This essay is part of Fashion in Isolation, a special issue on the intimate, contradictory, and ultimately inescapable relationship we have to what we wear.

I’ve had only three semi-presentable shirts to wear throughout the quarantine: a white v-neck, a striped crewneck, and a striped v-neck—that last one, I’ve come to call the combination shirt.

Just before the virus took hold, when most New Yorkers still felt far from its reach, I traveled from Brooklyn to my mother’s house on the outskirts of Washington, DC for what I thought would be a short visit—hence my lack of clothing. It’s no coincidence that I’d ended up with these particular items; variations of white t-shirts have long been my greatest comfort, and the months leading up to my novel’s debut weren’t the time to take risks, fashion-wise. Normally, three shirts would be sufficient for days spent entirely at home. Like many, I am only ever seen now on video calls, from the waist up. But with no cute jeans or cool shoes to supplement my tops, the shirts have been under tremendous pressure. The stakes vary depending on the call, which ranges from hangouts with friends to pre-publication interviews to matters of the heart—or rather, one matter of the heart, cultivated from a distance, our first date thwarted by the lockdown. Where stakes are the highest, the shirts are called on to perform their very best.

At the same time, there’s been something soothing in the limitation of having just three items to choose from, in the same way that the absence of FOMO provides a surprising comfort, allowing us to be fully present wherever we are. There have already been so many decisions: when to return to Brooklyn, whether to postpone my book tour or go virtual, how many freelance gigs to push for when income is so uncertain. With all this to consider, I’ve welcomed one less realm of decision-making, even if it means repeating outfits when first impressions feel essential.

Eventually, there will be more shirts—and pants, and dresses, even! As the lockdown eases, there will be fewer virtual hangouts. There will be no more days spent with my mother, taking walks in the afternoons, bickering in the mornings, each of us rushing to wake up first and get to the single-serving ceramic coffee cone. There will be less time to spend discovering someone new from afar, but in its place, something better, if also riskier, at least heart-wise: discovering up close. A dear friend asked what I will wear for the first in-person date. “Guess,” I said, and she guessed correctly, not because she’s seen me in it every Saturday afternoon for the last eight weeks, but because she knows me that well. And though by then I may have more choices, I’ll stick with the t-shirts. So far, they’ve done pretty well.

Zaina Arafat

Zaina Arafat is a Palestinian American writer and the author of the novel You Exist Too Much, an Indie Next Pick. Her stories and essays have appeared in publications including Granta, The New York Times, The Believer, Virginia Quarterly Review, VICE, BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, and NPR. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and was awarded the 2018 Arab Women/Migrants from the Middle East fellowship from Jack Jones Literary Arts. She currently lives in Brooklyn.

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