I took maternity leave last summer. Sometimes during this time I thought about what I would wear when I returned to work and my body was less like a breath. A few weeks ago, when the moment finally arrived, I found myself in the middle of a pandemic, still at home, wearing Birkenstock clogs and a tracksuit stained with yogurt, without a bra and looking at Zoom.
The coronavirus has dismantled the scaffolding in our daily lives and many of us working at home have responded by dressing in clothes that are both comfortable and comforting. What we wear is one of the few things we can control. So with restrictions that are easing much faster than they have been implemented, how exactly are we going to map this new freedom to how we dress?
There are theories: the grand reopening will likely start at a high level, like New Year’s crowds in their best Sunday and matching masks devastating beer gardens, that sort of thing. Also expect reactionary color and the ability to wear heels for the first time in a while. Fashion insiders have told me they plan to make the opera gloves; that the visors could allow a complete make-up. In reality, our elasticated waist will rotate at best on jeans. It is one thing to dress for frivolity, but another thing to be completely frivolous.
Fashion is generally defined by cycles of capital, culture and commerce. The pandemic has interrupted this, causing a change of clothing which is motivated by the circumstances and not by the trend. This certainly applies to Lawrence Schlossman, half of the Throwing Fits fashion podcast. He likes to dress up, but the Schlossmans locking uniform, he told me, sticks to Patagonia shorts that are both exceptional but very specific, the Birkenstock Boston clogs which has become a way of keeping one thing in my coherent life while everything else collapses around me. If even the devoted devotees of fashion dress up, then it must be one thing.
However, just as all included pandemics are commodified under capitalism, so too are the trends that are justified to justify, explain and claim certain circumstances. To know: GQ publishes an article trying to codify the slob style of my tracksuit stained with yogurt not only as a trend, but as a form of power. We have, they say, become a nation of slobs. Unsurprisingly, they quote Boris Johnsons’ chief strategist, Dominic cummings, like his figurehead.
The word slob (although its use is often snobbish) has long been applied to Cummings, perpetually photographed on the way to Downing Street in crumpled white shirts, dirty tracksuits and sports t-shirts. But beyond the whims of the infamous lockdown ugly, the feeling of dressing matches the mood right now, which is not a bad thing. Most of us respond organically to the pressures and demands of life, not to mention the removal of certain needs to dress in uniform, formal or otherwise.
This relaxed culture is part of a larger moment, adjacent to privilege, in which we seek new ways to appear beautiful but comfortable, without betraying the great leveling that the pandemic has allegedly presented. The truth is, however, that some of us are able to disguise and others are not, and this reality can reaffirm when the lock comes up, it will be fully apparent when more people return to environments shared work.
Unlike exhausted NHS workers on leave or harassed parents who now work from home, and long before Covid-19, Cummings had the privilege of dressing as he wished, cultivating a reputation as a sniper along the way . The biased fashion codes help him in this regard: we assume that his Finisterre surfwear must be appropriate for Westminster, thus becoming an expression of his status. When formality is mentioned (the white shirt, neglected of course), this power becomes even clearer.
Such disorder is allowed because of the role Cummings carved out for himself in politics, and in addition, he simply deployed what Harvard researchers call the red sneakers effect: The idea that if someone is daring enough to wear red sneakers in a room full of costumes, we are inclined to listen to them because they must be important if they can get away with wearing them. This idea is powerful in Silicon Valley, see the traumatic range of casual wear by Mark Zuckerbergs and has already been popular among British government policy gurus, with the yellow V-neck T-shirts of Steve Hilton, the thinker from David Camerons’ blue sky, a particular low point.
Self-taught mavericks will always dress as if they don’t care in the attempt to construct a myth. The question for the rest of us is whether the new comfort we could have found in the lock is here to stay, or whether the standards of traditional clothing will be reaffirmed. This may seem like a small point in the grand scheme of things, but the vital question of whether the coronavirus will lead to a different world applies to clothing just as it applies to anything else, no matter how much you wish get away from fashion.
Clothes have the power to define and shape something. Particularly for women, there could now be a reduced constraint which is generally felt unconsciously to dress in a particular way, especially in the workplace. Or it is possible that we have been so conditioned by our collective experience that nothing will really change.
The traditional costume, so analogous to authority, is on pause, even temporarily. It is not simply a means of delimiting the boundaries between work and leisure, it is a question of plausibility. Maybe now, in our exhausted world, wrapped in shorts and clogs, we may finally be able to expand what is plausible.
Morwenna Ferrier is Assistant Editor of the Guardians