25 of the most unexpected items of 2020


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “25 of the most unexpected items of 2020” was written by Priya Elan and Morwenna Ferrier, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 9th December 2020 10.00 UTC

Desk plants

They were the forgotten casualties of the first lockdown, the detritus of the water-cooler era. The panicked office exodus in March saw companies clear out desks in a matter of hours, leaving behind them pens, computers and plants. Some companies hired “interior horticulturists” to keep them alive. Others were dumped on the pavement in the hope of being rehomed. Many, of course, died. But the advent of WFH and video conferencing ushered in a new era for our desk that meant plants became our new colleagues. And with the end of socialising outdoors, balconies and window-boxes took on new weight. From dried flowers to cheese plants, anthuriums to mimosas, it’s little wonder garden centres were classified as essential retailers. Morwenna Ferrier

Milk frothers

2020 was not kind to Pret, but that didn’t stop the country drinking more coffee than tea as it juggled childcare with work. In a bid for normality, many even attempted to recreate the morning-coffee stopoff at home – sales of beans were up almost a third, and, in April alone, John Lewis saw a boom in coffee machines. Up, too, was oat milk, with Oatly’s value set at $2m (despite selling a stake in the company to a consortium that includes the Trump affiliate Blackstone). Which leads us to the milk frother, the pandemic kitchen tool that elevated at-home coffee into a curatable art form. Anecdotally, Bialetti was the most popular brand, and, as for the receptacle, a carry-cup even appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine, albeit a £765 one from Versace. MF

A house dress

If the pandemic dispatched high heels, it did not quite kill off the dress. At least not the house dress. Wafty, shapeless, and born from an industry scramble to cash in on the pandemic without simply producing another sort of tracksuit, the house dress came in many forms. The spring lockdown gave us the Nap version from Hill House Home, a viral sensation that rendered its wearers damsels in Victorian loungewear. Then came the “presentable-but-breezy” work-to-walk dress for our daily constitutional. By way of Zara and Zoom, the re-entry dress marked the tentative loosening of lockdown, its side puffed sleeves designed to facilitate the socially distanced but ultimately doomed “eating out to help out”. And, finally, with the implementation of tiers and a festive return to Zoom, we are in the era of the dress-in-gown. In short, wear a dressing gown over whatever you’ve got. MF

The buzzcut

In the springtime of the pandemic, buzzcuts become popular when barbers shut their doors. It was a logic based on the idea that the pandemic probably wouldn’t last that long and that shaving all your hair off was probably the best thing to do because you probably had a symmetrical shaped head under your locks. In retrospect, it was also linked to “top half” dressing and was attached to an increase in sales of Zoom-ready men’s makeup and moisturiser. In fact, this was just stage one. Stage two was much more interesting: emboldened by the freedom brought on by being released from any prying eyes, it was essentially a follicular free-for-all, an embracing of “haircuts I had/dreamed about having when I was 13”. Not to mention increases in experimental moustaches and other facial hair. This cycle does not look like it is ending any time soon: recently Channing Tatum and Joe Jonas sported buzzcuts. Priya Elan

The affordable ‘It’ bag

“It” bags normally symbolise two things: money and status. And they usually exist in a rarefied, largely white world. Against this backdrop of hierarchy, Telfar reset the needle with his bags. Gender-free, cruelty-free, affordable (for a luxury bag) and not exclusive (their tagline was “not for you – for everyone”), the bags suggested an identity beyond the homogenised. A statement bag that wasn’t about money, it didn’t just exist in the fashionable enclaves of the world. Despite the Cut calling the bags “Bushwick birkins”, their reach was beyond the hipster tag that notion suggested. Yes the bag was memorably worn this year by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but it was the fact the bag transcended those locations that made it extra special: you could see it in Baltimore as much as in Bushwick. Priya Elan

Weighted blankets

With no one sleeping and everyone at home, the real winner of 2020 was probably the pandemic-induced insomnia industrial complex. Myriad remedies were suggested (celebrity-voiced sleeping apps, earplugs and melatonin spray), but it was weighted blankets – chic glass- or plastic pellet-filled throws that weigh anything from 2kg (4.5lbs) to 12kg (26.5lbs)– that married our twin loves of home and health. Do they increase levels of serotonin and melatonin, decrease cortisol and aid relaxation? People swore by them. Suffice to say, they sold out at John Lewis quicker than you could say: “Quick, Harry Styles is reading a story on Calm.” MF

Face masks

A vital piece of medical kit, fashion accessory and masculinity lightning rod, the humble face mask is 2020’s most contentious bit of cloth. As fashion designers revamped their factories into places to make personal protective equipment, then branded face masks, the conversation around what the face mask should be continued. Perhaps most thrillingly was the moment when the tennis player Naomi Osaka took the implicitly political accessory and made it explicitly political when she wore masks with the name of seven victims of police brutality on them. However the mask morphs, it’s here to stay – it’s due to be worth $3bn (£2.2bn) by 2025. PE

Vote merch

In this era of late capitalism, few things could avoid being merchandised. The New Yorker started selling baseball caps. Redbubble hawked Yuval Noah Harari hoodies. An estate agency punted totes. Fashion publication GQ sold their own fashion. But vote merch? Aimed at attracting younger US voters who are notoriously underrepresented, everyone was at it: Michelle Obama and Jill Biden both wore the word on their wares, Obama on a Bychari necklace, Biden on her Stuart Weitzman boots; Lizzo and Cynthia Nixon wore VOTE masks. And Mariah Carey, Bella Hadid and Samuel L Jackson all wore Vote T-shirts. When it came to casting your ballot, wearing your allegiance was illegal in some places (it’s called electioneering) so that meant no Maga hats or Biden buttons. Luckily, Patagonia had stitched “Vote the assholes out” into the labels of its shorts. Stealth merch? Big for 2021. MF

If you like that sort of thing …
If you like that sort of thing … Photograph: PR Handout

Very ugly shoes

Previously the shoes in question – Uggs, Crocs and Birkenstocks – were described pejoratively. “Dad shoes” or “the marmite of shoes”. And then 2020 happened. The line was that attitudes towards them had shifted: comfort was now the new cool. And, while that was true, what was also true was that some of these brands had been embracing their divisiveness for years, which, especially online, adds to the mill of publicity. A hint of 2010’s nostalgia and a sense of rebellion against fashion’s dictats was appealing, as were the new ways these shoes were being designed by Takashi Murakami, Telfar, Justin Bieber and worn by the likes of Chris Pine. PE

The chain necklace

In a tizzy of pandemic yearning, television became an emotional receptacle for an audience whose emotional needs were left on the shelf. We weren’t just connecting to the characters on screen, we were interacting in a way we had not before. While shows such as I Hate Suzie and I May Destroy You provided some universalised catharsis, Normal People provided another sort of release. The show’s thirst traps were multiple but, unexpectedly, Paul Mescal’s thin, silver chain turned out to be one of them. Quietly cool, it semaphored the kind of meek masculinity for which Connell himself was an advocate. Previously, men’s jewellery felt prohibitively showy, but Connell’s chain, plus the growth in Zoom-led top-half dressing ushered in a new era. With the suit a phantom in 2020, American GQ was scarily correct when it said: “Gold chains are the new neckties.” PE


The pandemic did strange things to vanity. With masks mandatory, lipstick sales were down (masks d’oh!), maskne became a thing, and everyone learned what smizing was. But it was the normalising of video conferencing that pushed skincare into the fray. According to Cult Beauty, which sells precisely what you think, beauty sales went down but skincare sales were up 157% year on year with Google recording almost a million searches for “retinol” this summer, double the number of 2019. One of the most hardcore anti-ageing products (it purports to work by increasing the rate of cell turnover in the skin) its popularity highlighted precisely what happens if you spend all day staring at yourself in a screen. Forget Netflix and chill; 2020 was about Retinol and WFH. MF

Crescent moon print

If 2020 recalibrated our relationship with nature and the astrological, the ubiquity of Marine Serre’s moon-crescent symbol was fashion’s perfect expression of this. Serre managed to articulate high-fashion values with a sustainable spirit without any sense of dogma obscuring the clothes. The crescent moon catsuit or versions of it became female celebrities’ “It” outfit: Dua Lipa, Kylie Jenner, Jennie from Blackpink. But it shifted into next-level status thanks to Beyoncé, who wore it in her Black is King film, which was then lionised on Instagram by Adele. It was no mean feat that Serre managed, in a year of fashion crisis, to become the year’s breakout star. PE

Ring flash

By the same token, many people turned to good lighting to get them through the countless online meetings. Tom Ford delivered an early lockdown masterclass on face-flattering light (in a nutshell: place a table lamp just behind your laptop, on the side that highlights your “good side”) while Carla Bruni pushed for “backlighting” to light up your hair. Some people went further. Ring lights were already part of the average TikToker’s armoury but, this year, searches for the term “ring light with stand” were up 400% following various claims that it evens skin tone and, more importantly, creates an air of competence. MF

The TV coat

Unsurprisingly, given how much time we spent in front of it, 2020 was a golden year for TV. And few things quickened our collective pulses like The Undoing, HBO’s starrily-cast marital melodrama, that introduced us to the Hughnaissance – and the ugliest coat in televisual history. Sludgy in texture and colour, it garnered mixed reviews from Grazia to Vogue and reminded us exactly why we hate rich people, particularly ones whose coats cost around £3,000 apiece and whose hair always looks immaculate, despite spending a lot of time walking outside. As a footnote, Noma Dumezweni (muck-raking lawyer Haley Fitzgerald) for an Emmy. MF

Zoom shirts

Working from home blurred house/office distinctions in a truly unique way. This was certainly true in terms of fashion and style and yet the need to define what we wore when we worked stayed strong. From “top half” dressing to statement jewellery that affected a certain symbolic hierarchy within the theatre of Zoom calls, the need to claim our working life narrative was a constant. But, when we look back at this year, perhaps one of the most humorous elements of our wardrobe will be the Zoom shirt: the white work shirt that many popped on solely for the purpose of virtual office calls. While one’s bottom half could potentially feature a wild variety of ill-matching items from sweatpants to shorts to, well, nothing at all. PE

White Converse

Clothes on a political figure, as we know from Melania Trump and Dominic Cummings, can signify not quite everything, but enough under-the-bonnet information that makes it fascinating. Vice-president-elect Kamala Harris has gone through a style metamorphosis since she was announced as Joe Biden’s running mate. Harris – the mixed-race daughter of immigrants – was never going to be apolitical in the arena of American politics, and yet her wearing of Converse sneakers, which in normal life in 2020 have no more controversy around them than a pair of New Balance, was a multifaceted nod to everything she was not. Or at least what she was not appearing to be. She was not a political also-ran in kitten heels, a white conservative in a uniform of disconnect. The “chucks” made her not just relatable, they inferred a connection with BAME voters and also added an edge to Capitol Hill. As off-script as it was, it was also interesting to note her wearing Converse less as the campaign went on. PE

Elasticated waists

The pandemic might have upended the fashion industry, but it did wonders for clothes driven by circumstance instead of trend. Step forward then, leisurewear. Leggings sales were up 61% in the UK, while Marks & Spencer reported a 50% increase in tie-waist trousers this autumn compared with last. GQ declared autumn to be grey sweatsuit season: Josh O’Connor and Rishi Sunak were both photographed wearing a pair backstage while Shia LaBeouf became the first man to pull off a pair of Lululemons. And for those who thought they would never see a tracksuit on the catwalk, Tom Ford did exactly that for his spring/summer 2021 collection. MF

The 8p dress

Some people may have thought that allegations about some of Boohoo’s suppliers exploiting their workers, broken by this newspaper, might bring fast fashion to its knees. And then Black Friday happened. Pretty Little Things’ 8p dress caused an outcry over needless consumption and landfill waste, and came at a time when the high street – most notably Topshop and Debenhams – was falling apart. But, most of all, it shone a light on just how much work we still need to do with regards to consumerism, sustainability and, of course, fashion’s supply chain. MF

A wooden staff

When, in the height of summer, Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s shortsighted now-former chief adviser, emerged from his north London home in a straw hat, misbuttoned linen blouson and large wooden walking stick, it was hard to look away. What was going on. Was he joining the “leave London” crowd or simply reminding us he was pro-Leave? Was he copying David Beckham, whose Cotswolds-starring Instagram feed propelled cottage-core into the everyday vernacular? Or was he just laughing at us laughing at him? After a year like this, it was almost impossible to be surprised by anything. And yet. Still, it would be remiss to look back at 2020 without mentioning Cummings, a figure of hate and icon of slobcore. MF

The Study Girl meme

Every year needs a meme, as does every crisis – remember 2017’s distracted boyfriend in what will for ever be known as the “year of Weinstein”, and which, frankly, remains the gift that keeps on giving? This year’s meme, then, is Study Girl. Probably based on the 1995 Studio Ghibli film Whispers of the Heart, it ended up on the New Yorker December cover, except that girl was dressed for Zoom, holding a quarantini and wearing slippers. Benign and insular, it was applicable to our collective lives and ripe for parodying. At least someone saw the funny side of 2020. MF

British Vogue September Issue 2020 Credit: Misan Harriman
British Vogue September Issue 2020 Credit: Misan Harriman Photograph: Misan Harriman

Meaningful hats

For what was essentially an indoors kind of year, 2020 was surprisingly pivotal for hats. This was largely down to British Vogue which put Rihanna in a durag in March, and Adwoa Aboah in a beret in September – but also because of what these hats signified. Durags are banned by the NBA, NFL and at malls, schools and workplaces across the US, yet here was Rihanna wearing one in a fashion magazine.Telfar, whose “It” bag became a byword for racial and gender nonconformity (as reported by this paper), then brought out a range of luxury ones. The beret, adopted by the Black Panthers, has become a symbol of revolution and counterculture, yet once again appeared on a fashion magazine not once but twice (Kate Moss wears one on the January cover), not to mention Emily in Paris. For context, it’s worth bearing in mind that 2020 was also the year that Boris Johnson’s daughter Lara saw fit to write an essay about headbands. MF

Tie dye …
Tie dye … Photograph: Premyuda Yospim/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Tie dye

In 2020, we tie-dyed everything. Socks, Crocs and, of course, face masks. The pandemic saw us break up with singular colours. The plurality of life turned everything into a literal swirl of work/life/time and timelessness. Into that mix, the psychedelic headrush of tie dye felt just right. Tie dye, it turned out, wasn’t just a Coachella trend, or even a summer one. It was something that, along with baking and crafting, came to define lockdown. Tie-dying became an activity the whole family could do together, either organically (with vegetable dyes) or with kits bought online. In style terms, it bridged the Lisa Frank child-friendly look with the hedonistic associations that tie-dye brought with it. Somehow, it felt ironically retro and modern. The faint flicker of it symbolising anti-establishment was appealing, as was the DIY aspect of it. It was fashion’s own adult colouring book: offering peace of mind in an era of madness (it was last this popular during the last recession). It also offered a way to recycle old clothes in need of a much needed refresh. What was not to love? PE

Aroma candles … a new relationship.
Aroma candles … a new relationship. Photograph: geckophotos/Getty Images/iStockphoto


Lockdown bought us many things: hand sanitiser became a must-have, loo roll became the hottest drop of 2020 and people did their first jigsaws since the Christmas of 1992. File the second act of scented candles in this drawer. In a year when “wellness” became a mood not just a lifestyle choice, candles graduated to must-haves. Previously, the world around them felt unapproachable and rarefied. Overpriced and unnecessary. But, during the pandemic, our relationship with candles had changed. As our personal space became specifically defined and much narrower, so it was important that the ambience was right, and what better than candles to bring that? Not only did brands and celebrities jump on the bandwagon (Ikea, Drake), public demand created a global wax shortage. Apparently, not since your last power failure had the world craved a naked flame so much. PE


As regions seesawed between tiers, the pandemic bench, so coined by Vogue, did for our cities what the stoop did for New York – allowed us to meet up, outside, without getting a wet bum. The perfect size and dimensions for a socially distanced meet up, particularly when you were only allowed to meet one other person, they were never unfilled. People exercised on them, lovers quarrelled on them, rule-breakers dated on them. All those lucky people with balconies, or, better still, gardens, had no idea what they were missing. More importantly, they also gave us a break from our WFH office chair. MF


If lockdown forced us inside our homes, it was our kitchens that got the most footfall. Things began well. Many of you made banana bread and sourdough, and when the restaurants closed, ate takeaways on your tablescapes. Soon enough, the novelty of cooking three meals a day wore off, and the would-be Marry Berrys turned to drink. Cocktail hour, which previously began at 6pm, crept back to lunch, and quarantinis became this year’s Fleabag G&T. The bluicer (a blender juicer) became the influencers’ best friend, as they were forced to pivot from clothes to cooking overnight. Proof that, if nothing else, 2020 gave us a whole host of daft mashed-up words to stave off our boredom. MF

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