The Year in Personal Style is a week of essays about how 2021 changed our relationship to getting dressed.
I’m vulnerable to advertisements. I’m an open-mouthed and glassy-eyed consumer of commercials. I believe pop-ups when they tell me I’m a lucky winner. I stare into perfume ads like they’re portals into a better world. Daydreaming calms me. Soothes me. I know this is what capitalism wants. I’ve never spent too much money on clothes, but when I do, I buy them based on fantasies—fed by advertisements and elsewhere, as elaborate images and small stories. I never really took stock of this habit until the pandemic.
Clothes have always been one way for me to daydream about the future—a future I must have thought I could secure, or at least control, by being a consumer. But when the pandemic began, the daydreaming came to a stop. The monotonous days, the sameness of the hours, the feeling that I was living in a suspended state—all temporarily erased the future, along with any fantasies of how things could be different.
Outside of hand sanitizer and toilet paper, I didn’t consume anything for most of 2020. Almost everyone seemed to have bought fewer things during lockdown. Even if one had the means, practically speaking, there was nothing to get dressed up for. In retrospect, the lockdowns were a reprieve from fantasy. My closet started to feel impersonal and impractical, like an over-the-top fashion look book or rack of stage clothes. Much of it had never been worn. None of it really made me happy.
I found clothes I had bought in the hopes of some ridiculous, unlikely set of situations: a rugged suede dress for an arduous horseback trek that somehow ended in a sumptuous seaside wedding; a candy-pink jumpsuit for a rave that was also a baby’s first birthday; shirts for a figure skating competition; a Tomb Raider–esque jacket, just in case I were the first reporter to arrive at an ancient ruin and later asked to give a speech to the U.N. about national security. Many of them looked like what an eight-year-old would buy her big sister.
Even more than the clothes we put on every day, the clothes we buy and never wear reveal who we are, just like our dreams reveal the selves we keep hidden from our waking life. Going through my wardrobe, I began to see how some part of me had always been practicing a kind of escapism through fashion that reflected a deeper unwillingness to find grace in the present.
Something about the pandemic’s relentless sameness gave me a new appreciation for how clothing makes me feel in the moment. As life lurched back toward normalcy this year, I could feel the fantasies of the future start to boil up again, but I’ve been flicking them away one by one. I’m focusing more on living for the present, not just the future of my imagined selves.
I cleaned out my closet, kept a few things I love, and donated the rest. I still haven’t bought much of anything.
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