Skip to main content
opinion

Shoppers pass a spring window display in the Manhattan borough of New York City on March 30, 2021.CAITLIN OCHS/Reuters

Zach Davidson is a writer and editor in New York whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Brooklyn Rail and NOON, among other publications. Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto whose latest book is The Ethics of Architecture.

The pandemic’s public-health measures have wrought many much-discussed serious costs. Visits to ailing relatives have been made through panes of glass; mental health has been strained; it has been difficult, if not sometimes impossible, for many to make rent or sustain their business. For others still, this has been a loneliness crisis, with COVID-19 robbing us of the ability to socialize without fear.

It has also turned something as routine as the haircut or the dinner party into the stuff of dreams.

Certainly, style and appearances cannot stand as the topmost issue on our list of social priorities. And yet, it is springtime – and so, as a resurgence of such articles and features show, we cannot help thinking, talking and writing about fashion.

But do people still care about high heels and flashy socks? Do they even fit into the trousers that are not visible on Zoom calls? Are they even wearing trousers, or are we attending board meetings in our pyjamas under a blazer or blouse? A colleague recently alluded to this contemporary dress code in an excellent philosophical one-liner: “If a tree falls in the forest and you’re working from home, are you wearing pants?” (Irish philosopher George Berkeley can’t solve that one because he wore clerical robes every day.)

Fashion has always been a tricky property. It is driven by waves of capitalist interest and aspirational desire, but it is also an applied art of long-standing distinction and importance. The saying “the clothes make the man” dates at least as far back as the writings of the Renaissance theologian Desiderius Erasmus, and was certainly an opinion held by the likes of William Shakespeare and Mark Twain, among others. The great French semiotician Roland Barthes even wrote an entire erudite book on the fashion system, its annual reversals and status-driven mode swings.

Nobody can avoid fashion, because even the “normcore” refusal of trendiness is itself a fashion choice. A flannel shirt sends as strong a message as a bespoke suit; a pair of suede Ponys or Stan Smiths is as tasty, in various circumstances, as those Ferragamo loafers or Louboutin heels. One favourite fashion-related story has it that an Alberta-raised magazine editor, told that his subject “had a Balenciaga in the closet,” thought that meant a high-powered hunting rifle rather than a fancy gown. Funny. And yet, fashion is indeed a weapon, of the nicest cutting kind.

As people gaze into their neglected closets right now, maybe hoping for chances to dress up again or even to just bust out a vintage Tony Fernandez jersey at a Blue Jays game, there is anxiety. How should we dress postpandemic? Will this mark yet another vaunted “return to normal,” whatever that means – or a chance to chart new territory?

One historical resonance is worthy of mention in all this. In 1666, England experienced a dire outbreak of bubonic plague. Citizens of London were fearful, cautiously optimistic and apocalyptic by turns. The year, after all, even included the three-digit mark of the devil. Fortunately, the famous diarist and dandy Samuel Pepys was there to observe the daily fray, elevating a form of personal writing that has today become central to our shared experience again.

Here’s what Pepys wrote on Aug. 31, 1665, at the height of the outbreak: “Thus this month ends with great sadness upon the publick, through the greatness of the plague every where through the kingdom almost. Every day sadder and sadder news of its encrease. In the City died this week 7,496 and of them 6,102 of the plague.” And then: “But it is feared that the true number of the dead this week is near 10,000; partly from the poor that cannot be taken notice of, through the greatness of the number, and partly from the Quakers and others that will not have any bell ring for them.” One must note the tragic detail that the dead poor were too numerous to count, and the Quakers too conscientious to be registered. The bell ringing in remembrance of the dead recalls the banging of pots and pans to cheer our health care heroes in the early days of our pandemic: sonic recognition of community.

Then, on Sept. 3, we find this entry reminiscent of the Brioni-clad former U.S. president Donald Trump and his expensive (though unbecoming) hairstyling: “Up; and put on my coloured silk suit very fine, and my new periwigg, bought a good while since, but durst not wear, because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it; and it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done, as to periwiggs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire, for fear of the infection, that it had been cut off of the heads of people dead of the plague.”

What a grim and creepy report that is. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once noted that facts, like wigs for gentlemen, were a 17th-century invention. Gentlemen and ladies don’t wear wigs much any more, except in certain circumstances or to cover hair loss; meanwhile, facts seem to be the first major casualty of the 21st century, owing in no small part to that ex-head of state with that tax-deducted coif.

The condition of mourning likewise influences Pepys’s impressions of a notorious royal mistress of the day: “I was sorry to see Lady Castlemaine, for the mourning forceing all the ladies to go in black, with their hair plain and without spots. I find her to be a much more ordinary woman than ever I durst have thought she was; and, indeed, is not so pretty as Mrs. Stewart.” Ouch! Black may be slimming but yet, at least in the eyes of the diarist who would go on to be the president of the Royal Society, not at all becoming.

How does a society respond when one of its fundamental organizing principles – aesthetic appeal and its signifiers – is undermined by the homogenizing force of disease? This question, of course, is apposite to our present circumstances, where masks and loungewear cover and trap the body, and where lockdowns scuttle outings, including trips to the hairdresser.

In a book replete with dense analysis and abstract thought, Mr. Barthes also studied the magazines Elle and Le Jardin des Modes. He was a famously dashing Parisian character and romantic until his too-early death. Fashion, he said, “is a kind of machine for maintaining meaning without ever fixing it.” And this free-floating meaning is therefore “distributed according to a kind of revolutionary grace.” That grace is infinite.

Modes may change, but the basic mechanism of fashion does not. We are social creatures who have lately been caged inside for too long, deprived of company but also of the random pleasures of public places. Economists would call these chance encounters positive externalities. They are part of the reason most of us – even dedicated introverts – choose to live in proximity to others.

At base, this is anthropological. We want to show ourselves to others: to look good, to claim momentary status or coolness, to see and be seen. The current spate of articles about postpandemic fashion may strike some of us as trivial or insipid, but they speak to very human qualities: our need for connection, and our appreciation of everyday beauty.

We will likely be wearing masks for some time to come, if we respect public-health officials during the vaccine rollout. You still can’t get a haircut in Toronto and other places, forcing contortions with scissors in front of a mirror and unruly new home styles, akin to the so-called “Guillotine Chop” in post-Revolutionary France. But we can always dress to impress, even in private. Let’s call this the postapocalyptic fashion season, and embrace its new realities. The only baseline here, as in other matters, is that we’re all making it up anew.

As Pepys would say, “And so to bed.” Choose your nightwear wisely.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct