proud and the sartorially aware bravely shouldered forward, putting on makeup, blow-drying their hair and wearing shoes. Many attempted to split the difference and attempt bold new fashion styles, like the business-casual mullet, which saw them wearing professional gear on top, within view of the camera, and athletic shorts, yoga pants or even nothing at all on the bottom.

But the vast majority of us have regressed to a “lowest common denominator” sartorial condition, where matching is no longer a requirement, flattering is a distant memory and clean has become worryingly negotiable for an awful lot of people who’ve stopped dressing for the outside world.

It’s a reality that has created a perhaps unexpected new challenge. We have forgotten how to dress – and have become existentially unmoored when it comes to our clothing choices. Forgetting to wear pants around our co-workers is a problem that is fading into the past – but forgetting how to dress ourselves to be around other human adults is shaping up to be an existential crisis in the making.

And it’s a crisis that denim is spelling out for all of us. Because as a global community, we have no idea what style of jeans is in right now.

We’re pretty sure it’s no longer skinny jeans in any of their many incarnations. The Guardian has gone so far as to officially declare them dead, stating that we have officially moved on to a new denim cycle. So what killed the skinny jean after two decades of committed sartorial discomfort? The pandemic, mostly – and the fact that no human being fully in control of their facilities wears skinny jeans, super-skinny jeans, pencil jeans or any of the many other variations of super-tight denim when spending the majority of their days in the house. But the consensus among experts is that the skinny jean was already on its way out, because the cool kids – Generation Z – no longer think they are as cool as the middle-aged kids (millennials).

So what replaces skinny jeans? That seems to be the fashion mystery of the moment. It might be “mom jeans,” with their super-high waist and tapered legs. Or we might see a return to the 90s, with super-low-rise, super-baggy skater jeans that one could use to smuggle a beagle in a pinch. Or we could even go all the way back to the 70s to reignite our love affair with bellbottoms (or boot-cut jeans, as they are called in the modern era).

There is cuffed, frayed, asymmetrical, patchwork, boyfriend, distressed, low-rise, high-waisted, paper-bag-waisted, elastic-waisted, elastic-ankled. The options are myriad, confusing and overlapping – and at present, there is no clear winner, as all of the above have been appearing all spring long as the next dominant denim style jockeys for position.

Oh, and skinny jeans may not actually be dead. Although the Guardian wrote their obituary this week, not everyone appears to have gotten the message just get. Kate Middleton – likely future Queen Consort and skinny jeans enthusiast – has recently been credited with bringing the skinny jean back during a recent family vacation. And even if she isn’t enough of an authority to bring back the skinny jean, there is reason to believe that its death has been slightly overstated, as there are a lot of “straight-leg” jeans flowing through mass-market retailers that bear an uncanny resemblance to what we were calling “skinny” six months ago.

So, to recap: Skinny jeans are probably out, but could be in if the hemlines are slightly altered or if that someone is married to the future crowned prince of England. Something is going to replace the skinny jean, but no one knows what yet.

And while denim’s attempts to settle on a new style are amusing, they are also admittedly cyclical – skinny jeans were on their way out before the pandemic, as Gen Z had already gotten pretty mean about it, but their impracticality for lounging around the house put the final nail in their coffin.

The problem with the pandemic isn’t that it killed the skinny jean – in fact, we should probably be thankful for that. The trouble seen far and wide in the fashion industry is that no one knows what comes next.

“The biggest mistake any brand or retailer can make is to assume that they know what customers’ product priorities will be when they come out of this period,” a VP at a trend-forecasting company told Harper’s Bazaar of the near-term future of fashion.

Consumers have been indoors and in elastic-waist pants for a while – and they are so used to not having to dress for success that they are no longer sure what that looks like. It might be messy, might be dressy, might be practicality oriented – or might be mermaidcore.

Yes, mermaidcore is a real style that you could choose to adopt. It involves lots of shells, beads, long hair, bright colors and “fantastical alternatives” to the more preppy maritime looks like navy blue-and-white stripes, pearls and other summer styles worn by women from New England.

Will it become the next big thing in fashion? We’d like to say probably not – but at this point, we aren’t even sure what jeans we’ll be wearing next season, or if we’ll be wearing jeans at all. Far be it from us to rule out a future built on seashell bras in lieu of shirts.

What To Wear When We Reopen …

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