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Style in the Age of Coronavirus: What Are People Wearing?

While fashion probably isn’t anyone’s top priority right now, it certainly has been on my mind. Mostly, I have a lot of questions. They started small, I wasn’t sure what to wear for my online classes, or around the house day-to-day, and they gradually got bigger. I started to question how my style connects me to the world, how it makes me feel to present myself a certain way. And then of course it became about protecting myself. “Do I wear a mask and gloves to the store”, and “what if I’m just going for a walk, how do I protect myself then?”. Amidst all of this reflection, I noticed how many jokes were circulating about style. Tweets mocking the daily comfy clothes routine and getting dressed up to sit in the house. I wanted to know, what are people really wearing? The best way I thought to answer this was to see it for myself. So, for the first time in what felt like weeks, I got dressed, put on my shoes and bright pink jacket, and took to the streets of Chicago’s own Wicker Park.

The area I live in is generally pretty busy, it’s near a train stop and a few busses, so there’s usually a decent amount of foot traffic. The lack of city-goers, while expected, was still a little shocking. What made me stop in my tracks was the lack of weirdness. Wicker Park is known for hipster culture, and I’ve grown used to seeing all sorts of wacky styles and colors. It’s one of the things I love most about this area. It seemed as if I could tell why every person I passed was out and about. Runners in athleticwear and earbuds, shoppers with reusable bags stuffed with essential groceries. The L stop was quiet, no streams of people pouring out in business suits and scrubs and school uniforms. I hadn’t realized how definitively we categorize people by what they wear until there was no reason to categorize them. 

I was also astonished at the amount of improper use of protective garments. I saw a group of teenage boys wearing face masks, but pulled under their nose. According to the Center for Disease Control(CDC), cloth face coverings are recommended in order to prevent passing the virus through cough, speech, and sneezes. The mask provided a barrier between droplets, essentially protecting those around you in the case you were carrying COVID-19 unknowingly. Wearing the mask without covering your nose is literally pointless. Seeing these boys led me to question why are people wearing masks? Clearly they weren’t wearing them for protection, or else they’d know to cover their noses, so why wear them? Could there be another reason? 

Even before the pandemic, face masks were already becoming popular. Billie Eillish even wore one to the Grammys. It seems eerie now, like somehow the fashion world foreshadowed what was to come. When I got home, I did a little extra research. I found hundreds of videos showing me how to fold my own mask at home with a scarf and a few hair ties and celebrities wearing high-end versions. The New Yorker published an article featuring New York based designer Christian Siriano, who began manufacturing non medical grade face masks for the state of New York, the global epicenter of Coronavirus. The idea of designer face masks completely astonished me. They weren’t anything special of course, and were being distributed to hospitals and paid for by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office. But still. How far away are we from major fashion houses putting out their own mask designs on the market. Coronavirus has blurred the line between trend and pandemic, and the future of the industry, much like everything else, seems uncertain. Frustrated and left with more questions than I started with, I turned to the only place I had left, Facebook. I would much rather have questioned people on the streets, in the spirit of social distancing I chose to stay at home. So, I asked my friends and family, “What are you wearing and why”. While the answers didn’t exactly come flooding in, I did manage a few interesting responses. Julia Hwang’22 simply commented “Different shirt, same pants”. Elisabeth Balistreri’21 had a different opinion.  She said she’s “actually been experimenting a bit more with style since I know I won’t be seen by a lot of people”. The creativity of putting together outfits and “dressing up for no reason makes her feel better,” especially taking photos in them with her friends. 

It only felt right to end this exploration of style by turning the question around on myself. Ironically, I’ve been asked before, on the first day of my History of Fashion class. At the time, I couldn’t think of an answer, as if getting dressed was more of a reflex than it was a conscious choice. I took for granted how easy it was to walk into my closet each morning and decide how I wanted to look when I faced the day. Putting on a good outfit made me feel alive in the morning, prepared and even more human somehow. Now that most of my wardrobe is collecting dust in my room at school, all that I’m left with are the things I didn’t deem good enough to bring with me when I left for college. For a while, I was stuck on missing my things, and then feeling guilty for missing them. They’re only things after all. But looking at how style has responded to pandemic has inspired me. Sure I can keep missing the things I don’t have, or I can make do with what’s here. Maybe my outfit each day becomes a game of sorts, a way to challenge myself and experiment with styles I might never have tried. If there’s one thing Coronavirus owes me, it’s a damn good outfit when this is all said and done.

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