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All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go: Clothing in the Time of Covid-19

I’ve recently taken up learning Italian. Although, to say I’ve taken up a language seems a little frivolous, as if I could put it down again like another lockdown whim. The word recently, too, is somewhat deceiving.

In actuality, I have been learning Italian for more than a year, but the slow process of rewiring your brain for a whole new process of understanding has an uncanny way of making you feel like a permanent beginner. What I have – so far – is a good grasp of the basics.

I can translate simple children’s stories and it’s a thrill each and every time I do so at an almost simultaneous pace. I know that, contrary to popular British belief, panini is in fact the plural of panino, and we’ve been saying our order wrong our entire lives.

And I also know, and you may already know this too, that there exists in the Italian mindset something called la passeggiata.

La passeggiata is a very nice, very Italian way of taking a walk. Actually, it’s less of a walk, and more of a stroll. Or rather, it’s less of a stroll, and more a type of movement, very slow and warm, and sort of…slinky? You put on your best clothes and wander through the centro, or along the lungomare (literal translation: long sea). It is not an activity undertaken in private. You look, and be looked at.

Business casual to just plain casual

Looking, and being looked at, is hard to come by when the world begins to shut down and we retreat to our homes to protect ourselves and those around us, as many of us across the globe did earlier this year.

For those most vulnerable, this is still the case. If we were brave enough to venture into the land of Zoom and Microsoft Teams, we did so half-heartedly, disregarding any part of our outfit not immediately visible. Sales of sweatpants sky rocketed.

We embraced our inner sloth with open arms. And this is nice, but only for so long. Soon enough, we were inundated with articles extolling the benefits of actually getting dressed for work. Shocking, I know.

There’s a psychological basis to this: stimulus control is where certain types of cues affect your behaviour. For some, recreating those cues associated with being a productive human being – getting out of your pyjamas, doing your hair (or at least brushing it) – can be the thing we need to get back into a healthy mindset.

Think of it as a kind of mind hygiene. It literally releases neurotransmitters in our brains like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. It gives us some control, some power in a world where we frequently feel powerless. Dressing up really can work wonders. We started to wear our Sunday best to sit down for tea in front of the TV. We became the epitome of all dressed up and nowhere to go.

Reacquainting yourself with clothes

I went into isolation with my parents who live on the coast. My daily routine became this: every evening as the sun came down and the sand emptied out I would walk a stretch of the beach, up and down. At first, I told myself it was a way of keeping some resemblance of exercise (I went into lockdown shockingly underpacked, my running gear far, far away) but it quickly became something else, something a little bit more.

As the weeks went by and the temperature began to rise, I swapped out my leggings and jeans for dresses. When I got the all clear to collect my belongings from the house I shared with my friends from university, I wore even more dresses. Midi skirts.

Delicate blouses and camisoles. We all have our nice clothing, the stuff we take care to immediately remove when we return home, lest we sit in them all day, and these were mine. Tucked away for the winter months, out they came once more with even more of a thrill than usual, like unpacking a box of jewels.

Others did the same, and in the balmy evenings there would be couples arm in arm, making their own way along the promenade or, rather, lungomare. We would pass each other at a safe distance, and smile, and go on our way. It became a way to feel a connection with others in a time of separation, to feel a semblance of closeness while remaining apart, if only for a glance.

The world has become strange and wariness of others easy, but getting out of both your pyjamas and your house and simply walking somewhere can mean the difference between being lonely and not-so-lonely.

Opening the box of jewels

Resisting the voice in your head that says actually, I think wearing sweatpants everyday for the rest of my life sounds very nice, thank you, is not something restricted to pandemics. It can happen during the Sunday scaries, or on any day of the week when you wake up and realise it’s going to be one of those days.

But even though it can seem surface-level, what you decide to wear can be the thing that changes the direction of your day, if only by an inch. Remember that.

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