I recently contributed to an article in the humour magazine the Fence about novelists and their internet addictions, which led me to reflect on the amount of time I spend online. I could pretend that I spend most of it on the New Yorker website but I’d be lying: after doomscrolling, my main internet fix is looking at pictures of clothes. The pandemic has done little to pacify this tendency – my instinct towards consumerism was instilled at a young age (yes, I blame capitalism). One of my toddler tantrums involved screaming, at fever pitch, the repeated demand: “Give me all your money!” Thankfully, my parents were never rich, or else I might have become a monster.
I love fashion. It is as central to my interests as literature, painting, music, food and the cat. (OK, not the cat. The cat is the pinnacle, for she has designed it that way.) I consider it an art form in its own right, and have extremely low tolerance for people who are snobbish about it. It shouldn’t need to be said that you can have an intelligent, inquiring mind alongside an interest in how we adorn ourselves. What we wear cuts to the very heart of who we are, and how we want to appear. Particularly, it seems to me, if you are a woman. To quote the French essayist Roland Barthes, couturiers are the poets “who write the anthem of the feminine body”.
Nevertheless, I find myself wondering how we approach fashion when, in this pandemic, our relationship with it has shifted so dramatically. “This will do nicely for a garden party,” I think, of a gossamer-light summer dress, ignoring the fact that my 2021 diary remains completely empty and that none of my friends has ever hosted such an event. “What a perfect skirt for a trip to the beach”; “this blouse will do nicely for the office” (I last entered the office in March). And then the pointlessness of the whole charade hits me. What am I shopping for? It’s not just me, the feeling is borne out in the figures, with a 25% drop in clothing sales this December.
It’s also reflected in how we’re dressing. I would be mortified if anyone had seen me in the getup I sported the other day for a walk around my neighbourhood: Adidas Superstars, faded grey jogging bottoms, a leopard-print faux fur coat, a bobble hat, mad hair. I look as though I have given up, but so does everyone else. From the streets of north London, I can report that the season’s hot look is a dressing gown, accessorised by your dog and a cigarette.
Given the current turmoil, an interest in fashion can seem even more frivolous – but only if we forget its importance, both economically and creatively. I have never been uncritical of the industry, which has enormous repercussions for the planet, workers’ rights and body image. I ceased being a consumer of fast fashion many years ago. I buy either secondhand, or – in a sure sign that I am getting older – more expensive items that last longer. But I can’t pretend to be so saintly that each purchase doesn’t give me a buzz, or that I’m not relying on sniper-bidding on eBay to give me a dopamine hit. (I’m that person you hate who comes in with a high bid at 15 seconds to go; and yes, I get a kick out of imagining you swearing at me from the other side of a screen.) I get a thrill whether I’m buying from a teenage girl in Scunthorpe or a chic Scandi designer. The consumerist habit, with its false promise of satisfaction, is hard to shake. That some are still filling their shopping baskets, even in the middle of a world-altering disaster, says something about how powerful a myth it is. The pre-Christmas crush outside Harrods, despite the health risks, was an apt illustration of this.
Writing about fashion in this time will almost certainly result in imperatives that I “check my privilege”. And it’s true, I haven’t lost all my income, like some of my loved ones. But I do know what it is like to be poor, and it never hampered my enjoyment of fashion. My mother, from whom I inherited a love of design, is a charity shopper extraordinaire and a talented seamstress. In my teenage years, she helped me copy the designs from fashion magazines: an intricate lace blouse, a pale yellow silk slip with lace petticoat by Dior.
It is true that fashion has a class element. When I was younger, I certainly used it to “pass” among the very rich people that populate the fashion industry. My first journalism placement was at Vogue. My mother and I did a car boot sale to pay for the train fare. Once I got to London, a friend lent me her French mother’s wardrobe. I went to work on my first day in a vintage Yves Saint Laurent blazer, desperate to fit in. Now, a decade later and under the more diverse and inclusive editorship of Edward Enninful, I doubt I’d feel so worried.
The real answer to the question “What am I shopping for?” is the fantasy. Like any lover of fashion, I have a list of dream purchases: a dress from The Vampire’s Wife, a bag from Amélie Pichard, anything from Dolce & Gabbana. Yet now we are isolated and atomised, the fantasy is less consumerist than social. I crave that feeling of leaving the house all dressed up, knowing that I look my best, and setting off on my way to a room replete with friends and loved ones, to all of whom I’ll say: “You look amazing.” A friend and I say that “when this is all over”, we will throw a party so that everyone can wear their ill-advised lockdown purchases. It’ll be beautiful and mad. I can’t wait.