By Jiawa Liu
For years I have written about and pondered over the simple question of how to get dressed. For millennia, getting dressed has, in large part, been an exercise in representing oneself to the outside world—in fact, for most of human history, there wasn’t much choice. How we dress is our most powerful tool for communicating who we are, what we do, and how we think. It is a way in which members of communities, professions, and cultures signal allegiance to a shared set of beliefs. Even our preference of brands says so much about who we are. Just as fashion labels are constantly building and communicating their brand image to market to us, so too are each one of us low-key building a personal brand to market ourselves to others. And the legal tender of the social market? Acceptance, admiration, friendship, love ... among other things.
But if fashion is only described as the above, then a worldwide disruption event like the pandemic might spell its sudden death. If we are all spending most of our time isolated at home, and our social interactions come in the form of pixelated waist-up-only video calls, does it even matter what we wear?
This is a question that seeped into my mind as the reality of lockdown in Paris settled in March this year. Three years ago, I had already made a dramatic lifestyle change that turned my personal style upside down. In the span of a month, I went from a 9-to-5 desk job as a lawyer in Perth, Australia, to an entrepreneur working in fashion in Paris. My wardrobe was the most visual reflection of the change. Where there was once dark suiting and structured shift dresses, there was now an eclectic collection of non-office-appropriate leather jackets, deconstructed jeans, and oversized blazers in every color (my personal staples). In my previous office, the more you de-emphasized your personal style, the more professional and confident you looked; in fashion, however, supersizing that personal style showcases your creativity and helps you to connect with people—and the more high profile the occasion, the more outrageous you can dress. And as for Instagram, I led a curated digital existence in which anything and everything goes.
If my move to the fashion industry was the Big Bang at the beginning of my fashion universe, then lockdown was the Big Crunch. I looked at my wardrobe of brightly colored matching suits, overlong tailored pants, and my collection of ugly-beautiful shoes, I simply could not imagine an occasion to wear these in the months of quarantine to come. Of course, because comfort has always been a key part of my personal dress code, I had plenty of loungewear. I love to mix sweatpants with tailored pieces, and I’m a self-professed chunky sweater connoisseur—the question was not whether I had anything to wear at home. Rather, the question was whether I would care to get dressed even if there was no one to see me. The answer came almost instantly, even surprisingly: Yes, I cared.
Even with nowhere to go, I went to my wardrobe all the same and picked out my outfit for the day (albeit a few hours later than usual). I wanted to have fun styling things differently just as I did before, to repurpose daywear for at-home wear, like working my slouchier tailored pieces in with my pajamas. And when I discovered some gaps in my loungewear wardrobe, I went shopping online. In a moment of realization, I felt that nothing had really changed. It mattered, even when catching my reflection in the mirror on my way to the kitchen, that I looked like me.
Of course, dressing to impress others had always been important to me, whether I was meeting clients, attending events, or presenting engaging content on social media. However, if admiration and acceptance was the only goal, it would be so simple to style myself in the popular look of the moment (read: the trends). But when I choose to wear unflattering vintage menswear, to make an unadvisable pairing of socks with Birkenstocks, or to wear flared jeans when skinny jeans rule, it is simply me wanting to be and to look like exactly who I am (read: my identity). I felt empowered and confident to make fashion choices that spoke to my unique self-image, regardless of whether my choices were praised or ridiculed. It’s true that most of us are sartorially motivated by the desire to be liked and admired. But looking deeper than that, whether liked or disliked, we want people to see us for how we see ourselves and not something we pretend to be. It follows, then, that deep down, we are really all dressing for ourselves.
But what does this mean for getting dressed in a pandemic and post-pandemic age? I look forward to an evolution in our fashion vocabulary that more accurately describes the inextricable place that getting dressed has in our sense of identity. Rather than to say “looking good,” maybe we can say “looking like me.” And instead of saying “dress to impress,” we can say “dress how you feel.” Now that we’re all spending more time in our homes, for the moment at least, and we have been liberated from the many arbitrary standards of trends, social expectations, and even weather, we can for the first time ask in earnest: What do I really want to wear today?
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