If you had asked me a year ago, “Who do you dress for?” I would answer with all the glittering self-assurance available to the human experience: “Myself! I dress for myself!”
There’s no surer way to maintain illusions than to never test them.
But through early 2020, if I had to describe my attitude to style, I would have said: a modern mix of bold self-propulsion and healthy vanity, lightly masquerading as confidence. I dressed on my own whims: I’d wear a suede coat because I’d love how the warm swish made me feel. I’d wear a dress because I’d love how the cut made my waist look, or I liked how some brocade texture illuminated my hair. I liked how loud a color was or how soft a pattern was or how bold a weird hem was, not considering whether anyone else liked it. Of course, I would never turn down a compliment or a non-creepy assessment of my little fashions, but it was me, particular me, whose glowing feedback I craved.
My sense of self, as it related to other people, did get tested though. Los Angeles closed up shop, as a city, the second week of March. Not one week into quarantine, I learned that I dressed very differently when I was my only witness. (I’m using “I” loosely, as my boo Megan and their dog were both constantly around, all three of us on similar journeys of isolated exploration together). The “me” who I was dressing for didn’t care about anything.
It wasn’t just that my clothing choices got comfier — but that I turned almost exclusively to second tier stuff. I’d pick clothes that weren’t quite cute enough to merit being shown off. The JV set was suddenly first on the field. There was no reason to dig deeper in the drawer just because I didn’t like the slight flare at the bottom of a shirt. Flagrantly, I’d pick the two-weeks-since-I’ve-done-laundry high-waisted number or the pair of jeans that developed corny holes across the thighs. I turned first to my least favorite tank tops that I didn’t care about yellowing the armpits of. Even the gold ring I’d worn every single day, a graduation gift, I started to only wear when I was going to “be seen,” which usually meant the grocery store. Maybe a distance stoop hang. Other people, and whether they would be where I was going, were top of mind when I dressed.
No surprise, worn over and over, my no-witnesses JV clothes started to wear out. Even upmarket sweatpants adopted a permanent sag in the butt. Megan pointed to a hole in a sweatshirt right above the left-chest monogram (ha) and asked me earnestly, “How did that happen?” Couldn’t be over-use could it? I thought. Instead, I think I said something like: “This hole in my sweatshirt is a portrait of my psyche.” We’re now approaching nine months of relative isolation. I now consider the droopy energy around the buttocks of my highest-qual sweats as an accurate art piece about my mental state this year. These reliable standards have lost all their appeal. I look at my once favorite loose tee, in the softest celadon color, and snarl with boredom: Should I just light my favorite clothes on fire now?
And I wondered if this apathy is because I have no associations between clothes and people anymore. There’s no emotional memory, besides apathy actually, tied to the outfits I’ve been wearing. I haven’t worn this shirt to a friend’s birthday party; I haven’t worn it dancing; I haven’t worn it while I make eyes with someone cute and think to myself, lucky, I’m also cute!
Now, the occasions I kinda-sorta see people turn into full-blown events. I show up overdressed and over-enthused. A Sunday morning coffee run — an excursion where previously the state of my dishevelment was between my god and I — is suddenly worth dressing up for. By June, Megan and I began to refer to any errand as: “going into town.” And such an elegant occasion certainly warrants putting on all my “jewels” (my ring, three gold bead bracelets).
So, yes: I am disappointed to learn the exact facts of my lack of self-reliance. I wish I’d never learned that I don’t dress only for myself. But I have gained an appreciation for the role of other people. I think it’s still true that I don’t care what other people think of what I wear; but I do need them. I need the frisson of a crowd or a party to care about what I wear. It turns out I think that only wonderful people deserve the varsity team of wonderful pants and my three bracelets.