From crop tops to tie-dye: how lockdown has liberated men's wardrobes

Priya Elan

It happened a few weeks into lockdown. I was having a socially distanced conversation at the end of our garden path and realised I had dressed head to toe in tie-dye (jogging bottoms and self-dyed T-shirt). “I’ve gone mad!” I blurted out, clocking that this was Not An Acceptable Look For Outside.

It struck me that while I had been channelling a Grateful Dead roadie, I had also fallen into the deep joy of lockdown dressing.

The change in how men dress and interact with their clothes has been slow but significant. In normal times, men’s rules of dressing are deeply ingrained and antiquated. We’re told from the time we can crawl what’s allowed and what’s not (trousers, not skirts; blue not pink; flats not heels). These rules get enforced by school uniforms and work dress codes. Colours disappear from the mental list of options, so do styles and combinations until you’re left with a very slim array of style options, from “John Major” to “John Major on holiday”.

In a way this means men have it easy. We don’t really have to think about what clothes we’re putting on our bodies at any stage of the process. If you walked into a menswear section in any of the major high street shops wearing a blindfold, fell into a rack of clothes and bought the lot without seeing them, they would probably be a socially acceptable mix of desaturated tones and conservative cuts. The comfort level is so high, we’re basically unconscious.

But coronavirus has changed all that. Shops shuttered, barbers closed. There was no work for our work dress code. And what was socially acceptable dressing when there was no longer anyone to dress for? These silent arbiters of male fashion and grooming have dissolved – and so perhaps have some of our calcifying ideas about how to dress correctly.

Without these “front-facing” elements, our lockdown looks have forced us to look inside ourselves and perhaps, for the first time in our adult lives, start dressing and looking like we actually want to. Of course, for some of us this is just business as usual. Personally, I’ve placed limits on what I do with my facial hair (I’m still shaving) as it gives me some psychological boundaries and structure, which is helpful. But for others, it’s opened up a new era of devil-may-care possibilities.

At first this played out through shaving your hair in lieu of a haircut or growing a half-hearted moustache; then came a second stage of complete sartorial anarchy.

Take the example of Armie Hammer. The Hollywood heartthrob, who is known for his classic style choices, revealed his lockdown look on Instagram. Handlebar moustache, curly mohawk haircut and fringed crop top. In this ensemble, his Fitbit looked undeniably out of place. It was a complete 360 from his previous style (think sentient Ken doll meets Hollywood studio system-era scoundrel).

The commenters piled in to express their dismay and wisecracks (“blink twice if you need help”, “Oliver [his character from Call Me By Your Name] didn’t turn out good”). But it was glorious in its shark-jumping, Joey-from-Friends-trying-on-all-of-Chandler’s-clothes-at-once eccentricity – something that is rarely seen in men’s fashion.

Other celebrities followed suit. Richard Madeley seems to have dyed his hair Beach Boys blond, our beards have grown into our neck hairs (“neards” anyone?) and pro golfers such as Matthew Wolff are wearing tie-dyed golf shoes.

The fact we can blame this newly relaxed style on Covid-19 cabin fever has given us a generous get-out clause, too.

But perhaps it’s a bigger moment than we think. As old ways of being fall away into the slipstream of time, the way men think about clothes might be changing too. There’s a tendency to belittle men’s catwalk fashion as being too out there and unwearable, and yet, right now, it feels as if we’re getting closer to the expansive and freeing mindset from which many men’s fashion designers operate.

As if by magic ... we’ve all turned into Mr Benn popping into the fancy dress shop.

• Priya Elan is the Guardian’s deputy fashion editor