A list of just some of the inanimate objects I have felt personally attacked by in the past year: my phone (chiming in with uninvited screen-time updates and ‘one year ago today’ photos); my Smythson diary (empty); assorted membership cards (I have needed zero of these to get into the kitchen); suitcases (ha ha, sure!); my juicer (OK, admittedly, this is every year).
But nothing has so persistently trolled me for the past however-many-months-it’s- been than my wardrobe. Clothes have become symbols of missed opportunities – parties, weddings, holidays, dinners out – a parallel life I should be enjoying, but am not. I long for that feeling of possibility when you slip something fabulous on.
Occasions to wear a little black dress have been severely limited in the midst of a global pandemic – it was March 2020 that a Friday night last felt discernibly different to a Monday morning – but former daily staples have also been masterful in their mockery. Trousers from The Row that I would wear as a gesture of sophisticated, functioning adulthood, printed dresses that were once upon a time a breezy summer staple, precisely tailored jackets; all of them have gone unworn. Operating almost entirely from home is a surprisingly grubby business, so even my favourite white Sunspel T-shirts have felt like too much of a risk, too much of an indulgence, to wear.
And nothing has felt like a bigger dud than any shoes that aren’t trainers, wellies or Birkenstocks, while proper handbags, formerly stuffed full of the detritus of an equally stuffed full life – are now empty and rammed in a wardrobe, apart from the Loewe Cushion tote, which has acquired new life as an accidental filing cabinet. (Tabitha Simmons, the designer and creative director of Tanner Krolle, also found new use for her impressive accessory collection in lockdown: ‘I have a young daughter who loves to play dress-up with my bags and shoes, so she would often clip-clop around in sparkly high heels and bejewelled bags; they never missed opportunities!’). Now they are reminders that the everyday has been put on hiatus. Normal is something you take for granted – until it’s gone.
But when this ends (when not if), what will clothes mean to us? Will we want to get dressed up again? Will we even remember how to get dressed – in proper clothes, that serve a purpose beyond comfort – at all? Is fashion just an irrelevant frivolity now that we’ve been confronted by the flimsiness of life? Much has already been written about the future of fashion from an industry perspective, but what about the undeniable emotional, personal side of getting dressed?
The amount of effort I have put into getting dressed (or not) has ricocheted as chaotically as my mood, energy and appetite this year. But by this point, fatigued by the endlessness of it all, I can hardly be bothered even to think about clothes. Waist up, waist down, waste of time. Over it.
I’m not the only one who’s felt teased by their wardrobe this year. The spring-summer trunk show orders began arriving at luxury retailer Moda Operandi during the first lockdown. ‘There was one dove grey, open-backed Christopher Esber dress I planned to wear (with a red lip and some antique paste earrings) to my best friend’s wedding in Montauk, that hung solemnly in my bedroom for a week or so. Taunting me,’ says the retailer’s founder Lauren Santo Domingo, a woman who wears a gown with the ease most of us wear jeans and a tee. ‘Between my pre-orders arriving by mail and my calendar reminders appearing on my iPhone screen (Paris shows, Save Venice Gala) it was a very superficial reminder of my previous life. I started deleting events from my diary by summer, #selfcare.’
Susie Lau went through various emotions. ‘It’s been a weird ride where I went through different stages of wanting to dress up for the sake of dressing up at home, almost like a combative exercise against boredom and not being able to go anywhere,’ says the influencer and consummate joyful dresser.
‘I pulled out very old items from the back of my closet as a way of remembering the good times I had in those clothes. Then the day- to-day drain of looking after a little one and starting a new food business caught up with me, so I have also submitted to hoodies
and sweatpants, which I never really wore prior to the pandemic.’ Designer Misha Nonoo gave birth to her first child last March, and ‘getting dressed became about maintaining a routine’. She’s a streamlined dresser, but still, ‘I, of course, miss dressing up for a night out or event.’
There has been optimistic talk of post- pandemic life welcoming in a Roaring Twenties-style let-loose decadence. Despite the fact that most of us are more likely to head to the pub than West Egg, there is certainly a desire to go hard on the glamour. ‘I like to play hard, work hard and dress up hard, and I will do so again as soon as I have the chance!’ says Giovanna Engelbert, global creative director of Swarovski, whose debut collection includes gobstopper crystals in candy colours that are the shot of vitamin D we all need now. ‘Maximal effort at all times’ is going to be 16Arlington’s Kikka Cavenati’s post-lockdown memo: ‘Every outing will be a blessing and an excuse to dress up!’ Susie adds, ‘I definitely am ready to dress up – up and up again! – to the point of the ridiculous when lockdown lifts.’
On the cusp of the second lockdown, designer Michelle Elie, always a fearless dresser, got rid of her sweatpants (‘to avoid [getting] lazy about dressing my soul’) and turned to her much-loved, much-repaired Junya Watanabe jeans instead. Still, she is hankering after something extra after all this. ‘I am more and more craving creativity and extreme shape and forms,’ she says. ‘If I could afford it, I would want to invest in Valentino couture pieces, especially those divine capes. What a replacement for those sweatpants. The impact of these pieces would lift anyone. From gloom to bloom.’
Currently, you probably feel more wilted than blooming. Along with dressing up, Covid-19 has also cancelled sex (for single people, and one imagines for frazzled cohabitees, too). So what could signify liberation more clearly then take-me-to-bed dressing? Dressing to be noticed and admired has been off the menu; it will be emboldening to toy with that again. When dating, I used to prefer to look ‘accidentally’ sexy, trying to denote a take-it-or-leave-it effortlessness that I don’t really possess. Now I think life is too short for mixed messages.
I’ve already been tentatively test-driving my own newfound desire to look sexy. ‘I heard some people are dressing up just to feel like their former self again. I think it’s very good therapy,’ says Emma Reynaud, the founder of Parisian brand Marcia. ‘Dressing up, especially when you are not feeling your best, has a pretty powerful impact on your mindset’. She’s right. Last New Year’s Eve, a friend loaned me one of Marcia’s Tchikiboum dresses – a sassy, skimpy number with peekaboo cut-outs down the sides that means the wearer must forego underwear. It was revitalising. Sure, I spent the night alone, watching a murder documentary, eating Deliveroo and heading to bed by 9.30 (pm not am, those nights are long behind me), but I felt better about doing it in that rather than the loungewear. There is nowhere to hide in dresses like Marcia’s, but that’s fine by me. I am done with hiding, which seems like as good a motto as any to take into this year.
After a year of getting dressed away from the noise of social obligations and other people’s opinions, might we also see a renewed emphasis on personal style? Dressing on your own terms feels fitting now.
But inevitably, an ‘audience’ will return into all of our lives. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Humour me, for a moment, and allow me to suggest a mantra that seems destined to end up italicised on a cutesy Etsy sign: ‘Dress like everybody’s watching’. It’s a thrill, but it can also be important. Dressing up doesn’t need to mean extravagance, it can just be about dressing with purpose and intention, reclaiming the narrative. You could see it at January’s presidential inauguration. If clothes truly were irrelevant, then attendees would have pitched up in whatever tracksuit they, like us, would slob around in at home. Instead, the likes of Kamala Harris and Michelle Obama used the opportunity to highlight issues that mattered. They wore young Black designers (Christopher John Rogers, Sergio Hudson) and purple – denoting women’s suffrage and unity. Furthermore, dressing up showed reverence for the importance of the occasion, it was appropriate. Markarian’s Alexandra O’Neill made Dr Jill Biden’s teal tweed coat and dress for the inauguration. The colour was chosen to signify trust, confidence and stability. ‘I wanted to make something that was classic, feminine, and that would stand the test of time,’ explains the designer. ‘The look itself was something that I would have designed regardless of the pandemic for that reason. It is something that was bright, hopeful, and strong to commemorate such an important day in American history.’
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You might not find yourself under the glare of the global spotlight, but to dress as if people will notice is a gesture of connection to and appreciation of the world around you. As Natalie Kingham, global fashion officer at Matchesfashion.com puts it: ‘We are all ready to celebrate how fashion can spread joy.’ Making an effort matters; you’re ready to participate.
During the time this issue of Grazia is on sale, I will turn 36. Last year, sitting outside Ciao Bella restaurant (as has become a birthday tradition), I thought the worst year of my life was behind me. I had endured a catastrophic 2019, 2020 was going to be my year! In the cab on the way home, I went through a checklist of the things I wanted from the year ahead. None of them materialised.
Despite the shuffle towards 40, I still have a toddler’s command of self-control and a teenager’s propensity for wallowing. I don’t want to ‘celebrate’ alone, or on Zoom, or at all. Every cell of my body tells me to sulk and stay in bed. But every cell of my body has told me to do that all year – and I haven’t. Instead, I will contort myself into a ludicrously impractical dress, do my make-up and put on jewellery. I will even wear matching lace lingerie and heels so high they hurt. Nothing will be elasticated. I will enjoy dressing up in a way I haven’t all year and twinkle in the way I normally do only when I have a crush on someone, because I know I will still be flirting with something even better – hope.
Perhaps we need to think of the clothes we haven’t worn this year not as artefacts of a past that never happened, but as symbols of a future yet to come. And, besides, sometimes you need to put on something special, just to feel normal again.