As a fashion sociologist, I have always been fascinated by everyday sartorial behaviours as a mechanism that allows to ‘articulate the relationship between a particular body and its lived milieu, the space occupied by bodies and constituted by bodily actions’, as fashion theorist Jennifer Craik put it. But what happens to dress in a world where the ‘lived milieu’ is drastically altered and where ‘bodily actions’ are no longer the familiar, repetitive rituals they had always been? In other words, what happens to our sartorial practices during quarantine? And what can it tell us about emerging forms of sociality in an era of social distancing; about how we negotiate the boundaries between private and public when they are no longer explicitly configured in space? To find out, my friend Lorraine (Lori) Smith and I started a project called Lockdown Fashion (which is probably a misnomer – more on it below) where we ask people to reflect on how the quarantine has affected the way they dress.
The project has only been running for two weeks. We did not intend for it to be an academic study for now, so I haven’t really been analysing the data. However, even without ‘proper’ coding, I cannot help spotting patterns and fascinating clusters of topics emerge from the responses we have received so far.
It seems that a lot of people (unlike myself!) have not stopped thinking of what they wear. Quite the contrary, clothes have suddenly become more important. As one of our respondents, costume designer Clodagh Deegan put it, ‘Sometimes I will be dressed, as in wearing clothes, but mostly I am dressed’. Dressing up in lockdown makes clothes acquire new gravitas.
As our, usually expansive, life-spaces have contracted to the perimeters of our homes (and, if we are lucky, gardens), clothes, it would appear, have been taking up their roles and becoming life-spaces themselves. They separate work time from leisure time and delineate the public from the private: leaving home to go to the office, leaving work to go to a bar with friends, and leaving the bar now happen through changes of outfits. ‘I have to be dressed with a coffee to begin my day’; ‘Putting on make-up… helps keep the mental separation between work and home time’; ‘I make a point to dress in my work outfits for work hours even if nobody else sees them (most of the calls with colleagues are with cameras off)’ were common reflections. This, along with a proximity to the wardrobe that is never more than a couple of rooms away, prompts some of our respondents to change multiple times a day: one participant, Hannah, cited changing her outfits three times during one Zoom call with friends!
Another theme that emerges from responses is the agentic quality of dress. Clothes, our participants appear to suggest, can do things to us, altering our ways of being in the world.
‘If I were to wear more relaxed clothing, my feeling (worry) is that I might, over time, become less inclined to focus’, confessed Benjamin from Manchester Metropolitan University who wears smart outfits around the house. Other people cited clothes giving them ‘a sense of carry on’, a feeling of being ‘put together’, and a comforting ‘structure and neatness’.
Clothes can mold us, and they can also remind us who we are. Our interviews suggest that one of the most important roles clothing plays in quarantine is what CMCI’s Dr Paul Sweetman has called, in his eponymous article, ‘anchoring the self’; articulating personal narratives and enabling a certain ontological security. As Rosie from London College of Fashion put it poignantly, ‘[one day] I put on my pearl ring and a silver bangle I always wear (both gifts from people I love) and I suddenly realised I felt like myself, like the clothes located me and returned me to myself somehow. It was simple and immediate and restorative’.
What is particularly interesting about responses is that they rarely frame clothing as a tool for ‘presentation of the self’, in sociologist Erving Goffman’s terms; instead, what is foregrounded is wearers’ affective ties with their garments. Although the lockdown ‘is like a prolonged period of being “backstage”’, as per Alanna’s reflections, clothes carry a great deal of significance even when no one can see the wearer except perhaps their cat. And for some of our interviewees, lowered visibility during lockdown offers a chance to try out items that they would not wear in everyday life because they are too revealing, too small, too ‘loud’ or too uncomfortable, such as high heels, tight-fitting dresses or clothes that no longer fit; in other words, items that give them pleasure but are at odds with their desired public selves.
Ultimately, these strengthened affective ties with clothing might, hopefully, promote a more meaningful and slower consumption pattern once the quarantine is over, enhancing the emotional durability of our relationships with clothes. ‘It has made me appreciate the “worth” of garments more, in terms of them being of good quality and well-made’, noted Benjamin, while Elizabeth from Central Saint Martins cites a newly found focus on re-wear and re-use of garments she already owns and loves, ‘rather than casting a flighty gaze on new curiosities’, and Jenna from Regent’s University pointed out that ‘the significance of making and taking care of clothes has been heightened’ for her in lockdown.
So far, our selection of respondents has been heavily skewed towards academics studying fashion, simply because these were the people in our immediate networks who were willing to respond. We are, however, looking for more participants from all walks of life as we want to capture a whole range of experiences and clothing behaviours. The title of our project, on reflection, is not entirely successful: what we are interested in is dress, not fashion. Whether you are dressing up or down, we want to know: all clothes stories are good stories. Anyone can take part, under their own name or anonymously; please select five questions from the list, and email us your answers along with a brief bio if you want us to include one, or anonymously if you don’t.