How are people dressing when in lockdown and isolation situations? How is this different to the way they dressed before? Has it affected their sense of self? This project aims to shine a light on those changes and reveal some of the many and varied personal stories relating to fashion and dress in 2020. Today’s interview is with Dr Alanna McKnight, an independent scholar who lives in Toronto, Canada. She specialises in Canadian dress history and is an expert on corsets. She is currently writing a book based on her dissertation about corset manufacturing in 19th century Toronto. She is also the co-host (under a stage name) of the podcast History Lessons for Misanthropes. Alanna is isolating alone with her cats Grizel Greediguts and Grimalkin, true crime documentaries, and various half finished knitting and embroidery projects. You can follow her on Twitter: @alanna_mck
1) Can you describe what your personal style was like before lockdown?
I describe my style as either corporate goth when I’m at work, or urban witch when I’m off work. My work wardrobe is mostly black, but with unique pieces, often made by independent designers or made by myself, that speak to slow fashion. I’ve been wearing some articles from my work wardrobe for over 10 years. I often get comments from colleagues along the lines of “you always dress so… interesting” or more complimentary comments about timeless style. My glasses are just reading glasses, but when I began wearing them at 16 I figured if I have to wear glasses they may as well be interesting, so I wear vintage cat-eye frames, and have a selection 3 or 4 of them.
Outside of work I wear a lot of leggings or cigarette legged pants, often with tunics or band shirts. I’m a big fan of Killstar and Disturbia and include their more tame articles in both my casual wardrobe and my work wardrobe. I usually wear ballet flats or flat boots, minimal make-up and statement jewellery. When I’m at work my hair is usually up in a bun, and off work I wear it down.
2) How would you describe your style now?
My style is now temporarily somewhere between college student and wealthy widow. I’ve been trying to not wear clothes that require proper laundering, since I live in an apartment building with communal laundry facilities, and I’m trying to avoid communal spaces. So I’ve been wearing pyjamas that can be washed in the bathtub. Right now for example I’m wearing my high school gym shorts, a shirt I got for working at a university recruitment fair, a band hoodie, with my hair in a bun, and glasses (I’m technically “at work”). After my lunch time yoga I’ll change into one of two caftans I made for myself. On my last birthday I decided my late 30s needed caftans, and I’m very happy I made that choice. One is burgundy leopard print, the other is grey sweatshirt jersey with a skull print. I also have a 1930s “turban” style house hat I wear in the evenings to keep my hair out of my face.
3) What’s your shoe situation at home? And how does this affect your sense of self?
Generally, I’m barefoot at home. Canada tends to lean toward “shoes off inside”. Despite the fact that I am known for my love of corsets, I prefer foot freedom. I hate wearing socks at any time of the year (which is not great considering I’m in Canada and have to wear them 8 months of the year) and prefer to wear shoes that I can kick off at a moments notice. In the afternoons, however, I’ve been using this chance to wear shoes that I own but never wear. I seldom wear heels in my daily life. I’m already tall at 5’9, and being an introvert I prefer not to stand head and shoulders above people in heels. But I love shoes and have a collection of beautiful shoes. Since I don’t have to walk anywhere or stand for long periods I’ve been wearing them while I work in the afternoon.
I’ve also been sharing my daily shoe selection on twitter and my Instagram stories because I know so many other people who love a good pair of shoes, and I’m very proud of my shoe collection. I hope other people are also wearing their inconvenient, beautiful shoes to bring some joy to their days.
4) Is there anything you feel you can wear now that you couldn’t in ‘normal’ times? Why? And is there anything you miss wearing (and why do you not wear it)?
I’ve been braless since the first day of isolating. I’m not terribly buxom, but I do like the comfort and sense of security a bra provides, as well as the foundation they create for outer clothing. I never go braless in my normal life, but since I currently don’t leave the house often and again the laundry situation, I’m eschewing under garments.
I miss coordinating outfits, and the feeling of being put together. I feel like my wardrobe gives me confidence, and I take pride in the articles I select. I think I am skilled at styling. Confidence does not come naturally to me, so I use my wardrobe to help create the sense that I am more confident than I really am. I would dress up for myself while isolating, but the laundry issue really impacts what I’ll wear. If I have to leave the house I wear leggings and a tunic, items I can easily clean by hand. I also don’t want to create loads and loads of laundry, since I don’t have the space to dry it.
I also miss make-up. There is nothing stopping me from wearing it during the day while I’m home, but I started running out of foundation, eyebrow pencil, and mascara just before isolation happened, and I don’t want to run out before I’m able to buy more. I also don’t want to buy more online, since I don’t want to have to go to the post office to pick up packages. Apartment living really limits a lot. Hopefully the muscle memory of using liquid liner for a cat eye won’t disappear.
5) How much does the space you are in influence your choice of clothes? Do some clothes feel “unnatural” to wear at home because they require, say, a bigger space, or is this not a consideration at all?
Space definitely influences my choice of clothes. Erving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life really hits this point. When I’m at work I don’t wear knee high “shit kicker” boots and metal band shirts that I might wear to have beer with friends. Likewise when I’m meeting friends after work I feel awkward wearing my work wardrobe because it feels conspicuously formal for a dive bar. I don’t wear black lipstick to work, and I don’t wear a blouse to a concert. I only wear jeans to work on Friday, even though my work has no dress code, there’s still a sense that jeans are too informal for work. Goffman views social interactions as dramatic performances, which come with appropriate wardrobe, with moments where we’re alone to drop these societal roles when we’re alone. I don’t have to “perform” for anyone but my cats right now, so this is like a prolonged period of being “backstage”.
I also subscribe to the idea of a spectrum of supported dress as posited by Johannes Flugel. On one side of this spectrum is people who prefer tight clothing, who gain confidence from the support. I identify with this side of the spectrum, but since I don’t need to be confident in front of anyone, the support isn’t necessary.
If you’d like to take part in the project yourself, you can find all the information you need in the blog post entitled ‘Lockdown Fashion: an exploration of dressing at home in 2020‘ dated 9th April 2020.