I feel like I’ve always known how important clothes were, but until I started studying them at university, I didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about it. Then, when I had the vocabulary, I found that not many people outside of my immediate group of peers wanted to talk about clothes. I remember clearly going for a job interview during my undergrad and being asked what I was doing my research on. ‘Shoes!’ I enthusiastically replied. This was met with a wry chuckle from the man interviewing me: ‘Trust a woman to find a way to make talking about shoes a career choice, eh?’
Yeah, trust a woman. I was angry but not surprised having heard similar comments for years. With time (and a slow climb up the higher education ladder) there came less snide comments, but the same sense of surprise. Now when I tell people that I study Doc Martens it’s usually something like: ‘I didn’t even know you could study that!’ Not a negative response, for sure, but still incredulous at the possibility of the study of clothing in anything other than a design and production capacity.
With COVID-19, I have seen that all change. Articles about the importance of clothing are everywhere. From the BBC (Getting All Dressed Up To Do The Weekly Shop), to Refinery29 (The Case for Getting Dressed), to Teen Vogue (COVID-19 Might Change the Way We Dress Forever), news outlets are talking about fashion and clothing more than ever before. But it’s not just the prevalence of discussion that has changed, it’s the tone as well. Previously, fashion was almost entirely discussed in terms of its negatives: the human, environmental and financial cost of an industry that was bursting at the seams. Now, however, the discussion is pitched towards the benefits of knowing and loving our clothes.
In an April article on The Huffington Post entitled The Mental Health Benefits of Getting Dressed For Work, psychologist De’Von Patterson explains that doing the same stuff you did pre-lockdown (showering, getting dressed, doing your hair and make-up etc.) can make you feel less anxious about the changes in the outside world by making your internal world feel more normal. In an article from NBC entitled Dressing Up And Staying In: Coronavirus’ Effect On Fashion Is More Than Skin Deep, writer Kalhan Rosenblatt notes that ‘getting dressed and sharing those looks online have been a way to preserve a sense of identity and routine when so much of the world feels like it’s spinning out of control.’
I have experienced this phenomenon myself, not just by consuming those images, but by producing them. At the beginning of lockdown here in New Zealand, myself and my flatmate were invited to join a Facebook chat group called Funky Fashion Fridays: Tran-Tasman Pacific Edition. Like so many other people around the world we come together online every Friday to dress up in our finest garb under broad themes such as formal, clashing patterns, denim, and subculture. I am one of 64 members from across New Zealand and Australia and has been a joy to see people join in and interpret the themes in their own way. I await Friday eagerly and often have discussions with my flatmate about what our outfit plans are. Our photos have ranged from full blown photoshoots in the garden to mirror selfies, from quick snaps in the lounge to self-timer montages, and the array of clothing, make up, hair styling and accessories has been dazzling.
The group has been a supportive and safe space for me where I have been able to showcase my deep love for clothing and normalise my plus-size body with a group of what started out as strangers, but now feel like friends. It’s been a radically transformative space for me while simultaneously offering comfort and routine during a time of global anxiety. Other members felt the same with one (Ester) telling me that though fashion had been important to her in her pre-COVID life, when the lockdown hit she found being in her room staring at a computer all day incredibly demotivating. The Facebook group gave her the inspiration she needed to not only keep going with her groovy fashion choices, but to try out new styles that she normally wouldn’t have considered. Of the group, she said:
‘I LOVE IT! It’s connected me with a whole group of people who consider fashion to be a great tool of self-expression and empowerment and I’ve absolutely love seeing their outfits every week and being a part of this unique, beautiful and inspiring group!’
Eleanor – who started the group with best friend Mika – told me that it began because they were both missing dressing up in their trademark crazy colours and accessories, but they weren’t sure how many other people felt the same:
‘We weren’t sure if it would be a popular concept, so it’s been so heart-warming to see just how many people are enthusiastically getting on board! Even on weeks where I’m feel less inspired, seeing everybody else’s fun outfits brings me genuine joy.’
And couldn’t we all do with a bit more joy right now? Eleanor noted that, for her, fashion has always gone hand in hand with precious memories, and that the group would now be a part of those memories. ‘It truly holds a dear place in my heart’, she said. And I couldn’t agree with her more. Because the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t just been a catalyst for change in the worlds of science and politics – it has also served as a way for people across the world to find new ways to be together. And one of those ways is through fashion.
With all this new and positive attention on our clothes it would be easy for me to feel peeved about the years I spent fighting my fashionable corner, but honestly? I couldn’t be happier. To see others not only realising, but talking about, how important, how special, and how bloody marvellous crafting your own style can feel, has been one of the few silver linings of COVID-19 for me. Let the snarky interviewers of the world say what they like because we know the truth: our clothes matter.
Like Eleanor my memories of the pandemic will forever be tied to my membership in the Funky Fashion Friday group. Of course, I won’t forget the hardship, the isolation, and the desperate sadness that would sometimes overwhelm me. I won’t forget the sweatpants either! But I know that those memories will be countered by the joy, the camaraderie, and the sparkly dresses that I got to experience in our wee digital community. I see it as a microcosm of the good that clothing can do with all that joy spilling out into the world. To be sure, the issues of the fashion system that we saw reported on the news haven’t gone away: it still pollutes, it still creates and cements inequality, and it still needs to change. But perhaps with a new understanding of the true value of our clothes – not just financially, but emotionally – we can start to make those changes as part of rebuilding a better world post-COVID.
This post was written by a RWL Guest Blogger – Georgia Mackay is a PhD student at Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand, where she studies fashion. Her research is on Doc Martens, feminism and female identity, with a broader interest in women in alternative scenes and cultures. She blogs at georgiamackay.org, and you can follow her on Instagram @georgiamackayfashion and Twitter @georgiamfashion. She would love to hear from you!