I’ve never been one to put too much stock in the idea that clothing has to be practical. Scrolling back through photos from those blissfully naive first months of 2020, my outfits make that much clear: There’s the faux-pearl bra top and holographic motorcycle jacket I wore to a friend’s birthday party; the leopard-print creeper shoes that carried me through 30,000-step days in Tokyo; the pink, bedazzled thrift store blazer I wore one night at Mardi Gras that I like to think would have made Dolly Parton proud.
A year later, I have a hard time reconciling that person with the me who wakes up every morning and decides between two pairs of sweatpants and the leggings I wore to bed the previous night. What last spring felt like isolation’s small silver lining — a break from the societal demands of presentability, a chance for eyelashes to regrow and skin to reset after years of extensions and makeup — now feels like another way the pandemic is chipping away at the person I thought I was.
It’s not that I have anything against sweatpants. I’m not a Grinch who hates comfort. I just liked them a lot more when I had a reason to wear anything else. Without dinner parties, concerts, weddings, conferences, happy hours, business trips, coffee dates, vacations, or countless other social activities, there aren’t many occasions left for which to dress.
I understand that, for some people, it’s freeing not to worry about what to wear or whether this thing goes with that. For a sea of others, including me, it’s been destabilizing: Looking at my closet, many of the pieces I once carefully selected now feel like they belong to another life.
Fashion, for all its flaws, can be joyful and creative; it can make us feel like we’re part of a community. I wonder, sometimes, if that same joy, creativity, and community will still be there on the other side. And while this time of isolation could be a rare opportunity for all of us to figure out who we are when we truly dress for ourselves, for me, dressing up at all feels futile when there’s nowhere to go and no one to see.
Style, after all, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Clothes are a form of self-expression, but they are also central to our identity because they shape how others see us, says Carolyn Mair, a behavioral psychologist and author of The Psychology of Fashion. Our brains are designed to form split-second judgments based on appearance. For better or worse, she says, our external selves — including the clothes we wear — are “the gatekeeper to being liked or disliked, being wanted or unwanted.”
“We have a sense of identity ourselves by what we’re trying to project, and our identity is also reinforced through the feedback of others,” Mair says.
This may help explain why, while fashion may not rank high on everyone’s list of what’s been lost during the pandemic, for some it has felt like a significant blow.
On social media, celebrities and everyday users alike have bemoaned how the pandemic has laid waste to their style.
“I’ve forgotten the purpose of 90% of my clothing. Only like 3 shirts even make sense any more,” radio host Jess McIntosh tweeted.
“There used to be an organizational axiom that if you haven’t worn a piece of clothing in 6 months, it’s time to get rid of it,” replied one follower. “Except that now describes literally every piece of clothing in my closet, all of my accessories, and most of my shoes.”
For comedian Ashley Nicole Black, the style crisis hit in October. “Am I the only one? After six months of working from home I have... no idea what my personal style is anymore? How do I like to dress? I like... comfortable.... that’s all I’ve got,” she tweeted.
And in one meme that went viral in December — comedian Lorena Pages’s “love it, couldn’t wear it” — Sofia Vergara, Shay Mitchell, an internet-famous greyhound, and thousands of other Instagram and TikTok users lamented a year of unworn looks.
With nowhere to wear party dresses or high heels — or even “hard pants,” for that matter — these clothes have piled up in warehouses, leaving brands and retailers grappling with the question of what to do with so much excess inventory. So many people are at home reevaluating their wardrobes and looking to make some money off the many pieces they no longer wear that resale sites have seen a flood of supply; no telling whether there’s enough demand to meet it.
Claudia Stevens, a hairstylist in Toronto, Canada, says she was always a very intentional shopper before the pandemic. She could go whole seasons without buying anything new because the pieces in her wardrobe were classic and felt so her. After salons closed last spring and the city went into lockdown, though, that relationship started to shift. Suddenly, nothing she tried on felt right. At first, she chalked it up to pandemic weight gain — maybe, she thought, it was just that her clothes literally didn’t fit right — but then she noticed the same sensation even with pieces that draped perfectly.
“I just didn’t feel connected to that part of who I was,” she says. “And when I would try to put something together the same way I would have [before lockdown], it’s like the second those pieces hit my body, I felt almost strangled.”
The fashion industry, which once dictated what we’d all be wearing a full season in advance, is experiencing its own existential crisis. Many designers have taken the opportunity of the pandemic to slow down the pace of their collections, produce fewer styles, and sync up the deliveries of seasonal pieces like coats and swimsuits with the arrival of fall and summer, respectively, rather than putting them on sale months in advance.
When Katrina Orsini moved home to her parents’ house in Connecticut last March, she expected to be there for a few months. She’d lost her job in events and, with no paycheck coming in, broke the lease on her Brooklyn apartment, packed a bag with a few basics — T-shirts, sweatshirts, sweatpants — and put the rest of her belongings in storage. It didn’t take long before the erosion of her sense of physical identity — the absence of the lipstick she usually wore even on trips to the bodega, the jeans and heels she’d sealed away — started to get to her.
“I’m a huge lipstick person,” she says. “And I went through this phase when [people started wearing] masks where I was trying everything to hold on to that.”
Armed with various shades of lipstick-colored embroidery thread, she made masks embroidered with lips and a nose ring like her own. Still sensing a void, she tried painting her nails and watched the polish chip away without anyone else ever seeing it. She accumulated a collection of wigs — some blonde, some colorful, always with the strong blunt bangs she’s never been bold enough to try for real — and, before beginning her job as an adjunct last month at Parsons School of Design, she was consumed with the idea of wearing a different wig each week to virtual class. At least, she reasoned, the wigs would add variety and a sense of change, the exact things life in semi-lockdown is sorely lacking.
Denied our usual outlets for self-expression, we’re all finding our own ways to cope. Jasmyn, a Chicago gamer who also goes by the handle CakePop, found herself missing the joy and excitement of getting ready for a night out with friends. She was strict about staying safe in quarantine, and her work attire (first scrubs, then work-from-home sweats) didn’t lend itself to self-expression, so she turned to Animal Crossing. The ultra-popular Nintendo Switch game allows users to design their characters’ outfits or style them in a nearly endless array of wardrobe options.
“A lot of people set up their character’s look and they’ll change it every so often,” says Jasmyn. “I change clothes every day that I play the game. So when I open the game, I go to my closet in my Animal Crossing house and I put together a different outfit before I go about my island chores.”
In the real world, with salons due to reopen once Covid-19 case numbers are low enough, Stevens is wrestling with how she’ll get dressed every day, especially in an industry where there’s an expectation to look the part.
“I can’t imagine going back to work and picking anything from that wardrobe. It’s so foreign to me right now,” she says. “I wear all of those things now and I’m like, ‘What the?’ It feels heavy and strange and kind of makes me think, ‘Who was I really dressing for?’”
It’s not lost on us that this question of whose gaze we’re courting as we get ready for the day is one that only tends to be asked of women. Even in lockdown, when the only eyeballs many of us regularly encounter are those of our partners, families, or pets, it’s the absence of others’ gaze that can throw us off balance.
“It’s weird for that to be then taken away so abruptly,” says Orsini. “I still now, a year later, am thinking about what it is I actually love about lipstick.”
The lack of visibility can be positive for some women, says Mair, especially those who have been disadvantaged by societal beauty norms. Ideally, it can mean we’re judged on our thoughts or contributions instead of what we look like. “All the values that I think are far more important than appearance in real terms can come to the fore,” she says.
On the other hand, humans are visual creatures — as much as half of our brains are dedicated to processing visual information. When we don’t have opportunities to present ourselves to the world and receive feedback, we lose an important tool for negotiating and clarifying our identity.
This isn’t only true for people who have spent the past year at home: Essential workers who have spent the pandemic in scrubs and uniforms also haven’t have had the chance to do their makeup or put on their favorite shoes for a night out to remind themselves of who they are outside their grueling jobs.
Jessica LaVoy, a bartender in Chicago, says that between work and quarantine, she’s spent most of the past year in either a uniform or sweatpants, a fact that’s taken a toll on her self-esteem. With bars now open again where she lives, the only feedback she’s getting is from the older men who come into the bar.
“I’m getting hit on all the time, which can be very uncomfortable,” she says. “I would much rather take a look in the mirror and see myself in my favorite H&M shirt, going out to hang out with my friends, knowing that I look good for myself.”
That feeling of self-confidence is hard to come by in isolation. And even after this is over, the comfort of a favorite outfit no longer feels a given: What if your favorite shirt isn’t your favorite anymore once going out with friends is safe again?
For now, I’ve found solace in this: I may now have no use for 90 percent of the shoes I own, but I can raid my girlfriend’s beanie collection and wear a new color every week. Salons may be a distant memory, but I can touch up my hair with purple Manic Panic at home.
And while I don’t know who we’ll be or what we’ll wear on the other side, I can only hope it involves more bedazzled blazers.
A previous version of this story misidentified the comedian who tweeted about personal style. Her name is Ashley Nicole Black.