Earlier in May, I read a Tweet that shook me to the absolute core: “my shoes probably think i died.” My jaw dropped as I imagined the still-packed suitcase of shoes and garb wilting away on my bedroom floor, planning my funeral in grief. So succinctly did this six-word verse capture the sentiments of fashion in the era of quarantine that it garnered the likes of 1.4 million accounts. It caused me to reconsider the value of fashion, a once all-consuming practice of mine, in a matter of seconds.
I like to think that my clothes have feelings, that each garment carries a soul. I imagine a symbiotic relationship between myself and the racks of my closet, the bins of t-shirts under my bed, and the jewelry that resides on my wall. Throughout high school and into college, I recall a distinct daily routine in which the first conversation I had was always with my closet. Morning after morning, I’d engage in a Socratic seminar that pondered the question of what will I place over my body today? My white blouse elicits memories from a trip to Hong Kong with family; the With Jéan dress I copped for seven dollars at HousingWorks teleports me to a New York City street full of people, hidden gems, and invisible germs; my beloved Doc Marten platforms remind me of how I accidentally scammed ASOS into giving them to me for free (don’t tell). Standing in my animated closet, a wide selection of items make their case, competing for a chance to be worn. I listen, ponder, make the final ruling, and finally run to class, work, or brunch––presumably late.
This ritual of mine is no longer. In the months since COVID-19 struck the world, the majority of my closet has been deprived of a voice. What was once a bearing symphony has amounted to abandoned whispers and cries for attention. In a word, I’ve ruthlessly ghosted my closet. For months, I’ve had nowhere to go, no appointments to attend, no people to see or ways to be seen. The resulting routine? Each morning I slip on a voiceless tank top, reach for one of three pairs of sweatpants I cycle through, and hastily, without glancing once in a mirror, make the long commute to my kitchen downstairs.
In reflecting on the harsh, silent treatment my poor closet has experienced, I’ve realized that the once repeated mantra of “I don’t dress for others, only for myself” is a fallacy. There’s a reason that I haven’t squeezed into a pair of jeans in what seems like ages and worn more free t-shirts than ever before. Clothing is forever a form of social interaction. We get dressed to outwardly represent our personalities, wear items that visually match our inner spirit, and communicate that essence to others. Without the synergetic desire to engage with the public eye, what’s left of fashion?
The decay of style has been surprisingly easy to cope with. A liberating prospect, even. For a myriad of reasons I probably don’t need to specify, the world is seemingly on fire. Time has seemed to turn itself on its head, as days seem longer than weeks but shorter than hours and months flash by while all else seems to remain stagnant. Everything begins to feel ephemeral, all is subject to change in the blink of an eye. One moment, my cherished clothing collection represents my most sentimental and prized possessions, and the next, I can’t remember what it feels like to wear a dress and heels. I don’t practice fashion the way I once did, and in all honesty, I don’t miss it one bit. My shoes might mourn my loss, but I certainly don’t mourn theirs.
Of course, this new routine has suggested the daunting possibility that maybe I’m just not into fashion as much as I thought. But even Oscar Wilde––a paradigm-shifting style icon known for his breeches, pumps, fur-trimmed overcoats, and wide-brimmed hats––acknowledged the arbitrary nature of dress. In 1885, he wrote in an essay (but I like to imagine that he lived in the 21st century and dropped this hot take on Twitter) that “fashion is merely a form of ugliness so absolutely unbearable that we have to alter it every six months!”
It’s been just about six months since I returned home from college along with tens of thousands of students around the globe. Six months of isolation. Six months of spraying down groceries, avoiding close contact with unfamiliar bodies, and going into crisis mode at every hint of a throat tickle. Six months of a seemingly fashion-less existence. But going through the daily motions of life, consider the prospect that maybe fashion has simply expanded its boundaries. I find fashion in the ceramic mug I use for my coffee. I find fashion in meticulously reorganizing my bookshelf, in eating a perfectly ripe nectarine. I find fashion in monotony. Rather than limiting these internal discussions with my closet, I recognize the beauty and histories of things all around me, clothing and otherwise.
This week, I finally unpacked the mass of clothes I brought home from college. In less than a month, I’ll be refilling them, preparing for an outlandish semester on campus. As hints of normalcy weasel their way back into existence, it might be beneficial to hold on to some of the things learned in quarantine.
One such lesson is that now more than ever, we possess agency in when and where and how we’ll be seen. Just yesterday I FaceTimed a friend who said “I’ve had enough of being perceived today. can we just call?” Hints of agency, like keeping your camera turned off on a Zoom call or refusing to fake a smile beneath your face mask, act as reminders that you set the terms of your own visibility.
Given that society is finally addressing institutional prejudices in all areas of life, including the fashion industry, now is a perfect moment to unlearn fashion. This hiatus from style is also an opportunity to reform the way we think about the way we dress into a positively self-serving practice. Whether we return to business as usual or keep crashing and burning, continuing to practice self-agency might finally break the stigma we place on outward appearances. Here’s to the death of fashion as we know it.
By Karen Cheng
Illustration by Echo Dieu