Photography Mary Manning.

What do clothes mean in a pandemic?

For our summer issue, we reflect on dressing during quarantine, slipping on garments as a form of resistance and the future of fashion design.

by Charlie Porter
09 July 2020, 4:00pm

Photography Mary Manning.

This story originally appeared in i-D's The Faith In Chaos Issue, no. 360, Summer 2020. Order your copy here.

I’m writing this from London, where the weather has been mild. These past couple of months at home I’ve been wearing a T-shirt, sweater, jeans, shorts. I have a rotation of specific garments, pretty much the same ones worn till they need a wash, a load of other possible choices left untouched. Wait: isn’t that how I’d been dressing before this lockdown?

Pandemic life reveals the simplicity that was always there. It’s the same realisation that a sourdough starter is just flour and water. For all the noise of the fashion industry, for all the illusion of speed, our instinctive clothing habits have been the same all along. Do we pay these habits enough attention? Could we enjoy them more?

Let’s look at what’s changed. The biggest shift is the absence of display. In lockdown, we cannot party. We cannot go on dates. We cannot meet friends in bars. We cannot stroll through crowds pretending not to care but praying to be seen. Each form of display can fuel a desire for difference. We may think we want more clothes to help us stand out, to get what we want: sex, attention, friendship, community. That display is gone. Club nights on Zoom don’t count: we’re not looking at your clothes, we’re looking at your curtains.

Work has altered, too. I’m less interested here in talking about changes to a working wardrobe – what concerns me more is poverty. Many are suddenly broke, especially those who make money from the night-time economy: DJs, bartenders, dancers, bouncers. Fashion students will be graduating this summer, already loaded with debt and suddenly, for them, there are no jobs. There may be no jobs for them this whole summer, autumn, winter... and on and on.

Shopping for fashion has come to mean spending what we do not have. Part of the thrill is its illicitness: that we are doing something we shouldn’t. It’s a pretty dumb psychology, even in times of supposed economic prosperity. At this moment of financial peril spending more than we have could be livelihood-threatening. Please, if you have no money, do not spend money you don’t have on fashion. Beware any language of the fashion industry that encourages you to spend to help you “feel good”. Food will make you feel good, as will a roof over your head – not racking up debt.

Display has gone. Finances, too. Also absent? “Newness”. There will be no fashion shows in their full form for some while. That means no livestreams, no social media from the front row or backstage, no groundswell of ideas to form trends. But are those trends really about newness? Or are they mainly novelties to make us spend money we don’t have? Maybe being without them can be a liberation.

With what fashion had become, we knew that, without fail, there would be alleged newness from brands at least twice a year. How banal, how dull, for newness to be so prescribed. Dull not just for consumers, but for designers, too. That cycle is now broken. It is unclear for how long. What we do in this time matters.

I keep thinking of the words “exquisite boredom”. It’s that exquisite boredom in Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the exquisite boredom of crowds waiting for the ballroom moment in Paris Is Burning, the exquisite boredom of Leigh Bowery, Trojan and Rachel Auburn getting ready for a night out in Charles Atlas’s Hail The New Puritan.

There’s the exquisite boredom of hanging out in Larry Clark’s Kids; Sofia Coppola is an expert (The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette). As I write this, there’s an Andy Warhol exhibition at Tate Modern that nobody can see. Warhol revelled in exquisite boredom. At the beginning of the Tate show is Warhol’s film Sleep – five hours and 20 minutes of his then-boyfriend, John Giorno, sleeping. Imagine the exquisite boredom of that long film of nothing, playing to no-one.

Exquisite boredom is radical, defiant, queer. Exquisite boredom is a rarity today, for obvious reasons: Apple just told me my screen time last week was an average of four hours and 33 minutes a day. But in this lockdown, we have the chance to engage in exquisite boredom, if we can free ourselves from the anxiety of all that we could have been consuming but can’t.

What is it that you like about the garments you are wearing right now? It’s OK if the answer is: they make me feel cosy. If you’re wearing separates, how does one contrast with the other? Don’t look in a mirror to answer. Don’t even look down at your clothes. Look straight ahead, then be aware of what you can see of your clothing in your lower field of vision. Because actually, for those of us who are sighted, we’re all always looking at our clothes in this way. The colour of what we wear, the contrast, the textures, the shapes: they aren’t just for getting the attention of those we meet. They are for our own pleasure, whenever we are in daylight, dressed, with our eyes open.

Tomorrow, ask yourself the same questions. Maybe push yourself to pull something out of the bottom of the pile. Learn about yourself. What does the eye want to see? Why? Can you begin to understand your own language of clothing, of fashion?

Please do not misunderstand me. When I talk of “exquisite boredom”, I don’t mean you should wear boring clothes I mean ones that jar, that are annoying, slightly off. These can be sweatpants.

I don’t mean polite clothes – the tidy contemporary wardrobe that grew out of normcore to become the acceptable uniform of start-up office culture. Seek some tension in what you wear, away from what would be seen as “nice” in a shared workspace. From these tensions, you can find a pleasure in your own clothing, the clothing you already own. Maybe you can find a pleasure that will stay with you when this lockdown is over. When it’s easily possible to buy a tonne of new garments again, maybe you can refuse.

Some important points. I believe in fashion design now more than ever. I think we can extricate individual fashion design from the bloated ideas of the industry that seem so irrelevant right now. I cannot stop thinking about the work of Ella Boucht, recent graduate from the Central Saint Martins MA, and her collection which was a manifesto for queer and non-binary people. I lecture on the BA fashion design course at the University of Westminster. This year’s graduates have floored me with their ideas, their talent, the politics behind their work. Before the pandemic, they were already alert to living in a destabilised world. What we think was normal before really wasn’t normal.

These are troubling times: the end of freedom of movement, mass surveillance an imminent reality, transphobia given free rein in national newspapers. A British prime minister who claps for healthcare workers he neither pays properly, nor supplies with adequate equipment to protect their lives. An American president against abortion rights. A Brazilian president gleeful in the destruction of the rainforest. It is relentless, all around us.

Dressing is an act of resistance. I have the pleasure of knowing Princess Julia, the artist and DJ. Her life is lived within counterculture. She is one of the deepest thinkers that I know. Julia dresses how Julia dresses: there has been no change since lockdown. A zip-up Louise Gray bomber over a Louise Gray newsprint dress; an Ashley Williams dress with a Noki headwrap and Vetements platform boots; an Art School black nurse’s uniform. She wears these out-and-about for her daily exercise, in full hair and make-up, always with some form of stack shoe.

During quarantine, Harrie Bradshaw and flatmate Gui Rosa, another recent graduate from the CSM MA, both continue to push at the boundaries of what garments can be, in their tin-foil lined flat or out on the street. The sensational Miss Jason, of YouTube fashion show Jason’s Closet, is at home in Asai, faux fur and sunglasses. In New York, the artist Tabboo! posts daily videos of himself lip synching from the east village apartment he’s lived in for 30 years, dressed to the nines. One of the most moving was Tabboo! dancing to a Deee-Lite track that he did the cover art for in 1990. It’s title: Power Of Love.

Back to those clothes I’m wearing during quarantine. I didn’t say which T-shirt, sweater, jeans. The T-shirts are mostly by Boot Boyz Biz. The sweater is by Craig Green, in a checked design he described as “a sacrificial picnic blanket”. The jeans are hickory striped, from Celine. I’d wanted them in a flared leg, but they’d already sold out.

They’re the clothes I would have been wearing the past two months if we’d had our previous freedoms. I already had them, the sweater nearly a year old. Right now, I don’t need anymore. What I have is enough.


Photography Mary Manning