I was in the shops the other day, just looking. Except I wasn’t just looking, I was actually having a good feel. In Cos, I gave a surreptitious squeeze to a tasty-looking cosy puffer coat, as if testing a peach for ripeness. Taking a short cut through John Lewis, I was stopped in my tracks by a mouthwatering display of cashmere knits in juicy shades of orange and melon that were crying out for a stroke. Can anybody walk past a stack of fluffy sweaters without copping a quick feel? I definitely can’t be trusted to keep my hands to myself.
Then, as I bounced through H&M – in my cloud-soft Ugg boots, obviously – it struck me that even the handbags were squishy. My favourite, light as air on its fine chain strap, was so cushioned and padded you could use it as a pillow, so I gave it a fondle. I used to behave like a kid in a sweet shop whenever I went into a fashion store; these days, I’m more like a fruit-addict in a greengrocer’s, squeezing everything in sight for what is not just in-season, but deliciously ripe.
Fashion has gone soft. Sharp tailoring is out and soft edges are in. To see this shift at its most dramatic, just take a look at the coats around you next time you walk down the street. What I still think of as a Proper Coat – wool, a defined silhouette, button fastening – has become a minority choice, edged into obscurity by endless takes on padded outerwear.
From North Face-style boxy, chunky puffers on teens, to practical, wipe-clean padded gilets for school-run mums and sleek lightweight belted coats with diamond- or onion-shaped quilting that look chic over a trouser suit for the office, there is a squishy coat for everyone these days.
And squishiness now has designs on the rest of your wardrobe. The cult Bottega Veneta Cassette handbag that won Instagram a couple of years ago has a lot to answer for. You know the one: a grid of plump butter-soft squares, supersized from the brand’s classic leather weave, that looked as delectable as a plate of ravioli. The soft bag – Vogue has dubbed it the “comfort pouch” – is everywhere now, from handbags that can be squished under an arm to fluffy clutches you can squeeze like a stress ball.
Shoes, too, have lost their edge. This season’s party shoes have cushioned soles instead of spike heels, marshmallow-soft tubing instead of cheese-wire ankle straps.
It used to be a truism that you had to suffer for fashion. It was taken for granted, by women, at least, that there was a trade-off between elegance and comfort. That feels old-fashioned now. The jersey-clad lockdown days when clothes became a comfort blanket rather than armour, have left a legacy of near-zero tolerance for clothes that don’t feel nice. To which the only sensible response is: hurrah. The world seems to spin further into madness with every passing day, which makes fashion’s new prioritising of comfort immensely cheering.
But this being fashion, naturally it can’t be all sensible and practical. Soft fashion isn’t just about how it feels, it is also about comfort as an aesthetic. Ironically, the appeal of squishy, quilted fabrics is partly that they read as cosy and plush even if you are shopping online, and can’t feel the fabric. Comfort soothes the eye, as well as the body.
This season, Loewe’s shoes are embellished with partly deflated rubber balloons. At Moschino’s most recent Milan catwalk show, cocktail dresses came with swimming pool inflatables attached – a blow-up lifesaver ring at the hemline of a dress, a beach ball as a handbag. Silly, yes – but it makes you smile. Which is what feelgood fashion is all about.