Artwork by Laura Strohbusch

by Max Berlinger @berlinger

One style reporter’s mildly unhinged proposal for what to wear back to the movies

The other day I read the most depressing headline.

“Some People Can’t Wait to Dress for Work Again,” crowed the Wall Street Journal. Imagine having spent the last year shackled at home, surrounded by the spectre of death as the entire culture heaves through a generation-defining reset, and the big thrill on your horizon is a tasteful cardigan for the all-hands meeting.

You know what I’m excited to dress up for? A trip on an airplane. Dinner at a restaurant. And, oddly enough, a movie at an actual movie theater. We never used to dress up for the movies, but I like the sneaky allure of dressing up for a film, where you’re the spectator, gently getting reacquainted with the performative nature of fashion.

I can think of no better place for a ‘new you’ outfit than in the watery blue-gray flicker of a movie theater.

Which reminds me of another, way-less-depressing headline I also read the other day: According to The New York Times, “You Can Be a Different Person After the Pandemic.”

Now there’s an idea I can get behind: that after the last year, we can emerge reborn. That tingle of excitement is so perfect for a night out at a movie theater, where we’re already primed to indulge in some cinematic fantasy, to allow the real and the imagined to intermingle. I can think of no better place for a “new you” outfit than in the watery blue-gray flicker of a movie theater.

I can’t help but think of some of my favorite movie scenes of people at the theater, watching not the show, but each other (meta!): Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), The Age of Innocence (1993), and Dangerous Liaisons (1988) come to mind. Let these shots serve as a reminder that being at a theater is equally about being seen as seeing. Dress accordingly!

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) dir. Céline Sciamma
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The Age of Innocence (1993) dir. Martin Scorsese

“I would not be surprised to see people walking into movie theatres dressed as Edwardian princes and princesses,” said Agus Panzoni, who forecasts fashion trends on TikTok. That may have been in jest, but Panzoni did point to an extension of last year’s pastoral “Cottagecore” trend, which the Netflix show Bridgerton (2020) pushed into more august “Regencycore” territory. Consider it the only logical response to a year spent lost in the amorphous folds of downy sweatpants. The pendulum is ready to swing in the other direction, perhaps smashing right into a movement that recalls, with a wink, the formal eras of yore.

So cosplay like you’re in an Edith Wharton propriety fantasy with some Isabel Marant Gilded Age drama. Or perhaps try a hobble skirt and a heaving bosom atop a corset, like this tropical one from up-and-coming American couturier Christopher John Rogers, who makes clothing that balances decorum with decadence. Bring back filigreed embroideries and lacy diaphanous tulle skirts. Put pearls and baubles in your hair, perfect for catching the eye of the friend for whom you saved a seat, while they bought popcorn and Raisinets. Wear an angelic top-stitched dress that’ll make you look like a real-life Baz Luhrmann Juliet. Even downtown New York label Khaite is getting in on festoons and frills, because it’s time to really feel our clothes, to embrace the opulence of weighty fabrics and structured necklines. The pinch of a stiletto or non-elastic waistband is now part of the thrill of being alive! “Going out in social settings has become a rare occasion,” Panzoni says, “so it makes sense that people look to extravagance, maximalism, and restrictive clothing to combat the dread of wearing loungewear every day.”

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Embrace the decadence of your reentrance into society with fitted dresses and structured necklines—the pain is part of the appeal. Bridgerton (2020)
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Romeo and Juliet (1996) dir. Baz Luhrmann

Another body-centric approach: Unbridled horniness. Movie theaters have long been an ideal site for various stages of hooking up, from middle schoolers’ first dates to the back-row debauchery at Times Square peep shows. And right now, after a year of staring at cold pixels, there’s a palpable amount of pent-up desire for the heat of body-to-body contact.

“Going to the movies is an embodied experience, even though you're sitting still,” says Tina Horn, host and producer of the long-running fetish podcast Why Are People Into That?! and the creator of the sci-fi sex rebel comic, SfSx. “Your body is doing all sorts of things: picking up on the pheromones of your fellow movie-goers, laughing, screaming, crying, getting aroused, stuffing your face with overpriced popcorn.”

Our benchmark for what constitutes crazy has no doubt shifted. Embrace the fact that things are going to be weird.

Let’s not forget that sex, for the most part, is a comedy, not a tragedy—more American Pie (1999) than Nymphomaniac (2013)—and I predict that notions of sex will turn ironic, even nonsensical. Instead of a low-cut blouse (so obvious) maybe it’s a Prada turtleneck cut out with vaguely voyeuristic holes. Or a Nensi Dojaka mesh blouse, wrinkled like it’s been sitting in the laundry pile for a week. Perhaps it’s an acid-yellow lace bodysuit, complete with cutouts in the most unexpected of erogenous zones, designed by psychedelic quirk queen Hillary Taymour of the label Collina Strada. Randy, but also a touch unhinged.

Horn also suggests that notions of sex and comfort may blend into some glorious post-pandemic hybrid, something that’s slobby but erotically charged—kind of like the horny gray sweatpants (which I’ve written about) or the debaucherous sweats-and-bikinis of Spring Breakers (2012). So-called sexy clothing already has a wide range—from the psychedelic “hoeism” promised by Zola (2021) to bourgeoisie basics (polo shirts and billowing Ralph Lauren button-ups) touched by the lust of a summer romance in Call Me By Your Name (2017)—and there’s no reason the definition can’t expand further. “I've been hoping that post-pandemic life might do away with notions of what’s ‘appropriate’ or ‘professional,’ ” she says. “People who like to wear high heels or three-piece suits or contour their cheekbones should do it purely because it brings them pleasure.” Everyone else can just go commando in Entireworld sweats.

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Strike the balance between sex and comfort, à la the sweats and bikinis of Spring Breakers… Spring Breakers (2012) dir. Harmony Korine
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…or the liberally-unbuttoned linen tops of Call Me by Your Name. Call Me by Your Name (2017) dir. Luca Guadagnino

And yet, we might want to allow for a new antiseptic aesthetic as well. Even before Covid, I always thought that movie theaters were kind of dirty, in the way airplanes are—so many bodies cycling through those seats. Why not implement some early-pandemic precautions when you settle back into those plush chairs? This time, just do it with panache.

Insane as it sounds, the height of pandemic glamour has to be Amy Adams’ safety cone-orange hazmat suit in Arrival (2016). In terms of color and shape, it borders on Balenciaga, my friends, and it would fit in nicely for the socially cautious. Nuts? Perhaps. But our benchmark for what constitutes crazy has no doubt shifted. Embrace the fact that things are going to be weird. And anyways, designers have long toyed with end-of-the-world elegance. Belgian designer Raf Simons put models in firemen’s jackets and balaclavas, while the French up-and-comer Marine Serre was designing face masks for years before the novel coronavirus outbreak. Under Demna Gvasalia, Balenciaga has shifted from Old Hollywood glamour to menacing models in black with overblown silhouettes that recall football linebackers or the cast of The Matrix (1999). And of course there’s Rick Owens, who made menacing goth into a high-end aesthetic.

These days, you can wear anything from a face shield-slash-hat to an Alexander McQueen set of body-swathing coveralls. Go big and cocoon yourself in a PVC-covered dress from Comme des Garçons. Ditto your boots and bag! And if a plastic dress from the gnomic avant-garde Japanese legend Rei Kawakubo isn’t up your alley, just wrap yourself in a plastic sheet. Wear gloves, but add some festive fringe. Carry a bottle of disinfectant mixed with your favorite fragrance and spritz passersby liberally. Now is the time. What are you waiting for—the next pandemic?