How did lockdown affect our relationship with clothing?

As the first few weeks of lockdown unfolded, I found myself rediscovering the joys of Twitter – not just history Twitter and museums Twitter but also mainstream Twitter. What was once a stream of people screaming into the void or trying to look like they were living perfect lives, slowly became a more truthful timeline of folk stuck at home wondering if the rest of the world was finding it as hard as they were. Instead of rants and outrage, I started to see more lighthearted content appearing in my feed.

As a fashion historian, of course it was the clothing stories which stood out the most and the tweets which initially fascinated me were from women declaring with glee that they “don’t need to wear a bra any more”. Having undertaken rather a lot of research on the bra, this seemed like a useful starting point for a discussion on getting dressed (or not) during lockdown, which was the subject of a talk I gave at the first Open Courtauld Hour event back at the end of April.

A slide from my Open Courtauld Hour presentation (April 2020), showing a selection of tweets discussing giving up wearing a bra during lockdown.

Looking at the word ‘need’ which had appeared in many tweets, I asked why we consider clothes to be ‘necessary’. This is obviously a bit of a big question but, seeing as we were talking about clothing in the context of the home, I figured we could mostly skip over the protection from the elements and public decency aspects. However, I thought it was worth noting that, at home, ‘not getting dressed’ doesn’t always imply nudity – it can also mean spending the day in nightwear, loungewear or some other unstructured clothing. So, why bother getting dressed during lockdown? In their 2014 research paper ‘Understanding the links between positive psychology and fashion’, Christoph-Simon Masuch and Kate Heffron from the University of East London looked at clothing and well-being.

There are two types of well-being in this context; hedonic (which involves immediate experiences of pleasurable emotionality), and eudaimonic (which refers to a sense of belonging, purpose and self-actualisation). Their study revealed that ‘clothing practices had a significant impact on participants’ experience of both hedonic and eudaimonic well-being […] clothing practices were chiefly experienced as a rich source of positive emotions.’ In addition, ‘fashion was often reported to be a mechanism to regulate everyday well-being by proactively managing mood.’ I concluded that, while there may not be a need to get dressed when you’re in the comfort of your own home, paying attention to what you wear can provide a good way of lifting your mood and improving your overall well-being, especially when you’re at home for extended periods of time. Back then, we didn’t know how much longer the lockdown restrictions would continue, so people soon began to look for ways to cheer themselves up, including discovering the joy that dressing up can bring.

A slide from my Open Courtauld Hour presentation (April 2020), showing a selection of articles discussing wearing nice clothes at home during lockdown.

As lockdown moved into its second month, I became even more fascinated by the way that people’s relationships with clothing were developing and changing. In addition to the discussions I was having with friends and family, plus observations I was making as I scrolled through the social media posts of a much wider group of people, I was also looking at the stories people were submitting as part of the Lockdown Clothing project I started with Jana Melkumova-Reynolds. I am a fashion historian who is somewhat obsessed with individual clothing stories of identity, emotionality and sustainability. Jana is a fashion sociologist who has always been fascinated by everyday sartorial behaviours as a mechanism that allows us, as fashion theorist Jennifer Craik would put it, to ‘articulate the relationship between a particular body and its lived milieu, the space occupied by bodies and constituted by bodily actions.’

We analysed the responses while preparing a short paper for the June conference “The New Normal”: Sartorial and Body Practices of the Quarantine Era (organised by The New Literary Observer publishing house & Fashion Theory Russia), and asked: what happens to dress in a world where the ‘lived milieu’ is drastically altered, and where ‘bodily actions’ are no longer the familiar, repetitive rituals they had always been? Several themes emerged from this. For our participants, clothes had suddenly become more important and dressing up in lockdown made clothes acquire new gravitas. As the physical space their lives occupied became smaller, clothes became a way to mark that space in a different way – to separate work time from leisure time, and to delineate the public from the private. Jana also noted that:

What is particularly interesting about responses is that they rarely frame clothing as a tool for ‘presentation of the self’, in sociologist Erving Goffman’s terms; instead, what is foregrounded is wearers’ affective ties with their garments. Although the lockdown ‘is like a prolonged period of being “backstage”‘, as per Alanna’s reflections, clothes carry a great deal of significance even when no one can see the wearer except perhaps their cat. And for some of our interviewees, lowered visibility during lockdown offers a chance to try out items that they would not wear in everyday life because they are too revealing, too small, too ‘loud’ or too uncomfortable, such as high heels, tight-fitting dresses or clothes that no longer fit; in other words, items that give them pleasure but are at odds with their desired public selves.

We reflected that these strengthened connections with our clothing might promote a more meaningful and slower consumption pattern once lockdown is over. A greater consideration for how our clothing is made, how to look after the garments we already own, and perhaps a desire to acquire or improve the skills needed to make them ourselves. In her book The Fashioned Body, Joanne Entwistle stated that ‘the clothes we choose to wear represent a compromise between the demands of the social world, the milieu in which we belong, and our own individual desires.’ Our respondents interviews indicated that all three of those aspects were in flux during lockdown, leading to a reimagining of our own clothed identities at a slow but steady pace.

It appears that we’re not the only people who have been pondering such things over the last few months. In their Haute Couture Autumn/Winter 2020 collection, entitled ‘Change’, Viktor & Rolf addressed some of the themes that I have seen crop up in our respondents’ stories, during chats with friends, and on social media. There has been a focus on comfort in the home with many people wearing more loungewear, and often expressing a desire to own more luxurious pieces. When the temperatures were low in the UK, there was a desire to keep warm whilst sat at home and moving less. There was a need for focal details of outfits to be around the neckline or shoulders in order to be seen by colleagues, friends and family on video calls. A desire to use fashion as emotional comfort and reassurance; a desire to return to sewing and crafts (e.g. embroidery) to pass the time and to connect with our clothes more; and a need to create personal safe space when leaving the house. All of this is neatly expressed in nine playful looks.

It remains to be seen what lasting effects this pandemic (and the lockdown restrictions which were imposed in order to contain it) will have on our relationship with clothes, the way we dress and how we shop, but I think that Viktor & Rolf have summed it up perfectly with their title for this collection. Some people may inevitably return to old habits by the end of the year but, overall, I think the fashion industry is facing a time of change.

FURTHER READING
Craik, J. (1994) The Face of Fashion. London: Routledge.

Entwistle, J. (2000) The Fashioned Body: fashion, dress and modern social theory. Cambridge: Polity.

Masuch C.S. and Hefferon, K. (2014) ‘Understanding the links between positive psychology and fashion: a grounded theory analysis’, International Journal of Fashion Studies, 1(2), pp. 227-246.

Melkumova-Reynolds, J. (2020) ‘Lockdown Fashion: an exploration of dressing at home in 2020’, Culture, Media and Creative Industries @ King’s, 25 April. Available at: https://cmci-kings.org/2020/04/25/lockdown-fashion-an-exploration-of-dressing-at-home-in-2020/

N.B. This blog post contains text written for the presentation I gave at the Open Courtauld Hour ‘Art in Isolation’ event, where I asked ‘Do we need to get dressed during lockdown?

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