I love clothes. I possess good financial sense until I walk into a store. I’ve been called a “fashion-victim.” I can be moved to tears by an exquisite piece of embroidery.
But as we started this project on fashion, a pandemic emerged. America was plunged into lockdown, the silence on the streets seeming to amplify the creaking of a healthcare system, politics, and economy on the verge of breaking. Police brutality continued to infect the country, attacking Black and Brown bodies traversing empty streets, sleeping in cars, resting in their own homes. As I witnessed these crises converge, my closets suddenly seemed grotesque, shameful.
Secretly, I hoped the pandemic would sever my dependence on fashion for good. That was indeed the case for the first few weeks, when I slumped around the house in old sweats, unable to remember when I had last washed my face. But then I decided to wear jeans on my daily walks, for reasons not yet clear to me. And in no time, I was strutting down the streets again—empty though they were—adorned with earrings, decorative scarves, brushed hair, and a surgical mask.
I’ve been thinking back to the moment I learned I had a choice in what I wore. It was cold, it was rainy, it was the Netherlands of 1999. My parents had just moved us from China to a country where I didn’t know the language, the culture, or, really, why I was even there. Clothes were the only way I could communicate with those tall, pale strangers around me, so I purchased one stretchy neon crop-top after another (it was the ’90s, after all). Slowly, I realized that I didn’t have to stick to the version of who I was when I left China. I could become someone else. I could choose another mask.
Even before the pandemic, we all wore masks of different kinds. Fashion itself is a mask through which we communicate who we are or who we want to be—especially in moments when our voices can’t be heard. Today, the masks have become much more literal: some surgical, some handmade, some sewn in the repurposed ateliers of designers and luxury brands. The pandemic has further exposed the failings of fashion as an industry, which has long been damaging to the planet and abusive to workers. It produces garments that are unaffordable or suspiciously cheap, and—contrary to the industry’s language of empowerment—too often preys on its customers’ insecurities. But even in times of crisis, people continue to get dressed. They have taken to the streets for Black lives, marching in all-white, in tailored suits, in tulle dresses, their faces mostly covered behind masks. The police, often unmasked, don helmets, body armor, shields, and holsters. As images of police brutality and the protests against them travel around a quarantined world, fashion, even without its runways and storefronts, is once again communicating who we are—or want to be.
This collection of essays considers the sentimental, contradictory, and ultimately inescapable relationships we have with what we wear, at a time when our connections to other bodies has come under intense scrutiny. We asked thirteen writers to tell us about their favorite garment—an item of clothing that stands out in our present moment, or from what we now know as the expansive time that preceded it. Many wrote about how maternal figures shaped their understanding of fashion and identity. Maisy Card examines how dancehall culture introduced her to a different version of Jamaican womanhood than what she gleaned from her mother, while Innanoshe Richard Akuson describes what he learned about the freedoms and restrictions of Nigerian women by watching his mother dress. Ken Liu writes about how his grandmother’s hand-knit sweaters informed his understanding of love, and John Paul Brammer describes what his mother taught him about fashion’s ability to conjure a different future.
Others have explored the meaning—or non-meaning—of the garments that keep recurring in their lives. Jenn Shapland writes about the unitard that allows her to fully inhabit her body, while Amanda Adé describes how she donned a set of trusted favorites for a Black Lives Matter protest. Nehal El-Hadi considers how her rotation of black garments throughout the pandemic came to signify loss and mourning, while Jessi Jezewska Stevens suggests that what is worn might be less crucial than how. Jeff Ihaza finds that his habit of wearing hats indoors has been taken up by other men in quarantine, and why, Elisa Gabbert wonders, does she appear in the same striped shirt in so many photos? Finally and inevitably, writers have explored their fragmented, messy relationship to time. Binnie Kirshenbaum moves between past and future through her obsession with a particular eBay find, Lucy Ives finds youthful non-conformity embodied in a pair of bright green pants, and Amy Fusselman recalls her not-entirely-successful quest for an unconventional wedding outfit. Zaina Arafat, meanwhile, finds a semblance of peace in a limited array of t-shirts.
After this close look at fashion in isolation, we will continue to explore the relationship between fashion and time in a more expansive special issue later this year, exploring fashion as an industry, a history, and a discipline, as well as a source of identity and connection. Fashion is defined by the passing of time: It is driven by changing seasons and the distinction of new from old. What does time mean in fashion, and what forms does it take when time stands still? What has fashion meant in times different than ours, and what will it mean in the future? And considering the industry’s abusive labor practices and disastrous environmental impact, might timelessness come with benefits for workers and the climate? We hope you’ll join us in considering these questions, at a time when the future seems to have arrived all of a sudden, even as the present seems to weigh heavier than ever.
— Mary Wang
John Paul Brammer: Shiny Black Boots
I miss standing in them, stomping in them, and walking with that delectable intent.
I guess I wore that shirt a lot, though I never really thought of it as my favorite shirt.
The pants were so extraordinarily bad that they transcended to a new category, becoming, in the process, a wardrobe staple.
Nehal El-Hadi: All-Black Everything
The leisurewear was an attempt to subvert the nothingness by disappearing into it before it arrived.
The unitard is a portal to existing only and fully inside myself.
It was beautiful, to be sure, it just wasn’t what I imagined. I felt like my hat was crying.
The sweaters my grandmother made hung loose, so I could grow into them.
Where stakes are the highest, the shirts are called on to perform their very best.
Jessi Jezewska Stevens: Cotton Skirt
It sits high on my waist and pairs well with low heels.
She wore an electric blue wig and what I can only describe as a blue thong over fishnets.
Binnie Kirshenbaum: Vintage Drop Waist
It was appliqued in black linen, with a pattern to rival the Chrysler Building.
Soft fabric shoes plus a large crowd equaled a big mistake. They were ruined by the end of the day.
Jeff Ihaza: Scott Pilgrim’s Hat
In quarantine, as men bereft of the services of barbers took to wearing hats indoors, they were adopting a long practice of mine.
Innanoshe Richard Akuson: Aligogoro
It’s the intricately hand-woven type, in purple, with generous gold accents to match her lace.