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 bought my unitard online at a time when I was broke and shouldn’t have been buying anything. It’s black and stretchy with a scoop neck and I wear it around the house when I want to feel like a dancer, specifically like Yvonne Rainier as pictured on the cover of her memoir, Feelings Are Facts. The unitard is a portal to existing only and fully inside myself.

I have a series of outfits I wear at home when I’m working, by which I mean writing, or snacking, or cleaning, or sewing, or pulling weeds, each sourced from a memory that inspired a vision of myself “at work.” Most of them are also a kind of unitard. My navy blue coveralls came from a stint employed as artist Harmony Hammond’s archival assistant. She wore hers almost every day, over whatever else she was wearing, so she could do all the things she needed to do without worrying about her clothes: paint, climb ladders, drag twelve-foot rusted gutters across the yard. Overalls fit into this category, too, and so do jumpsuits, and bag dresses, which is a type of dress I make myself that can be worn year-round, if adequately layered.

I have a chronic illness and I’m a writer, so I’ve structured my life so that I can be at home in my element most mornings, going into my day-job only in the afternoons, back when I regularly left the house. I’m always looking for outfits that can move me into a different physical and mental space. Not just a work space, but a space from which to create. A space in which to feel free. By which I mean something like disembodied, genderless, not aware of my body or how it looks in what I’m wearing, with nothing to tuck or pull down or up or to press against my belly when I sit. A feeling of not being looked at, shedding the threat of an external gaze. That way I can be the subject.

A unitard means I can make fewer decisions about what to put on—it’s just one thing. A one-decision outfit. Maybe I pick some socks. But the unitard is all purpose, like a pair of shoes. I’m the only audience for it, apart from my cats, and my partner. What do lepers wear, I wonder? Who cares? To wear my one-piece suit is to inhabit my body fully, in a way that grows rarer and rarer to me as I age.

Jenn Shapland

Jenn Shapland is a writer living in New Mexico. Her first book, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, came out in 2020 from Tin House.

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