These Were the 11 Biggest Fashion Trends of 2021 (& 3 That Couldn’t Stand the Test of Time)
Fresh off a year filled with nothing but sweatpants, cashmere and Joe Exotic-inspired tiger prints, we were all primed and ready to make 2021 our most stylish year yet. We embraced the ideas of revenge shopping and dopamine dressing, and searched for the best ways to inch our way back into wearing regular clothing without giving up on the comfort we’d grown used to living the vast majority of lives at home. Alas, 2021 wasn’t quite the triumphant return to normalcy as we hoped for, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t still have some fun experimenting with a slew of new (and some old) fashion trends. From Doug Funnie-approved sweater vests and Y2K 2.0 to that one scrunched baguette bag we saw all over Instagram, these were the biggest fashion trends of 2021…for better or for worse.
The Heavy Hitters
These were the trends we saw flooding our Instagram feeds, the ones we bought in multiples and the pieces we’re most likely to continue wearing long into 2022.
1. Sweater Vests
What was once reserved for the likes of Doug Funnie, Chandler Bing and deeply nerdy college professors became a cool wardrobe staple for everyone from Gen Z high schoolers to 40-year-old professionals. Yes, the sweater vest was definitely one of the more surprising trends of the year, but it was also one of our favorites. They’re supremely easy to wear, flattering on everyone regardless of age or body type and come in a wide range of styles to fit any personality. We’d predicted the rise of the sweater vest back in 2020, but it was the explosion of one inexpensive black-and-white houndstooth vest on TikTok that truly launched this beloved knitwear trend. And now we can’t imagine our sweater drawers without ‘em.
2. Dr. Martens and Other Lug-Sole Boots
You could argue that the rise of the chunky combat boot started back in 2019 when Prada models stomped down the runway in lace-up boots adorned with their own mini ankle pouches. But it wasn’t until 2021 that classic lace-up Dr. Martens (and the many spin-offs they inspired) really became mainstream. The reason for the return? Partly because of their links to ‘90s grunge nostalgia and party because they’re just very stylish and functional shoes. Over the past two years, folks have leaned very strongly into clothing that’s practical above all else, and these boots are exactly that. Multiple other lug-sole styles followed suit, like Chelsea boots (both mid-calf and ankle-height) and Wellies, followed by even more chunky footwear options like loafers and platform Mary Janes.
3. Clogs, But More Specifically Crocs
Seventies-style clogs were on the rise in 2021 with multiple designers (Hermès, Stella McCartney, Givenchy, Burberry, etc.) featuring the classic Danish footwear on the runway. And while plenty of millennials and Gen Xers were happy to adopt the comfy, quasi-dorky shoes, Gen Z had a different take in mind. In what has to be the most unexpected trend twist of the year Crocs—the clunky, EVA foam clogs worn predominantly by chefs, nurses and anyone under the age of 5—became a must-have item. We truly never saw this one coming, but Crocs managed to woo even the most stylish members of Gen Z and monopolized on the opportunity with collaborations with Justin Bieber, Bad Bunny and Madewell, among others. PureWow’s fashion editor may not understand it, but don’t let that stop you from exploring the trend yourself, even if you were born before 1997.
4. All-Out Y2K Nostalgia
Scarf tops, butterfly clips, nylon bags, one-shoulder tank tops, patterned pants, kitschy prints—all these 2000s must-haves and more came roaring back for a second spin in the spotlight, with somewhat mixed results. Younger generations went gaga for the era’s bright colors and smile-inducing patterns, and many adults reveled in the chance to relive (or try for the first time) the trends their tween selves were most excited about. On the other hand, some were less enthused about the return of Juicy Couture tracksuits, Ed Hardy tees and low-rise jeans. Regardless, it’s impossible to ignore the major impact Y2K style had in 2021, with everyone from fast fashion brands like ASOS to high-end designers like Missoni taking inspiration from the turn of the century.
5. Cut Out Knits
As a sort of combination of 2020’s love affair with all things comfy cozy and 2021’s desire to dress up and go out, cut-out knitwear was everywhere this past year. Over the summer it was impossible to scroll through Instagram without seeing at least one influencer (or more likely four or five) wearing Cult Gaia’s Serita dress, which inspired a sea of midriff-baring and keyhole designs from brands both high and low. As temperatures cooled down, the cut-out craze transitioned to include more tops and sweaters, all with an array of exposed shoulders, collarbone, rib cages or elbows. Loose string ties and asymmetrical cuts were two very popular variations on the trend, but the skin-baring craze already seems to be dying down as we head into 2022. Only time will tell if we’ll still want to embrace backless knitwear come the new year.
6. Exercise Dresses and Tennis Skirts
In keeping with the year’s general theme of wanting to be both comfortable and cute, exercise dresses and tennis skirts seemed like excellent examples of how clothing can accomplish such a duality. We obviously can’t talk about workout dresses without mentioning the Outdoor Voices design, which truly launched this trend after a wave of fashionable women posted photos of themselves sporting The Exercise Dress in early spring. Tennis skirts had a similar social media-fueled rise, first becoming popular on TikTok, before being adopted by the masses as a much more comfortable alternative to last year’s bike shorts craze. By mid-summer, every athletic brand had its own version, allowing us to pretend to be Naomi Osaka-level tennis stars seven days a week.
7. Gender Neutral Fashion
Unisex fashion is nothing new, but it has definitely become a more mainstream topic over the past year. General discussions about gender identity with regards to lots of topics, not just fashion, have become more prevalent in the media, and lots of brands have taken note by releasing genderless collections and more inclusive campaigns. Celebrities also played a big part in helping combat the idea of “gender norms” with male stars like Harry Styles and Kid Cudi rocking dresses, skirts and pearl necklaces and female stars like Billie Eilish sporting oversize T-shirts and baggy shorts. At the end of the day, fashion should make you feel good regardless of who it was originally designed for. If it makes you happy, wear it.
8. That JW Pei Bag and Other Baguette Styles
The Fendi baguette, Prada’s nylon shoulder bags and more ‘90s-inspired styles were everywhere in 2021, but the one that appeared to outdo all the others was JW Pei’s Gabbi bag (followed very closely by JW Pei’s Eva shoulder bag). The scrunchy, vegan-leather design was spotted on the arms of both Hadid sisters, Megan Fox, Emily Ratajkowski, Hailey Bieber and pretty much every single fashion influencer on the internet. Why, you ask? It costs less than $90, it’s available on Amazon, it comes in a wide range of colors and it is incredibly stylish. It was, in some ways, like the 2021 version of the Telfar bag—a stylish tote that feels high end without actually breaking the bank.
9. Loose Denim Styles
Up until recently, mom jeans were the number one denim silhouette (in fact, we’d say they still reigned supreme through the first half of the year), but fall 2021 appeared to signal a changing of the guard. Looser cuts, like ‘70s wide-leg jeans, ‘90s skater jeans and boot-cut jeans became our most-wanted styles. And while mom jeans, much like the millennial-beloved skinny jeans, will never truly be out of style, a desire to sport comfier, more relaxed silhouettes makes total sense as a sort of natural transition between wearing sweatpants all day and a return to the structured trousers we wore pre-pandemic.
10. TikTok Fashion Hacks
Being stuck at home inspired many folks to get creative with their wardrobes and nowhere was this more apparent than on TikTok. Countless users posted videos testing new ways to tie a belt, how to turn bathing suit bottoms into a top, how to wear a cardigan upside and more. We even learned how to fashion a regular T-shirt bra into a versatile strapless or backless bra. Unfortunately, not every hack lived up to the hype, but there were some surprisingly awesome new ideas brought to light by TikTok creators, and we’re willing to bet there will be even more to try come 2022.
11. Flare Leggings, AKA Yoga Pants
It was a real shock to the system for many women in our office to learn that yoga pants, a tried and true staple of mid-2000s fashion, were back en vogue. Except this time they were rebranded by TikTok-loving Gen Z as flared leggings. Luckily, the name change was accompanied by new styling tricks as well (no one was wearing them with UGG booties and baby tees, thank god) that better embraced the sporty vibes of spandex—think half-zip sweatshirts and chunky sneakers, or graphic T-shirts with platform sandals.
Flashes in the Pan
These fleeting fashion statements had a major impact in the moment, but ultimately didn’t stand the test of time, for better or worse.
12. Cowboy Boots
Cowboy boots have been popping up now again for a few years now, and they had a brief moment this fall when it seemed like the western boot might finally become a must-have staple item, but alas they did not. We still haven’t quite figured out how to wear them without feeling like we’re in costume, and while there were plenty of influencers rocking super sleek black styles with metallic cap toes or cheeky cow-print boots with skinnier heels, the trend never really took off with the masses.
13. Corset Tops
Another trend that was popular with influencers and editors, but that failed to really stick around in the end was the corset top. The 2021 version of the trend, which we’ve seen make its way back into the zeitgeist a few times over the past five or so years, was perhaps the best one yet and featured more subtle nods to corsetry, like seaming down the bodice, square necklines and V-shape hems. Alas, we don’t see this trend making it big in 2022. As is the case for actual lingerie corsets, it’s difficult to find a mass-produced corset top that fits your exact body type well enough to look truly fabulous, and we’re just not willing to put in all the work to find one.
14. Low-Rise Jeans
Despite all our best efforts, low-rise jeans were at their most prevalent since the early aughts in 2021, and even appeared on multiple high-fashion runways (Missoni, Molly Goddard, Blue Marine, etc.) during Fashion Month this September. And while some folks may find it fun to embrace this skin-baring style as just another Y2K throwback, we think the vast majority of women are more inclined to say “never again!” and leave low-rise denim, and all the emotional baggage that comes with them, in the past where they belong.