Phoebe Maltz Bovy: The pandemic hasn’t changed our nature — fashion isn't going anywhere
COVID-19 has not destroyed the materialist impulse; I miss dressing up for others, and you probably do too.
By: Phoebe Maltz Bovy
Jeans are dead. Shopping is over. Lockdown has killed the shallow materialist impulse.
Except, of course, none of that is true.
We're in the midst of an anti-fashion moment thanks to months of lockdown. Much of the discourse around fashion — and even society more generally — seems wedded to the notion that if there is an upside to COVID-19, it's the end of shopping binges and status seeking. "There are only so many pairs of leggings I need to navigate this new life," writes Anne Helen Petersen in BuzzFeed, as she champions the end of futile consumerism. In the New Republic, Frank Trentmann writes of the phenomenon more broadly: "Lockdown, in this view, is shaking people out of their materialist slumber, exposing all the ‘false needs’ they had been brainwashed into, and teaching them to focus on their ‘real’ needs instead: health, family and friendship, and baking bread."
For others, the pandemic is liberating our sartorial senses: “Social isolation has presented new opportunities for creative expression and even subversion,” writes Josh Greenblatt in The Walrus, adding that this includes “glimmers of more gender-fluid dressing."
In theory, the silver lining to lockdown is an end to dressing for others. Isolation leaves us truly free to wear what we please, whether that means decades-old sweatpants or acid-green tutus. The crisis is forcing us to reject the shallow, the material, and the banal. To transcend the mind-numbing habit of flaunting our status through what we wear. Or so the thinking goes: we’re tapping into some purer state when we stop caring what others think.
The lifestyle pages have been rife with this stuff; a mix of descriptive and prescriptive assessments: our fast fashion lifestyles are over. Forever. And, some add: "Good riddance."
Really? A few months of lying low during an emergency is enough to disrupt a massive, global industry? It seems far more plausible that said industry exists only because our innate human desires led to its creation.
My own experience speaks to the persistence of those desires. At first, in mid-March, I did not miss new clothes. I was too flummoxed by life in a home that was suddenly also an office (and my co-worker was an energetic toddler). The only thought I gave my clothes was getting them into the wash as quickly as possible after an essential trip into the world of COVID.
Shopping was dangerous. The idea of browsing aisles for fun seemed unimaginable. I contemplated my last pre-pandemic clothing purchase — a satiny skirt from Zara — and wondered where I imagined I would ever wear something so impractical. (I had, admittedly, wondered this pre-pandemic as well.) I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to do that again.
The sudden bout of common sense didn't last long. After a few months of sitting at home, the idea of casually shopping (or eating in a restaurant) sounded like a wonderful escape from the drudgery of isolation. I craved not just the experience of shopping, but of acquiring The Inessential — the mere fact that a good wasn’t an essential gave it its allure. I wanted to feel like history itself had not stopped in its tracks. I missed the thing where a new season brings new looks, identities, maybe even new possibilities — whether or not I personally would purchase them. And so I find it heartening, not disappointing, that there are, even now, new trends. Tie-dye sweatsuits are having a moment, as are bike shorts. (Disclaimer: I am writing this in a pair of new, mail-ordered bike shorts, my personal observance of Stage 3 protocols.)
But there’s a broader issue at play: fashion is, as ever, a status marker. Pandemic fashion, like all fashion, is about signalling your awareness of the moment you're living through, and how you are meeting it. In a New Yorker article about “The Slob-Chic Style of the Coronavirus Pandemic,” filled with loungewear suggestions (many costing hundreds of dollars), Patricia Marx quotes a source as saying, “I think unrepentant sloppiness is the new fashion-forward.” This means not just wearing whatever you happen to wear when home alone, but overtly embracing styles that make clear you got the memo that in-person meetings are done. Or, conversely, for those who still dress up, that even while alone, you hold yourself to a higher standard than the rest of the Crocs-and-shorts rabble. It's all a show.
The fashion cycle is unpredictable. If a vaccine ever appears, will employers signal a return to normality by demanding tailored suits as the offices fill up once more? And even if working from home replaces the office in a more permanent way, will companies establish remote dress codes, as some school boards have for done students?
There is nothing about this pandemic that will have fundamentally changed the burning desire among humans to be hip, current and attractive. The urge to self-adorn, and to check out what others are wearing, is not a failing of late capitalism. It’s hard-wired into our DNA. We communicate our taste, our careers, our marital status, our states of mind, our values and, of course, our material wealth through our clothes, cosmetics and jewellery. We always have. It's linked to our sociability as a species. And at a time when networks are so often discussed solely in terms of virus transmission, when “social” seems to demand “distancing,” the signals we can send at a distance count more than ever.
Try as I might, I couldn't get myself to romanticize selecting garments in isolation from the rest of humanity, blissfully ignorant of what anyone not stuck at home with me might think. I got bored of dressing for myself, and wanted to return to dressing for others as well. That is, I wanted to exist in the world. Don't we all?
Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a writer living in Toronto. Her work has appeared in The New Republic and The Atlantic, among other publications.
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