All dressed up and nowhere to go: clothing in a global crisis

From the perfect WFH fit to the shortage of PPE, the coronavirus pandemic throws the politics of what we wear into sharp relief.

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Halfway through April, I broke. I committed my first online shopping spree in lockdown. Although inspired by abject boredom – and an increased detachment from a system in which human worth is arbitrated by per capita consumption, and one’s failure to partake in said system results in extreme feelings of insignificance – it was a completely fine and very normal experience. Just “getting a few bits”, as they say.

One of these bits was a T-shirt made by the Italian label CP Company. Like the vast majority of my clothes, it was bought second-hand. Of the complete list of items purchased (various kitchen utensils, a questionable lamp), the T-shirt seemed the most frivolous. Out of all the things to focus on during this crisis, the question of what to wear appears, on the surface, unnecessary.

Generally speaking, however, clothes are important – they can comfort or empower us, make us feel safe or exposed, and even intimidate. When we dress for work, we do so with the knowledge that we will be seen. In the event of this nationwide lockdown, however, the concept of work clothing is in flux.

The majority of office employees are now working from home. Many have adopted a new type of casual uniform, free from the scrutiny of others. We’re unquestionably more relaxed in how we dress, but with the social aspect now removed, there’s the potential to forget – not forget how to dress, but forget why we dress, our motivation curbed through lack of routine. To counter this, some have picked up their phones.

For the duration of the lockdown, the Instagram account @wfhfits has documented the various outfits of those confined to the four walls of their homes. It’s undoubtedly a curated feed, with hashtag fashion at it’s core, but indicative of a wider shift across social media.

There’s nothing new about showing off your fit online, but this account feels like a distillation of an already specific type of post. Dr Malcolm Bernard, a senior lecturer in Visual Culture at Loughborough University, spoke to me about @wfhfits and similar accounts. Barnard initially recognised that people “deprived of the chance to appear and be seen outdoors, will want to find a substitute public space and they will find it at home on social media” – that they are “trying to recreate or replace some form of social presence”.

You may have noticed that your social feeds are, understandably, more active than usual – but what are we actually doing when we post pictures of ourselves in lockdown? In this context the humble selfie, often regarded as a purely exhibitionist endeavour, becomes a reclamation of identity: a way to regain a sense of self lost through successive days spent at home.

Specifically, clothing is used as way to reaffirm one’s social life. This is because we know that what we choose to wear is deeply personal. Instagramming a photo of your carefully-curated-yet-casually presented work from home fit doesn’t just say “look at me” in the purely superficial sense, but look at what I’ve put together, look at who I am – I’m still here.

This feeling is reflected in the thought processes that absorb us when we’re dressing in lockdown. Should I bother wearing those jeansDo I need to wear a shirtShall I just put on that same hoodie for the twelfth day in a row? We silently prescribe to the idea that dressing “normally” will make us feel just that: normal.

Although our day-to-day routines have undoubtedly changed during lockdown, we’d be forgiven for thinking that the way in which we dress has changed – but this actually may not be the case. When I asked Barnard if our relationship with clothes could change, his answer was certain. “We might be dressing differently in some trivial senses” – such as rediscovering those long-forgotten items or using this time to edit our wardrobes – but “the ways in which people relate to their clothes will not change”.

This sentiment might not apply to those who’ve spent almost two months in the same pair of trackies. But although we may decide that what is appropriate to wear has changed, the method of how we decide what is appropriate remains very much the same. We’re living through a confusing moment and we dress how we feel best equipped to tackle that. As Barnard puts it, we’re “still dressing appropriately for the situation, even if we’re not quite sure what ‘the situation’ is, or what is ‘appropriate’ to it.”

Shahidha Bari, Professor of Fashion Cultures and Histories at London College of Fashion, agrees that we use our appearance to comfort and deflect. “I cut my husband’s hair yesterday,” she told me, “very badly – it cheers me up seeing him wandering through our flat with appalling hair. It’s a good thing to be fun and creative during the lockdown… we need to find ways to be mischievous and hopeful – dressing up, or down, or sideways can do that.”

There’s no doubt that accounts like @wfhfits display “mischievous and hopeful” fashion. But they also risk aestheticising a position that is available only to some. For the most part, those working from home are privileged. This is not to assume that all who work from home are middle-class or well-off, and all those who cannot are the opposite. But those who cannot work from home are decidedly more at risk: the doctors, nurses and paramedics; the postal workers, couriers and supermarket employees.

One of many circumstances that separate the home worker from the majority of the key workers is the clothes they wear. The sky blue of a hospital scrub or the orange and maroon of a Sainsbury’s fleece, instantly recognisable, now take on renewed significance. While those of us at home may grapple with how to dress ourselves in lockdown, those in uniform have no such dilemma. As the home worker experiences a dwindling authority through lack of social presence, the key worker becomes ever more crucial – as clothing signposts.

The contrast between home workers and key workers is notable because it shows that, in times of crisis, we begin to see clothes differently. When I asked Bari of the significance of key workers’ clothing, she is candid: “When I see shop workers in uniforms, doing this crucial work to keep the everydayness of our every day lives going, I feel such a deep debt to them… my brother and nephews are doctors. I feel the same about NHS workers who are now permanently dressed in their scrubs.”

I ask Barnard about the new meaning of these clothes. “If the culture changes,” he explains, “then the values held by that culture change. And given that it is these values that generate the meanings of clothes and fashion, the meanings of the clothes will change.”

Our culture and its values have undoubtedly changed during this pandemic. This does not mean, however, that all see key worker’s clothes in terms of the “deep debt” that Bari refers to; culture is not monolithic and values vary from person to person. In some grim instances, NHS workers have been singled out (presumably by their clothes) and had their ID cards stolen in order to claim free food. As Barnard puts it, “Different values generate different meanings.”

The availability of one specific type of clothing – personal protective equipment – has become a main point of contention during this pandemic, and its scarcity continues to put many lives unnecessarily at risk.

Towards the end of our email conservation, Bari doubles back to her family, adding, “My brother is working on a ward for suspected Covid-19 patients. He’s wearing disposable scrubs and a paper apron. Yesterday, he ran out of hand sanitiser and face masks. We will owe our survival to NHS workers. How could we have allowed the NHS to have been so systemically underfunded for the last ten years? We revere our NHS staff. We clap for them. We have to make sure we vote for them in the future.”

What we choose to wear may seem a trivial topic in this moment – but it’s this same moment that’s shown us how deeply political our clothes have always been.

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