Thirteen-ish months ago, I wrote an essay in the middle of a sleepless night about personal style, and how it may change after "this." Thirteen-ish months ago, I defined "this" to be a steady, shaking fear that was occasionally diluted by drops of dissociation and sadness. Back then, I derived peace from daily walks during which my extremities were cloaked in plastic, and joy from my friends' pixelated faces as we played Jackbox games over Zoom.
The night I wrote that essay, I had no real sense of how devastating the next year would be. But there I was, posted up on my laptop nursing a Celestial Seasonings tea bag, writing hundreds of words about a pandemic I had yet to fully experience.
It's difficult to read that essay now, not simply because "this" is still so far from over. How can the collective begin to consider a summer of vaccinated, relative normalcy when we know that in a nation like India, people are dying in their cars and in front of hospitals while waiting for entry?
Still, I have thought about clothes almost constantly. I try to wear jeans most days, not because I like the way they hammer into my belly button as I sit at my New York City-apartment-sized children's desk for hours, but because they make me feel more like a normal person and less like a person doing her silly little tasks in the throes of a global health crisis. I get a rush of nerves when I look at long-neglected items in my closet, like they're a friend I should catch up with before plans force us together and we have to make that specific and terrible brand of small talk between people who shouldn't have to be doing this.
My pre-pandemic clothes have become a costume, but my pandemic clothes — you know the ones — are just as exhausted by now. The closer we in the U.S. get to fully reopening, the more I imagine those easy, stretch-waist pandemic clothes will start to feel like a costume, too.
This isn't to say I haven't relished in putting together An Outfit, because of course I have. As I wrote last April, clothes have always been one small part of how we, demonstrative creatures in a consumption-driven society, internalize the world. It's why people are dressing up to get their vaccines and go to routine doctor's appointments.
Several times just this spring, I have pranced into my ENT's office in an outfit objectively better suited for a candlelit birthday dinner at Pastis than for getting my sinuses irrigated. "Going anywhere after this?" the physician's assistant asks. "Oh, I don't know," I lie through my teeth, "probably just getting Sweetgreen" — as if my plan all along hadn't been to pay $17.68 for a Fish Taco Bowl only to hurry home and eat it on my couch while thumbing TikTok.
In that moment when a medical professional sticks a metal rod up my nostril, I'm cosplaying as a woman with places to go and people to see, in a costume that renders me a capable, even interesting member of society. I'm dressing for both the sake of being self-expressive and of being perceived. After a year living like Yoda in the swamps of Dagobah, it's perception that's especially unnerving. And yet, that's what I imagine the initial rush of vaccinated life to be: a high-stakes game of personal intake akin to a sixth grader's first day of school after a long, lonely summer. Fresh lunch box in hand, you finally have the opportunity to become the 11-year-old you've always wanted to be.
The secret, as any functioning adult will tell you, is to Be Yourself. This little trick — practiced only by those who were blessed with an adolescence free of hormones and orthodontia — is patently unfair. I probably qualify as a functioning adult myself, and I'm not entirely sure I have a great grasp on what it means to Be Me right now, either.
Self-expression feels no different than sweeping thick, lacy cobwebs off a wardrobe rack, the residue of which will prompt an asthma attack that sends me right back to the ENT. "Going anywhere after this?" they will ask, reviewing my ridiculous flared boilersuit. "JUST TO SWEETGREEN!!!!!!!" I'll howl as blood pours out of my eyes.
The essay I write about "this" next spring will be entirely different from the one I wrote 13-ish months ago, and so will the outfit I wear to write it in. Last year, I fantasized about my mom waking me up from an afternoon snooze in the hammock, of the tart we make together when I rub the sleep out of my eyes. I'm grateful beyond measure that this can — finally — happen again. So does it really matter if I wear overalls or a Nap Dress? Fortunately, as is the beauty of personal style, that's only up to you to decide.