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The pandemic led Kormal Minhas to start fresh with her wardrobe in favour of clothes that felt comfortable to wear and looked great too.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Fashion is not the same as it was two years ago.

As people adopted masks, eschewed workwear in favour of loungewear, and abandoned suits and ties, COVID-19 has transformed many Canadian women’s wardrobes, often for the better – meaning more comfortable and also experimental.

That’s the case for Sarah O’Rourke. O’Rourke’s closet has gone through several changes – or “eras” as she calls them – throughout her lifetime. During high school, O’Rourke opted for ripped jeans and flannels to fit her ‘alternative rock’ style, before turning to “hipster fashion” when she entered university, and then to slacks, blouses, and blazers when she entered the work force.

“I often joke that I live and breathe fashion,” O’Rourke says, who is currently pursuing a master’s in business and sustainability at the University of Waterloo, explaining that her love for fashion shaped nearly everything she has done for the last seven years – including both her degrees.

However, working a standard 9-to-5 job didn’t give O’Rourke many opportunities to express this love. So, when the pandemic left her without much to do in the evenings, O’Rourke decided to fill them by creating content on Instagram. She hit her stride when she focused her content on body confidence and mid-size fashion.

“I wanted to dress to the nines all the time so I could take my video content, take my photos, and then have something to post,” O’Rourke explains. She muses that her content creation likely led to her buying more clothing – and thus spending more money – but also allowed her to be more experimental with what she wore.

Change in Canadians’ shopping habits were noticeable over the last two years. Marketing research and consulting firm Trendex North America reported that Canadian apparel sales fell 23.6 per cent in 2020 due to the pandemic. Sales rebounded 16.2 per cent in 2021 and are expected to rise 14.8 per cent this year and 5 per cent in 2023.

Many Canadian women have reworked their wardrobes in the wake of the pandemic to include clothes that emphasize comfort, make them feel confident, and often – like in the case of Mahera Islam, an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto – are full of colour.

Before the pandemic, Islam gravitated toward loose and dark clothing, partly due to the modesty and comfort they offered, and partly to be invisible. The desire to be less visible, Islam says, stemmed from internalizing her parents’ idea of modesty and societal fatphobia.

“Over the pandemic I’ve shed those ideas,” Islam says. “Not that I still don’t prioritize comfort and modesty because those are things that are important to me, but I am not as afraid to be visible.”

As a result, Islam is working to incorporate more colour into her wardrobe – including her hijabs – and also experimenting with styles and items of clothing she previously didn’t feel comfortable wearing.

“Before, I would not be seen dead in pink outside, but now I like wearing … any sort of bright colours,” she explains. “I’ve also started to get into [maxi] dresses, which is something that I wasn’t super confident about wearing before because of my height but [I’ve realized] they are modest and comfortable and also look nice.”

Islam’s experimenting isn’t limited to clothes; she has also begun to pair jewellery with her outfits, especially rings, which wasn’t interested in before.

Like Islam, Erin Chan, who co-founded housing rental platform Rhenti, has also begun to incorporate more colour into her wardrobe as well as more comfortable clothing, especially athleisure.

“I bought 10 of the same athleisure shirt styles and cycle through them on my workdays,” Chan says. “I haven’t put on a pair of heels in over two years!”

Writer and editor Lindsay Vermeulen, on the other hand, has given up entirely on underwire bras, opting for either bralettes or nothing at all, and refuses to wear clothes that chafe, are too tight, or feel rough on her skin.

Comfortable clothes don’t always entail loungewear, sweats, or athleisure but rather clothes that make women feel at ease. Being comfortable and dressing up are not mutually exclusive.

“I now look for any opportunity to display my fashion sense which makes me feel more like myself and regain a sense of stylistic individuality,” says Kormal Minhas, who works for the federal government. “Being indoors for that long pushed me to redefine my fashion identity. I donated so many clothes that just didn’t feel like me and tried to start fresh.”

While Minhas compromised by wearing clothes that didn’t make her feel good in the past, a fresh start means that she doesn’t do that any longer.

Both Islam and Minhas say that neither the amount of money they spend on clothing, nor the amount of clothing they own has increased drastically.

However, Islam, Minhas and O’Rourke all say that they are more particular about the quality of what they buy rather than its cost, opting to spend more money for things that will last longer – out of a desire to be both economical and sustainable.

That’s also driven some to thrift more, reduce their consumption of fast fashion, and be selective about the trends they try – if they haven’t eschewed them entirely, like Vermuelen.

“I’m finding I don’t care that much [about fashion trends],” she says. “I’d rather choose options that feel like ‘me.’”