Hopefully, we can all agree that we dress for ourselves and not for external validation. But since the pandemic has forced us to stay inside, it got me thinking about the performative element of clothing, and how lockdown has impacted our relationship with fashion. I believe I dress for myself only, so why was it that when I had to stay inside, I was ‘saving’ my nicer outfits for post lockdown? The pandemic revealed a need for other people to see what I was wearing, or it felt like a waste of an item of clothing.
Those who use fashion as a form of self-expression naturally have a subconscious need for their clothes to be registered by others to reaffirm their identity. Fashion is a method of controlling how other people perceive us. Being stuck inside therefore denied us the possibility of existing the way we had been used to, because no one was seeing or acknowledging us in the way we wanted. Our society has slowly become performative as a result of our increased social media presence, pressuring us to prove we are happy and thriving. In lockdown, very few people were ‘living their best life’ as their Instagram profiles would suggest. Consequently, the performative element of life was restricted. With nowhere to go, no one but our families or our own reflection to acknowledge our existence, and no way of suggesting we were content online, we were restricted to the basic items in our wardrobe that felt appropriate for our mundane lives.
Many people’s response to the lack of a reason to make an effort was to dress up for Instagram photos, Zoom calls, and trips to Tesco. Seeing people react this way made me think, why is it out of the ordinary to dress up for ourselves and everyday tasks? Why do we feel the need to wait for an occasion to dress up and feel confident? Social media has enforced a belief that other people need to approve of our existence, and as a result, there is an underlying pressure which some of us feel to wait for a time when our clothes can be approved by others. In reality, the only approval that matters is our own.
Whilst it became a chore for many people like myself to get dressed in those early lockdown mornings, getting out of your pyjamas and wearing something you like became one of life's few remaining pleasures. Although, there was something bittersweet about seeing the jackets and shoes in my bedroom which were left unworn for months. When boredom peaked, I would try them on to pass time, but doing so would highlight the parts of my life I missed - leaving the house and having fun with friends. I know I am not alone when I say the novelty of dressing up for Zoom calls and trips to the supermarket wore off very quickly. I began to realise I associate clothes with places and activities, as our surroundings impact our outfit choices. Being stuck at home was uninspiring, it made me crave leaving the house with a purpose greater than walking the dog or going to the shop.
Where Are We Going?
In addition to Covid-19 uncovering a need to wear an outfit with purpose and in a public place where one would feel ‘validated’, the pandemic also highlights how space dictates what we wear. Items of clothing feel out of place in particular environments, reflecting why dressing up to go food shopping or for Zoom calls was fun initially but soon became a reminder of what we were missing. Prior to the pandemic, it was no secret a ball gown was deemed inappropriate for running errands. But the desire to go somewhere (like the pub) is linked to our want to wear something with purpose and more than I initially thought.
As much as our clothes constitute our identity, to an extent our physical location does too. If what we feel comfortable in is governed by where we are going, you can quickly begin to see how our surroundings contribute to our personal image. Being stuck at home, with only one hour of daily exercise and a legal trip to the supermarket, we were unable to feel like ourselves. Not just because the places we could go were limited, but also because they were the same for everyone.
This presented a challenge: adapting to the reality that regardless of where we are and who surrounds us, we do not change in ourselves. No matter who sees us and how we present ourselves, our external appearance is temporary and fragile. The freedoms that allow us self-expression, such as gigs, pubs and parties, can easily be retracted and leaving us questioning how to define ourselves outside of these spaces. The pandemic has shown us all we have is ourselves and our family and friends and experiences that enable self-expression are a privilege that we have come to appreciate so much more.
Why Does It Matter?
In the grand scheme of things, our clothes do not matter at all. The pandemic has demonstrated materialistic things mean far less than meaningful relationships. This does not mean that people cannot enjoy keeping up with fashion and doing what makes us happy is of great importance. Life is too short not to. Moving forward, we should be aware that the only acceptance we need is our own. We can no longer rely on external factors, such as people and places, to give purpose to or to validate our appearance, as these things will not always be able to do that for us (I’m looking at you, miss Rona).
However, it is not necessarily entirely negative that we may have less reason in the future (as we did during lockdown), to dress how we may have done in the past. Now that we have identified that much of our enjoyment surrounding clothes derives from external recognition and purpose, we can focus on feeling confident in ourselves as a result of our own validation.
Article by Florenne Earle Ledger
Florenne is a recent English Literature graduate from the University of Sheffield. She is interested in all things sustainable and fashion-related. She co-founded a society called ‘Green and Bop’ at university to help make student culture more sustainable.