I wore a gold and silver lamé dress from the SS20 collection with dramatic flailing sleeves and a plunging neckline, which was what I like to call ‘Medieval extra’. I was shoulder-to-shoulder with close friends, in a neon-lit bar, yelling over the music. Our drinks were strong, and got stronger when we carried on with some late night feasting, gorging on dumplings and rice wine cocktails. It was bacchanalian in the best way possible, because we already sensed it would be the last hurrah before a new normal set in.
As someone who is usually overly dressed up with somewhere to go (and let’s face it, in fashion there is always somewhere to go, 364 days of the year bar Christmas), overnight I found myself housebound with nowhere to go, save for trips to the supermarket or for one-hour spurts of fresh air masquerading as exercise.
From a life of intense face-to-face action, whether that was meetings, visiting designers or being in the thick of fashion shows and events, my only real physical interaction was suddenly limited to my daughter Nico (half of the time – her father and I share custody and maintained that under lockdown).
Within a week, the lack of stimulation of being in crowded rooms and heaving hotspots was more than palpable. I found myself switching on the radio, the TV and Spotify at the same time just to create some sort of background noise that resembled people.
My new stomping ground became centred around three spots in my house. The sofa in the living room with its permanent bum imprints, where by day Nico and I gorged on a triple-bill of Netflix/Amazon/Disney+, then at night I watched weird BFI films or joined drunken Zoom/Houseparty meet-ups with friends on my laptop.
There was the kitchen, where I obsessed over making needlessly complicated chiffon cakes with fiddly designs to fill up the time vacuum. Then there was my wardrobe. You may know from my Instagram that it’s an over-stuffed anti-Marie Kondo closet of chaos. For me, it’s a precious inner sanctum that contains the spoils of nearly a lifetime of collecting (a nicer way to say hoarding) treasure. It’s not only where I get dressed but it’s also a testament to my career in fashion – graduate pieces from young designers I’ve championed, souvenirs from far-flung places and a compendium of contemporary fashion from the past 15 years or so, from Christopher Kane’s first collection in 2007 to newer breakout designers like ASAI. Its value is not necessarily monetary, but in its intimate connection to my livelihood and my personal journey.
During lockdown, I found myself inadvertently rifling deeper every day. During Nico’s naptime, I’d go in with the intention of doing some folding, then find myself combing rails or pointlessly looking for something that I hadn’t seen in a long time. I clambered to the top, pulling things from dusty boxes. Bigger dresses! More colours! Dressier fabrics!
Most things in my wardrobe have an element that draws the eyes or the hands, be it a bright print or an odd texture. Even my jeans have something going on; a ruffle or a weird wash. For as long as I’ve been buying my own clothes, I’ve treated personal style as an ongoing experiment, building layers of references, texture and colour, at first as a rebellion from the uniformity of a strict upbringing (having been raised in a conservative Hong Kong by a Chinese family), which then came to define my own sense of self in a notoriously ephemeral industry. Everything on my rails is a testament to 20 years of a style journey, from Harajuku teen days to mishmashed eclectic thirties, via my nu rave and indie twee twenties.
A month or so into lockdown, my clothes had taken on an even bigger role in reflecting myself. That quote about being ‘all-dressed-up-with-nowhere-to-go’ suddenly took on concrete meaning. I may have been going nowhere, seeing no one, but the very act of putting on a super extra dress lifted my mood in lieu of the highs I’d get from socialising in the outside world full of stimulation.
The ritual of going into my tiny walk-in and pulling out a long-forgotten dress or putting together an outfit with complicated layers became an event to look forward to, and broke up the doldrums of the day.
Pre-lockdown, we’d turn to our wardrobes to help us in social and functional situations – getting a job, looking hot for a date, going to weddings, working out. They then became trusty friends, helping us through an uncertain period of sustained solitude. Putting on a party dress I once thought was too flashy to wear momentarily convinced me that there would be better times ahead.
Invariably, these were older pieces that I hadn’t worn in a long time that reminded me of a more carefree, time-rich era. And they mitigated the need to buy anything new. For one, to receive non-essential deliveries felt like an indulgence in itself and, really, when on average we wear only 50 per cent of what’s in our wardrobe, reassessing what we already have makes even more sense. Because of the cyclical nature of fashion, old Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquière pieces – that I used to find on eBay on the cheap – felt relevant and new again.
Then there are the clothes that remind me of the really good times. That early Alessandro Michele for Gucci dress that I wore when I was gently pregnant, didn’t know it yet, and was still knocking back gin and tonics. That vintage worn-to-death slip dress in which I jumped into a pool on holiday in Mykonos for an impromptu night swim. The many Molly Goddard dresses, stored squashed in an exploding box of tulle, worn so frequently and with such abandon that some of them have small tears or faint stains. Memories and moments live on in my clothes. So, I would put them on, even if only for a few hours in the evening or in the morning, and say to myself, ‘This too shall pass and good times will come again.’
Supposedly sales of pyjamas increased and I’ve seen more iterations of two-piece loungewear on Instagram than I ever thought possible. So much has been written about the virtues of comfort dressing, but comfort doesn’t just lie in elasticated waistbands, soft fabrics and loose silhouettes.
I don’t own tracksuit bottoms and I don’t wear workout clothes beyond running in the park. An embroidered Simone Rocha dress was my way to fight feelings of anxiety at 5pm every day when I’d turn on the TV to listen to the government reiterate: ‘Stay at home, save lives, protect the NHS.’
Fighting the futile hopelessness of non-flattening curve lines on multiple graphs with fashion might sound ridiculous to some, but if workout videos with Joe Wicks or baking banana bread have become coping mechanisms, why shouldn’t our wardrobes be one, too?
Rather than being restricted by fashion during lockdown, I’ve been emancipated by it. Living alone, the idea of dressing for yourself, with no societal dress codes or rules to adhere to, has become even more of a reality for me. Gone are the quickfire thoughts of: Will the slits on this Attico dress ride up too much while commuting on the Victoria Line? Is this Miu Miu jacket too weird to wear to an important meeting? or Will this old Jean Paul Gaultier tattoo top freak out the other parents at the nursery drop-off? (The answer is, yes it does.)
I’ve also felt liberated in other ways. I wore a Paco Rabanne chainmail dress without a lick of make-up. I wore mismatched off-white socks and old Birkenstocks with my Chopova Lowena billowing sleeved kilt/shirt dress. All the better to run out and collect contactless Amazon deliveries and Deliveroo orders.
Or, if I wore impractical shoes, like a pair of frilly pink Gucci mules, my feet were propped up on the couch, backlit by my TV screen with a Sex And The City marathon on the go. These ensembles that don’t see the light of the outside world regularly get revived by Day2 Dry Wash spray and Febreeze, to save from needless washing. Lockdown meant I got to wear my wardrobe on my own terms, not just as a form of social armour.
If ever we needed an affirmation of the power of fashion, the pandemic emphasised how the things that are physically closest to our bodies – our clothes – can dramatically change our mood. Dressing up is our way of holding onto the feeling of going to see someone (anyone) special and hugging and kissing them; eating something nice – or just venturing out because the open air is so inviting.
The shiniest, most colourful, voluminous and loudest things in my wardrobe helped me to combat the lows of lockdown, but everyone will have their own specific sartorial saviours. Teaching ourselves that what we wear can be a form of self-pleasure, or even self-help, will perhaps make us reassess our relationship with clothes.
We will once again buy new things. We will still dress to impress others. The conventions of dress codes will resume. But we will have seen the invisible forcefield around our clothes that only the wearer will recognise. Their ability to be emotive. To hold memories. To uplift us when there was no one else to turn to.
This article appears in the August 2020 edition of ELLE UK.
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