The Consolation of Clothing: Reflections on a Year of Dressing During a Pandemic

Photo of clothes-in-a-wardrobe
Image credit: Pikist

One year ago this week I launched Habilitate. The site’s first posts went up in early January of 2021 but, in fact, things kicked off a few months prior when the groundwork was being laid. Really, like so many Covid-era cottage industries, it was born in 2020 out of months of homebound isolation. After having exhausted the possibilities of any number of domestic distractions (including gardening, guitar playing, and, at one particularly misguided juncture, whittling) I eventually regained my senses and instead channelled those efforts into what would become this site.

It was an odd time to start writing about clothes. Not only had the virus et al. put all other things in perspective, but Covid was changing the way we lived in real time. A whole new set of expressions and habits had entered our collective routines apparently overnight: face masks, Zoom calls, QR codes, WFH, and — most germane in this instance —  sweatpants. 

It didn’t have to be sweats, though. The pandemic altered all of our dressing habits in slightly different ways. Maybe in your case it had to do with hard clothes, a Timex Ironman, or a reassessment of your underwear situation. Maybe you started hate dressing, suffered from frock consciousness, or simply covered yourself in Entireworld. Then, once things started looking up more, maybe you got yourself a going out suit

I’ve spent a lot of time since launching this site reading and talking to people about how our wardrobes have changed. I’ve also noticed those same changes happening in my own life. 

There’s a certain irony in spending your time engaging with the wide, multifarious world of clothing while sitting at home wearing the same narrow set of things day in and day out. While I was writing about neckties, luxury brands, and exotic textiles, the clothes I had on had little bearing to the content I was covering. Even with subjects like sweatpants and other leisurewear, these items rarely reflected the reality of my own day-to-day domestic wardrobe.

A year’s worth of menswear writing during a pandemic got me thinking about my own dressing habits in a way that I had never done before. Of course, like anyone interested in clothes, I already spend a good amount of time thinking about what is in my wardrobe anyway — what I need, what I want, what I should really be getting rid of. All pretty simple, superficial considerations it’s fair to say. The threat of a deadly virus has a way of shedding a more introspective light on things, however, so while I was sitting at my desk and writing about things like the history of NATO straps or the importance of the cotton gin, I started thinking about what my own clothes meant to me and, more than anything, what they said about me. In all of this Covid-wrought chaos, what meaning could be divined from the things I put on my body every day?

Having asked the question, I set about compiling a catalogue of sorts. Nothing more than a mental tally, mostly, although occasionally I would take a photo to commemorate a particularly disastrous outfit —  because really that’s what it was at first: disastrous. How often do you put on a palimpsest of ill-fitting promotional gear, for instance, or inexplicably cover yourself in every striped item you own? Perhaps you too have donned a Christmas sweater in the middle of summer or traipsed around your swimming pool-less home wearing swimming trunks in late January?

These examples sum up the early days of my pandemic life pretty well. Bearing in mind that my formative years fell squarely in the middle of the JNCO jeans craze, I have somehow nevertheless never dressed worse than I did when the pandemic first hit. Having rolled out of bed each morning, I would just reach for whatever was at the top of a given pile in my closet. I’d heard people describe this approach to dressing before and always assumed they were kidding, but I came by the same habit honestly in the darker days of 2020. Even more bewildering was the fact that my state of mind seemed inversely proportional to how I looked. The worse the outfit, the happier I was, in other words. It weirdly felt good looking terrible. And while I would never have left the house wearing fifteen-year-old track pants and an oversized Metallica shirt of unknown provenance, it seemed a pretty good fit when going outside wasn’t much of an option. 

As time went by and the state of things progressed from unprecedented disaster to ‘new normal’, so did my Covid clothing capsule. Several months into the pandemic, things took a more utilitarian turn. I started wearing a lot of old stuff, like faded and misshapen T-shirts leftover from my high school days or pairs of jeans that I’d inexpertly patched and mended many times over. These were garments that were all but worn out and I took it upon myself to squeeze out the last bit of juice before they became truly unwearable. Added to this was a new level of practicality. Even though I was still mostly just pottering around my house, I took to wearing a lot of carpenter jeans and chore coats inside, things that had plenty of pockets (even though I was usually carrying little more than my phone) and could really take a beating (despite a cooking oil splatter being about the worst I was likely to encounter). 

Then the promise of vaccines came. As things started looking more optimistic, I quickly cleaned up my act, arguably too much, in fact. Short of sporting a necktie while working from home, I brought all of my nicer items back into rotation. Even before we could properly go places again, I would dress up way too nicely for the simplest errand, wearing my most expensive shoes to go on a coffee run or picking out a silk scarf for a short walk around the block. I put on a sport coat every chance I got — way more than I ever did before the pandemic hit. 

It doesn’t take a psychology degree to parse the significance of any of this, although it took the benefit of hindsight for me to really clock any of it. My sloppiness in the early days now reads like an attempt to exert some measure of much-needed control. Adopting an uncharacteristically anarchic style of dress was a way of embracing a kind of chaos that I at least had some sway over. Then, as weeks and months passed and I began to feel increasingly useless while stuck at home, I took refuge in clothes that were overly useful, or that I felt it important to wrest some last bit of utility from (It was during this phase, unsurprisingly, that this site was born). And finally, pretty straightforwardly, when things started looking up again, I started dressing up again.

I now realise that the abiding theme throughout all of this is clothing as a source of consolation. I’ve always felt this to be true in some amorphous way, but this last year or two has really brought the point home. It’s why I’ve bought more clothing since March 2020 than I had ever done before, or why I spend hours at a time reading about it or looking at photographs online. It’s also why I started this site.

A great deal has been written in the last while about the importance of comfort in clothing. Hence all of the sweatpants, the baggy fits, the soft fabrics, etc. But there’s another sense of the comfort of clothing that has been driven home to me since I started this endeavour: not so much comfortable as comforting. Over the many iterations of my pandemic-time wardrobe, the one constant has been that sense of comfort. And while this might not be healthy, it definitely feels helpful. Which is good, since the world is always going to be in some kind of a mess or other. For me, at the very least, it’s nice to know that there’s always a bit of sartorial solace to be found.

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