How Should We Think About Personal Style After This?

A month ago, I pitched an essay about the "perfect" spring-and-summer wardrobe. That essay is a little different now.
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Paco Rabanne's Spring 1976 haute couture collection.

Paco Rabanne's Spring 1976 haute couture collection.

A little over a month ago, in a different lifetime, on a different planet careening around a different axis, I emailed the team here at Fashionista with an idea for an essay about the "perfect" spring-and-summer wardrobe.

"Perfect," what a word. It means a lot of things, all of which I can nearly experience with my five senses if I close my eyes. Wandering barefoot around a blueberry farm in July. Staring out the window of the quiet car in a rambling train going somewhere exciting. Oysters and Grüner for dinner, al fresco.

My initial rationale for the pitch was this, and I'm quoting: "Why are our spring-summer wardrobes so much more emotional than the rest of the year, and how do we seek to convey that emotion across our closets?"

Well, because it's easy to fall for warm weather's romanticism. It's a six-month stretch, give or take, that thrives in otherwise intolerable places like crowded corners and sweaty elbow creases. I could use any number of analogies, but spring is the wind up and summer is the dizzying release, and the fact of the matter is that those are two really fun episodes for which to dress.

At the beginning of all this, I think I naively still inhabited that mindset, that it was "just" an extended wind up for those of us laypeople whose only responsibility is to stay indoors. It doesn't feel like that now, and it shouldn't.

I'm (yes, still) here in New York City where the near-constant swirl of ambulance sirens serves as a pretty stifling reminder of the grim realities and unbelievable heroics unfolding outside. The very grimmest reality is that I'm terrified my most vulnerable loved ones will die in this most horrible and offensive of ways, including friends and family working in medicine and crying out for new PPE because their lives truly do depend on it; including those millions of Americans without immediate access to adequate healthcare. The most unbelievable heroism is all those millions of essential workers showing up in light of, never despite of, it all. "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear," and all that which is much easier to say if you're only tasked with staying home.

So here I am, someone who works heavily adjacent to the fashion and retail industries, staying home and watching that dizzying release fade further and further into nebulousness. Though that vantage point doesn't mean I'm not constantly thinking about what life will be like when, eventually, all this is over. 

I know I'm not alone in saying that clothes have always been one small way of how I internalize the world. Mainly, I've found them to be most useful when managing expectations, be it reveling in them or mitigating them. But I do feel at odds between the two right now, a push and pull between installing patterns of regularity if only to be able to move through each hour while still establishing that so-called "new normal" out of respect for precautions.

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In the last few weeks, I've read a lot of essays just like this one that seem to be grappling with some of our most compulsory activities — opening mail, obtaining food, exercising, getting married. And in the case of my original pitch, that also includes mindfully, responsibly considering clothes to wear when the sun comes out again. Judging from a lot of the headlines about this topic, we all appear to have legitimate moral qualms about this industry's inherent consumerism.

There are the hard-and-fast approaches — "Is retail therapy ethical during the coronavirus crisis?" "What you need to know about shopping online during the coronavirus crisis." — as well as the dutiful "shoulds": "Fashion brands want you to shop online. Should you?" "Should we still be shopping?" 

Should we? 

In her New York Times dispatch, "Should we still go shopping (online)?", Fashion Director and Chief Fashion Critic Vanessa Friedman said the following:

Shopping is so … self-indulgent. So unnecessary. So, as one reader wrote to me, “shameful.” 

Maybe. But it is also an essential part of our economy; retail an enormous source of employment and creative expression. In some ways, the state of shopping is a sign of the times.

Truthfully, I've not thought of thoughtful, measured shopping as being self-indulgent until now, when I've redirected some amount of discretionary funds to donations to my local hospital system, where a friend, a gastroenterologist, has been volunteering in makeshift ICUs out of operating rooms and cafeterias.

But even now, fluffy cardigan tops and lavender boilersuits feel more than spokes in that creaky wheel of late-stage capitalism. It's harder to quantify, and certainly represents some icky degree of industrialism, but clothes can also just be hope. Maybe that's one sign of many in these very confusing times — that our Instagram saves and assorted shopping carts are filled with emblems of a future in which we've safely arrived to the other side. The other side of winter, which did technically end on March 19, and the other side of this, everything that "this" is.

I can only speak for myself here, so I can say that when I look at the swimsuit I searched endlessly for after watching "The Talented Mr. Ripley" in quarantine, I'm not just reminded of the small-business fashion brand that made it that may well not stay afloat much longer or of the postal workers tasked with delivering it if and when its warehouse reopens.

I can close my eyes and see, smell, touch all the "perfect" spring and summer things it may forecast — my friends at the beach, laying one on top of another like a glossy pile of red crabs basking in the sand; my mom, who is 800 miles away today and tomorrow and for the foreseeable future, waking me up with a big bear hug after I fall into a nap in the hammock; the crumbly tart we make with berries from my hometown farmers' market, dripping even in the shade.

Building a fantasy about the "perfect" spring or summer wardrobe is self-indulgent indeed, but also deeply, necessarily healing — and made even a little essential when we're tasked with taking such significant stock of our lives, left to consider different days ahead. Warmer days.

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