Dressing for the Pandemic

Maintaining appearances during times of stress.

Posted May 27, 2020

 PICRYL/Public Domain
Source: PICRYL/Public Domain

As this pandemic drags on, I’ve become an epidemiologist—of sorts. I consider my patients’ demographics, their changes and trends, even while I focus on them individually. I notice, for example, that their grooming is increasingly casual: more beards, hairdos that are don’ts. Over the past two months, my patients have emerged as au naturel. I see lines on women’s faces, muscles (or fat) bulging from men’s t-shirts. Before the pandemic, when most patients came during a work-day, they were made-up, dressed up, generally put together. They obviously cared about how they looked. But now there has been a regression, of sorts, toward work-at-home indifference. Because Skype and FaceTime reduce us all to talking upper torsos, it’s impossible not to notice the few—but significantly altered—details of my patients’ heads and shoulders.

I wonder whether these people are self-conscious about dressing down or, whether, the devolution towards some unkempt, unadorned state seems normal in this liminal new normal. So far, I haven’t asked anyone, but I think about whether the lack of obvious self-care reflects some worrisome letting-go. Have they given up, stopped caring about themselves? Have they concluded that the world outside barely exists anymore, so why play the game (with the right moves, the Botox, and good clothes)? In some cases, every day is Sunday now, so there’s no reason to bother.

But still, each of us needs to maintain his or her own dignity, even if the only person to acknowledge it is the one in the mirror.

I don’t expect people to dress for work just because they are Skyping with me. However, because they are so ... um ... oddly turned out, I expect that their days are empty of significant contacts. I worry about encroaching isolation. Are people losing face with themselves; are they embarrassed by idleness? If so, then maintaining a sense of dignity may seem merely pompous, even pretentious. In a bid to be honest with themselves, to look themselves in the face and say yuck, they put on the worst stuff we own.

This is a problem for the especially busy (or formerly especially busy). Some businesses are still paying employees even though they have shut down. So, people can eat and pay rent, but they are at loose ends. This concerns me. When left entirely to our own devices, we often don’t know what to do with ourselves. We fill the time with worry, if only not to become bored. We focus on the immediate, the acutely awful, and allow it to seem irreversible—as if now were forever, since amidst a pointless emptiness that’s how it seems. One patient said to me, “I see all the red ink in my 401k, and it looks like blood.” She conveys a sense that she is bleeding to death. From her perspective, dressing down is the objective correlative of her losing faith in her life. Irreversibly.

So, while I don’t mention my patients’ devolved new “look,” I do try to address with them what I suspect it represents. I try to assess whether they feel as though things may not turn around soon enough for them to get back to feeling able to navigate the world, and make useful changes. I approach this enquiry gingerly, since I don’t want to presume too much based on a newly hirsute face or absent lipstick. But sometimes, patients actually bring up their altered appearance, and this gives me permission. “Oh, please forgive my sweats but, you know, I’ve gotten lazy.” Lazy is a freighted term, and tells me that they know that I know that they have fallen down off their customary standard. They are inviting me to ask why.

In such instances, we talk about how the present constriction seems like it will last indefinitely, limiting their options to express themselves, pursue relationships, carry out quotidian chores like shopping and going for check-ups—and just having fun. Maybe, if there is no improvement, their generous employers will start furloughing people—then what? More limbo? Even more nowhere and nothing? We discuss the need for differentiation in their lives. After all, why change your outfit (or fix your hair or trim your beard) if every day is also yesterday, the equivalent of solitary confinement? We need to see glimmers of possibility, each day, to believe in the return of possibility.

Sartre went so far as to declare “We are our possibilities.”

As may patients and I explore these concerns, we turn back to the issue of clothes and self-presentation. Grooming ourselves for each day is one way to affirm that something new—and, ideally, interesting—may happen. It allows us to feel as though we have not resigned ourselves to a world of infinite time and no space, where a thin trickle of events has nowhere to go in any direction ... except maybe drop-by-drop onto our heads like Chinese torture. If we let ourselves go in one major area, like appearance, we are inclined to let go in other ways. We can’t allow ourselves to risk not liking ourselves. If we do, then decline is easy, just when we need to be ready for things when they do turn around. And they will be different when they do, which makes being ready all the harder.

I have begun modeling self-care to my patients. While I am not wearing ties as much, I don’t wear sweats either. I talk about exercise and eating well. I let my patients know that caring for oneself is real work, worth as much as the work they do at the office. Nobody is suggesting that sheer vanity is a worthwhile motivation, but self-respect and dignity are. As we age, dignity becomes more of a concern, since aging is not always pretty. Our hair gets thinner, we may stoop. The passage of time and the pull of gravity are inevitable. We may dwell in our minds, but we live in our bodies. So, we still need to show the world and ourselves that we have not abandoned appearances.

I read recently that fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar will never be the same, and that some of these publications may disappear. Clothes have come to seem more utilitarian; disposable fashion is dismissed as wasteful. I can appreciate that. But without being fashionistas, we can treat each day as an occasion, indeed as multiple potential occasions to which we have invited ourselves. It’s good to be an active participant in your life. If you skype with our friends, or even talk on the phone, you can spruce up. The phone is perhaps even better than Skype, since we can imagine our friends imagining us. When we prepare dinner (however so humble), we can put on something clean, shave, fix our hair (just acting gender-specific is an advance overthrowing on jeans and a t-shirt).

The point is that in these days of isolation, we each need to perform our identity and practice who we want to become. We need to make personal choices that reflect our taste, our sense of our own value, and what we might still be to other people. We need to perform our roles even if no one is presently clapping, or even in the audience. This is because we need to envision ourselves as potentially the object of other people’s thoughts. At this point in the pandemic, reality is a consensual process, where each of us helps each other affirm our mutual existence. This is now a more acute version of the usual case.

So, we need to give each other material, to be there for one another. As we perform, we give each other material. We rehearse each other. We help each other believe that it’s not the last act.