At the start of the pandemic, when entertaining ourselves at home was still novel, I automatically turned to fashion. A backyard poetry picnic provided an excuse to pair the green velvet skirt (bought in Ireland as an undergrad) with a brightly feathered vintage hat (acquired at a Midwest antique mall just after getting my PhD). On another bored night, we streamed music from the 1990s and I pulled out my old goth clothes for a fashion show. But, as for most people, those giddy summer 2020 adventures in pandemic living soon faded to a humdrum routine of anxious monotony.
As the Fall 2020 semester started up and I returned to the university Zoom classroom, my wardrobe narrowed to a few comfy work tops that “popped” on screen, while the rest of my clothing languished in my closets and cedar chest, untouched.
My closet contains items amassed over three decades. For almost two years during the pandemic, I barely scratched its surface. Though I didn’t fully understand it at the time, my feeling of being unmoored during this period was not just about the social isolation. It was also about a kind of isolation from myself that directly connected to all that untouched clothing. Decades of disjointed memories and changing personal identities are threaded through those neglected garments.
Fashion & My Fragmented Self
As lockdowns lifted across most of the United States in 2021, commentators were quick to assess the meaning of the pandemic for the world of fashion and style. These conversations, whether exploring the lasting power of our pandemic sweatpants or possible lessons learned about industry sustainability, have been wide-ranging. And yet, the underlying concerns remained relatively narrow: individual pain and comfort, or group suffering and social (in)justice. There was something missing from these accounts for me.
Unlike Rhonda Garelick, whose pandemic commentary in the New York Times asks hyperbolically, “Am I Done Suffering for Fashion?” or Dismantle’s own Stephanie Laurenza, who makes a case for “Why We Still Need Comfort Clothes,” I longed to return to my pre-pandemic wardrobe. I am one of those people who usually finds so much joy in my clothing that the comfort of pandemic leisurewear felt a bit like a betrayal. Yet when we in Florida returned to fully in-person teaching in Fall 2021, I found myself still “relying on the same limited number of items kept in steady rotation,” a familiar lockdown coping strategy.
So in January 2022, I decided to proactively confront this pandemic impasse and explore exactly who (or what) I was betraying with my comfy soft pants and oversized t-shirts. This is how the 2022 Wardrobe Experiment began, with a promise to myself that I would spend the Spring semester exploring the ends of my closets and the bottom of my cedar chest and avoiding wearing any core garment twice (shoes, jewelry, and underwear would get a pass).
To prevent accidental repetitions, I also decided to document the process—one photo for every day of the work week, with each garment cataloged and appreciated (originally privately on Facebook, now publicly on Instagram @Dr.SmartyPants.PhD). This daily picture-taking ritual became a way of marking time and by the end of the semester I came to realize that ideas about temporality and continuity are actually key to my connection with clothing.
To me, a good outfit is like a time capsule, containing an array of tucked away treasures that transport me back to different moments in my life. In this way, clothing serves as a vessel for memory, a marker of identity and continuity across a lifetime of disparate selves. Not only do I tend to keep my clothing for a long time (one of the privileges of remaining relatively thin as I age) but much of my clothing is itself older than me.
For decades now my fashion has centered a kind of slow, primarily secondhand accumulation that has generally stayed a bit off-center of mainstream trends, creating an idiosyncratic timeline of self and identity. Perhaps it was these various selves, suddenly unmoored and unmarked by particular garments while I lounged around at home, that felt betrayed by all that pandemic comfort.
Systematically documenting my outfits during Spring 2022 clarified multiple dynamics working at once. The memories of where I bought particular pieces of clothing (something for each city visited!) are an important part of the story. But these discrete recollections ultimately point to something much more substantial: the way that my entire personal memoir and account of self is wrapped up in fashion.
Flea Market Memories
My wardrobe helps me create a cohesive autobiography, which is especially important because my life hasn’t unfolded on the most coherent trajectory. Mine is a story of cross-generational poverty and illiteracy in rural South Carolina that leads to doctoral studies and academic publications amidst years of international travel. Connecting the dots between all these moments—all these disparate selves—can be disorienting in the best of times. Clothing has provided a helpful thread (excuse the pun), a material form of self-narration that insists on some continuity amidst the upheavals and uncertainties of my pre- and post-pandemic world.
On one end of my life narrative, I am in front of a classroom, regularly asking students to apply socio-cultural theory to themselves and their fashion choices. While my Feminism and Globalization class explores the ethics of fashion consumption, my Youth Subcultures course has students exploring the role of fashion in personal expression and community formation.
When I ask the students in that class to analyze their own (dis)identification with subcultural deviance, many of them—still teenagers—find the task understandably difficult. So, I share my own analysis as an example: my love for odd secondhand clothing and adoption of weird fashions in my youth can be seen as a reaction to growing up poor. Essentially, it’s a response to marginalization, where I attempted to change the terms of my outsider status and find value where worthiness had previously been socially denied.
This analytical thread leads directly back to a particular time during elementary school: 5th grade, when I was sent to live with my grandparents for six months. They lived in an even more rural part of South Carolina, in a “shotgun shack” much repaired and expanded over the more than three decades that my granddad rented it. The house didn’t have a hot water heater or any kind of central heating—both of those amenities were provided by the huge wood-burning stove. I only got to take a full immersive bath once a week and everything I owned reeked of smoke. The kids on the school bus taunted me about being a cigarette smoker at age ten (to be fair, everyone else in the house was and I legit smelled like I was, too).
Given my circumstances, there was no way that I was ever going to live up to the exacting expectations of 5th grade fashion decorum. My peers marked clear social hierarchies just by noting who could afford brand name shoes (ballet flats by Sam & Libby or actual Keds tennis shoes, not knock-offs). God forbid you were spotted by a classmate in the parking lot of Barnwell, South Carolina’s centrally located Family Dollar—you could be teased at school for weeks. The Springfield Flea Market, located in an empty field two towns over, was safer, if only because whoever spotted you there was also implicated. I went to the market with my grandparents every weekend (my granddad sold chihuahuas) and I would wander the stalls alone for hours. This was how my first purposefully odd outfit was born.
One Saturday I used my allowance to buy a 4-color collection of neon socks and, at a different booth, I found a button-down white shirt covered in multi-color neon paint splatters. The next week I rocked up to school wearing that shirt and every color of neon sock at once, 2 layered on each foot. When classmates teased, “Your socks don’t match!,” I would respond, “Yes, they do! They don’t match each other but they match my shirt.” By the time sixth grade rolled around I was taking my Punky Brewster-inspired aesthetics to the next level, pairing ripped up tights with over-the-top dance finery and tying it all together with visible safety pins.
“So there you have it,” I tell students in my Youth Subcultures class: “subcultural deviance as a response to social inequality. If I was going to be made fun of, at least it would be for something that I had chosen myself and actually had some control over.” Poverty was not my choice but purposefully weird fashion could be.
Girl Need Get New Clothes?
During my Spring 2022 Wardrobe Experiment, these were the stories that rung out in the weekly reflections I posted to friends on Facebook. Looking at the collections of outfits at the end of each week, I was moved not just by the histories of particular garments but the overarching story of how I had come to be in this position in the first place: a professor wearing sometimes weird clothes to work. Or, more pointedly: a professor who still owns part of her 3rd grade Madonna Halloween costume from 1984 and can pair that with both a vintage velour blazer thrifted during college in the 1990s and a hand-me-down dress acquired at a friend’s 2003 Sayonara Party in Japan (see day 70).
Having all of these pieces side-by-side, mixing-and-matching articles of clothing from different eras of my life and the different places I have been, creates a kind of pointillist timeline of the self each and every day. Donning a piece of clothing can easily prompt me to recollect an adventure I once had in a new city or in a foreign country, or to remember a beloved friend, now passed, who helped me shop for interview clothes and gifted me stylish pieces they found at thrift stores (see day 66). Life-defining moments and friendships become memorialized in fabric.
So much of personal identity is about narration—being able to recount the links between our various past selves and our present moment. Clothing does that for me. This desire for some coherence in the face of the fragmentation of the subject may be one of those things that we cannot not want while living through the contradictions of late capitalism. This makes reflecting on it even more important.
I remember the time during my senior year of high school when someone scribbled next to my name on the Star Student board: “girl need get new clothes.” Then I look at the weeks during Spring 2022 when I wore nothing but secondhand clothing and the narrative arc seems clear: here I am still refusing the call to “get new clothes.” And yet, this is but one story I can tell through my 2022 Wardrobe Experiment.
Unitary selves, like unitary stories are fictions, tools we use to make it through. I have found joy, resistance, and a canvas for cultural critique and self-expression in my wardrobe. But stories of suffering, pain, and (in)justice that exist in so many other pandemic fashion reflections are also there for me to read. All I need to do is tilt my head ever so slightly and new narrative threads come easily into focus. For example, the fact that I still have so much unworn clothing that I have continued this experiment during Fall 2022 definitely calls for more self-reflection on over-consumption. As I endeavor to finally reach the ends of my closets and the bottom of my cedar chest during this Fall semester, I hope to honor both the ways that clothing helps me narrate the self and the ways that it tells other stories besides.
If there’s one thing that the 2022 Wardrobe Experiment has reminded me, it is that survival often depends on the stories we tell ourselves. As we reflect on fashion during the COVID-19 pandemic we owe it to ourselves to think through the ways that our clothing can also index a kind of survival—a refusal to let go of all that we have been and all that went into making us who we are today. Not to mention an eagerness to see all the ways that pieces of ourselves will be recombined and supplemented in the future! There may be suffering there, yes, but if we are lucky it is mixed with joy and persistence.Become a Patron!