These are our personal fashion moments, both real and vicarious. For the time being, they no longer exist. They have evaporated in the midst of mandates to work from home, bans on large gatherings and other precautions against the unknowns of the coronavirus.
The public square has shut down. Employees are banned from their workplaces. Schools are closed. The Smithsonian Museums are shuttered. Broadway is dark. Disneyland is locked. And we’ve lost a little bit of ourselves. An essential part of our identity is rooted in how we relate to the people around us, how we situate ourselves within the social hierarchy. We are defined, in part, by our tribe. We dress to tell a story about ourselves and if there is no one there to hear our narrative, we’ve been put on mute — turned into mere ectoplasm in pajamas.
We are accustomed to slipping on a mantle of public personhood. When that is no longer part of our morning routine, without that quotidian fashion moment, we can become unmoored. Workday attire dominates the lives of most white-collar employees, so much so that if a garment cannot be worn to the office, well, it does not have much value. Who bothers to spend much money on play clothes, after all?
We put on our professional kit to appeal to potential clients, to reflect the tenor of our industries or to impress a boss. We dress to indicate our skills — the lawyerly suit, the banker pinstripes, the tech cashmere hoodie. At the root of all those choices lies a plea — See my worth. Along with a full-throated declaration — I am valuable.
For anyone who works outside the home, dressing for the office — whether that office is a classroom, an assembly line or an executive suite — means slipping into an ensemble that identifies one’s place in the social order, of announcing you are participating in the ebb and flow of a community. Most work clothes do not underscore individuality. To the contrary, work clothes remind us we are part of something. That uniform, that badge dangling from a lanyard, that congressional pin: They are all reminders of connectivity.
To work from home and never take off your pajamas can, at first, feel like a kind of liberation — a celebration of comfort and a rebuke to stuffy corporate rules that demand pantyhose in summer and a jacket at all times. But going through an entire day in loungewear, it is easy to lose yourself and your sense of purpose and focus. Our clothes create boundaries. They mark time. Folks who regularly work from home speak of the need to change out of their pajamas into something, anything else to announce their day has begun. To not feel like a sloth. To feel ready to face the world because without the world, who are you?
When we go out into the community our clothes allow us to have our say without ever opening our mouths. We settle into a coffee shop in our favorite jeans and message T-shirt, and we can make a political statement or a childish joke. We can send up a rallying cry for black lives or black girl magic or feminism. A MAGA hat sparks rage — or solidarity. We can plead for the environment or make the case for a favored artist or musician.
Fashion is a form of communication that is both intimate and aloof. Without ever uttering a word, you stand behind your message because you are, in fact, wearing it. Clothing is an eloquent form of communication for the inarticulate. It can also be used as a costume when one would prefer to make a show of taking action rather than rolling up one’s sleeves and getting on with it.
Clothes are the spoils of financial success that we wear on our back. All that hard work and sacrifice is made plain in a Tom Ford suit, a Chanel bag or a Hublot watch. Yes, designer clothing can be about one-upsmanship. It lures consumers into paying an exorbitant premium to possess products they do not need; fancy brands can be a reflection of insecurity writ large. But aspirational purchases also tell a story of striving and achieving. While it is all well and good to be privately proud, clothes give people the opportunity to loudly brag just by walking into a room and sometimes a little applause from the crowd is just what a person needs.
Without these fashion moments, we have lost the ability to easily connect, to say something — even when we might be too afraid to actually do something. We no longer have a ready opportunity to publicly celebrate ourselves or to simply enjoy the pleasure of feeling that we are doing our part to enliven the visual landscape. The delight in wearing a new dress or pair of shoes is not merely in putting them on for your personal satisfaction. It is in taking them out for public inspection so they can become another detail in your story — the one that is constantly evolving and expanding.
When we ask ourselves: “What should I wear today?,” we are asking a much bigger set of questions. “Who am I?” “What am I expecting from this day?” “How do I see my life moving forward?”
When we can no longer find a reason to consider our attire — even just a little bit, even for the briefest outing, we go silent. And our story, in all of its nuance, grandeur and humanity, goes untold. So as we isolate ourselves at home, our clothes can be our pep talk, an impassioned soliloquy. As we scurry along the street, dutiful in our social distancing, our clothes become glancing waves — reminders that at some point we will speak to each other again.