How I Lost and Found My Sense of Style During the Pandemic

Isabel B. Slone on how she’s meandering her way through quarantine style.

In the seven years I’ve lived in Toronto, I’ve managed to stuff 74 pairs of shoes into my tiny shoebox apartment. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, I’ve only worn two: comfy grey Allbirds sneakers and a scuffed pair of No. 6 clogs that I kick on and off every time I need to pop downstairs and take out the trash.

As the world settled into varying stages of mandatory quarantine, everything in my carefully curated wardrobe – including my beloved collection of Victorian witch boots – began to feel all wrong. My closetful of monastic, architectural black dresses suddenly felt stifling and constrictive instead of stately and majestic, so they remained untouched while I rotated through three pairs of Lululemon leggings, laundering them only when they had accumulated enough cat hair to be considered repulsive. Despite skimming through a number of well-intentioned articles offering advice on “how to stay sane during quarantine” that suggested “getting dressed up” might add a shred of normalcy, and perhaps dignity, to one’s routine, I simply couldn’t see the point.

For as long as I can remember, fashion has been the organizing principle of my life.

In quarantine, there was nothing to get dressed up for. What good are all these shoes, I thought, if my social life is confined to Houseparty dates with my friends, our heads squished into little squares on my phone and the rest of us unseen? With nowhere to go and no one to share clothing with, it felt like a waste of time. The perennial question of what to wear – once a leading source of creativity and joy – all of a sudden held no thrall whatsoever.

For as long as I can remember, fashion has been the organizing principle of my life. Some kids are drawn to insects, baseball cards, dinosaurs or Disney movies, but my thing has always been clothes. During my childhood, I anticipated back-to-school shopping at Zellers with a feverish intensity. And once I started earning money at an after-school job, I spent hours performing complex search and rescue missions for vintage Ferragamo pumps and men’s Lacoste cardigans at the local thrift store. To this day, I’d rather spend money on clothing I can cherish than on intangible, ephemeral things like plane tickets or fancy meals. My wardrobe is a mirror in which I can gaze and see myself reflected exactly as I want to look. My closet is, in essence, a collection. Individually, each item is of relatively little value – a testament to my well-honed thrifting skills – but collectively my wardrobe is my life’s work. Numerous theories attempt to explain why people are drawn to collecting.

For me, clothing is a way to ensure control amid the cacophony

In his 1931 essay “Unpacking My Library,” scholar Walter Benjamin writes, “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.” He suggests that collectors are driven by the “thrill of acquisition” and that each new possession represents a means of imposing order on the chaos of the world. Psychoanalyst and art historian Werner Muensterberger, whose 1994 book Collecting: An Unruly Passion is considered the authoritative text on the subject, suggests that the impulse to collect begins when infants are first separated from their caregivers and glom on to objects such as teddy bears or blankets to placate their loneliness. Some adults, writes Muensterberger, never grow out of this habit. They continue to use objects as a way to quell the anxiety of operating in an uncertain world.

I can relate. For me, clothing is a way to ensure control amid the cacophony. Much like Muensterberger suggests, I’m an anxious person for whom uncertainty is in itself a form of suffering. But in the shelter of my closet, I’ve managed to create a miniature universe in which everything makes sense. Curating my closet allows me to exert control even when agency is otherwise hard to come by. It may sound neurotic, but it’s what works for me.

When COVID-19 struck like an errant lightning bolt, clothing no longer offered me the sense of security it had been providing for so long. There was no use pretending anything was normal, so I gave up the act. I abruptly relinquished my desire to dress like myself, denouncing structured garments in favour of soft, yielding clothes that grew and shrank with the contours of my body – almost more living thing than object.
Even pre-pandemic, my work-from-home outfits skewed more The Big Lebowski than Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But most days I had reason to change out of the frowzy duds and style myself into a creative character – like “Morticia Addams meets Texas oil heiress” or “art collector with an extensive collection of Black Flag vinyl.” Now, when I leave the house, my style is more akin to Homer Simpson in a flowy floral muumuu.

Now, when I leave the house, my style is more akin to Homer Simpson in a flowy floral muumuu.

After months of social distancing, I no longer wake up feeling like the natural order of life is in free fall. This is just the way things are. I remain resistant to anything clingy or too close to the body (a few attempted dalliances with rigid jeans have lasted less than an hour), but I’m slowly starting to find my old reflection again.

As I write this, I’m wearing a black-and-white-striped turtleneck underneath black overalls – a utilitarian look I favoured in the Before Times. I have yet to return to my beloved dramatic sleeves or Victorian witch boots, but my leggings are folded in a drawer, no longer an everyday item. For now, my style is precarious. But in my daydreams of dressing up again, I find resilience.