Adornment for what? Rethinking our relationship with clothes

By Melissa Zuleta Bandera.
Photo: Polina Zimmerman on Pexels.
Talking to friends and family, seeing their posts on social media and the ones from acquaintances, celebrities, influencers, it evident that we carry ourselves in quarantine in very different ways. And it's not just about habits, activities, perceptions and attitudes, it's also about our dress practices.

The easiest example comes from my sister: we are both confined to our homes, but she carries her daily wardrobe routine almost the same as always, while my quarantine days are abysmally different from what my life was before the pandemic. As the memes say: “My clothes must think I died”, because the only thing I wear nowadays is pajamas.

Maybe that sounds funny because I am supposed to be passionate about fashion, but to be honest, it doesn’t make sense to me to put on what I call “street clothes” if I am going to stay at home all day long.

And this is where I started to notice how the functions of clothing, so vastly discussed in fashion studies, gain special attention in these atypical circumstances. And they are more notorious, in my opinion, because while some are exacerbated, others lose validity, meaning and importance, depending on how individuals react to- and live through this unusual context.

There are those who, like me, renounce any type of effort for ornamentation and stiffness in clothing. Copying a term from the end of the 18th century coined by John Flügel, I call it The Great Fashion Renunciation: why dressing? why fashion? why adornment? We prioritize comfort, ease, looseness, lack of concern and of dedication. And precisely bringing back his ideas on the function of clothing (coming from his psychology background), he recalls the stiffness of certain garments is “symbolic of inflexibility of character, severity of moral standard, and purity of moral purpose”, while the ease of others is typical of times of recreation or relaxation; for Flügel, “the looser, softer, and lighter clothes (...) are considered to befit a holiday.”

And if I'm being honest, that's my case. While this is not precisely a time of “vacation”, for me it is one of total abstraction from the outside world, the “normal” world. My way of thinking is that somehow I am not being part of the world, so it makes no sense for me to dress as if I were.
Even Anna Wintour has "home clothes". Photo: Vogue.
For others, however, for reasons of personal initiative or professional commitment, what I call “street clothes” becomes the same as “home clothes”. People like my sister who continue to work but from home, people who still attend —even if virtually— meetings, so their lives remain, on a larger or smaller scale, quite similar in times of confinement.

But for some more, the adornment function of clothing takes on another meaning, almost the opposite of what people like me experience: fashion as a distraction, as a stimulus for self-esteem and self-care; a use of the garments we like the most as a tool to lift our spirits, or to make us feel that things may not be so different than before the pandemic was declared. A declaration that we must continue living and fueling our passions, that which excites us in the midst of the confinement; to put ourselves in a high emotional and mental state of hope in the face of an uncertain future. It is also related to ideas of self-realization and self-sufficiency, of assuming dress practices as one's own, from the self to the self, not to others.

But others look to dress to fulfill another type of emotional protection, what Flügel calls a “protection against the general unfriendliness of the world as a whole” or “a reassurance against the lack of love.” Yes, it sounds a bit dramatic, but in other words, it’s basically the comfort found in certain clothes, the feeling of warmth, security and relief from memories or associations provided by a garment.

Flugël assures that there is “a sort of general unfriendliness which prompts us to withdraw our inner selves into the protection of our clothes”, and the examples can range from the comfort of pajamas that provide us with the calming feeling of sleep, or our couple’s t-shirt that brings their presence closer to us despite the distance, to some socks gifted by a loved one that we cannot see that reminds us of moments lived in their company, or a pair of shorts that transport us to that last holiday when we thought that a situation like the one we are experiencing now was simply impossible.
Cartoon by Nathan W. Pyle.
But that unfriendliness of the world has only increased in recent months, and the traditional protective functions of clothing take on another meaning even after the end of confinement. To the list of things in the physical sphere from which clothing fundamentally protects us (the elements, sports or professional accidents, animals and other human beings, according to Flügel) now we have to include a hazard that we cannot see. The armor that in other times was used to defend ourselves from the enemy, the useful visors against the sports opponent, the gloves made to take care of the hands in the arduous manual work... everything is modified to face a virus, a threat that is not animal, neither climatic, nor human (or is it human if it is the people who carry it?).

In any case, the protection that clothing offers and our practices around it must be reinvented. We will have to resignify the “normal” and that includes clothing and our relationship with it. What we carry, how we carry it and why we carry it; what we do before and after dressing; the priority we give to this or that garment. Fashion, as a reflection of the political, economic and social moments that a society is going through, will be —as always, once again— echo of the changes brought by this historical moment humanity is experiencing.

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