Dressing Up Is Making Me Feel Better

Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. Photo: Snap/Shutterstock

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Priority one is staying inside, priority two is finding things that make me smile. I’m not trying to deny what’s going on outside, or even distract myself from it. But I’m still here, still thinking of ways to get through the day without hurting anybody or putting anyone at risk. So I’ve taken to dressing up for the void. It’s a victimless pleasure: nothing new to buy, no reason to go outside, just an aesthetic release.

For the first few days, working from home meant a release from the contextual dressing I usually preoccupy myself with: workout clothes in the early morning, fun work clothes I plan out the night before, and even more fun clothes to wear on the weekends. Now, there’s no context. There’s no place I need to be. I’ve seen on Twitter some inventive half-outfits, ready for Zoom conference calls, and people expressing horror at anyone who is wearing jeans. There’s that famous white-coat study — people who wore white coats they believed were lab coats performed better at tasks that required close attention than people who believed they were wearing artists’ smocks. So there is some logic to dressing up to work from home.

But this isn’t about productivity. It’s about pleasure. Clothing is imbued with social contexts. Social distancing sucks all the context out. There’s nobody to dress up for: no boss to impress, no friends to see in person, no gyms to work out in. So you can choose to wear sweatpants and no bra. But just as easily, you can choose to put on your favorite outfit. There’s no code, so there’s room to play. Either extreme is acceptable.

Last Friday, I was supposed to see La Traviata with my mom and a friend. When I go to the opera — which is rarely — I take the opportunity to dress in an over-the-top, grand way. I had planned to wear a vintage Malcolm Starr dress from the 1960s. I had picked it up from the tailor last Tuesday, and thankfully, they were able to make the belt a bit larger. It was my first truly vintage purchase. I like how heavy the satin is, how thick the zipper is, and the faded “Garment Workers Labor Union” tag inside. The buttons are missing some rhinestones, but that’s okay, she’s 60 years old. On Thursday, my mom canceled her trip, and the Met announced it was canceling the showing of La Traviata. The dress is still in its garment bag, but I haven’t worn it yet. Maybe I will this week. Just to see how it feels.

Glamour generally exists in a very specific context — you’re a movie star, you’re going to the opera, you’re at a wedding. But there’s no real reason that it has to. This weekend I rewatched The Women, the 1939 movie starring Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer. There’s a scene where Crawford is recumbent in a ridiculous, clear bathtub, and Rosalind Russell, the gossipy best friend, enters in a full-length gown complete with a fascinator and head scarf. A silly choice, yes, but who was I to judge? I was wearing a pair of black tights and a white-button down, nothing else, in an attempt to dress like Elaine Strich. It’s an outfit I’ve always wanted to try but never have because short hemlines scare me. But now there’s no reason not to.

It’s been curious to notice the routines I keep (wearing a bra, putting on earrings) and the ones I discard (putting on makeup, blow-drying my hair). Maybe this is how I would dress if I were dressing just for myself. Maybe I’ll never wear jeans again!

Does it feel frivolous to think about this during a pandemic? Of course. But frivolity can provide comfort. For the moment, dressing like Elaine Stritch is making me feel better, and it’s an indoor activity — it hurts no one. And it makes me smile. I’ll take it.

Dressing Up Is Making Me Feel Better