The Third Third

Dress for Success during a Pandemic

I was surprised when a friend asked me, during a recent phone conversation, “Are you wearing a bra these days?”  But I shouldn’t have been.  Three months into our safe-at-home pandemic routine, I, too, am spending a whole lot of time questioning my attire.  Questioning, for example, why I have so many clothes in my closet that it makes no sense to wear if I’m not leaving the house or seeing anyone, much less if I might soil them and need to send them to the dry cleaner.  Did I ever need them?  Will I feel the need to wear them again once this is all over?  What do they say about who I am, or who I think I am, or who I thought I was?  Is my closet a costume wardrobe for an actor who’s left the stage?  Okay, this is falling into the over-thinking category.  

It’s just that I have to confront these unworn clothes every day.  Which is why, most Covid-demic mornings, I refuse to get out of bed until I’ve made up my mind about what I’m going to wear that day.  Is this a housecleaning day?  A morning to exercise? A day to write?  Will I be cooking up a storm? Who, I am asking, am I going to be on this discrete day, even as it is like every other day before it and, presumably, like all those that will follow for at least a while.  How am I going to “dress for success” when the bar is so low?  After all, it will be a success if I get through the day without weeping or cursing (too much), or sniping at a loved one or feeling all judgmental toward friends and family who read the rules for those of us over 65 differently.  It will be a success if I have all the ingredients for our meals, if I have a meal planned, if we don’t run out of soap or wine.  It will be a success if I can Zoom into the online bridge game with my friends, a huge success if my partner and I win.  It will be a success if I don’t let the dog hair and the dust bunnies accumulate (some days), or get to me (others).

But it will also be a success, a more significant one, if, when I look into the mirror in whatever outfit I have donned that day, I can make peace with what I see, with who I am on any given day, make that with who I am, period.  No matter what I’m wearing.

At my age, really, who's paying attention to what I wear?

Unfortunately, this is not a new challenge or even a new paradigm for me.  Given the time I have had to think about it while sheltering-in-place, I have dredged up some memories of my mother’s admonishments to behave as well as I looked if I was headed to a party or a friend’s house, and also her commitment to getting my 85 year-old grandmother up and “dressed for the day,” no matter how much she was failing, no matter that she would not be leaving the house ever again.  It was my mother, too, who bathed and dressed up late every afternoon to be “ready,” she said, for cocktails with my father at 5.  I have always loved to shop for clothes, and I usually knew how to dress my part in different environments — small town Ohio, at a woman’s college, in Brooklyn, suburban New Jersey, Dallas, the mountains of Idaho; at church, work, a dinner party, a wedding, at the kids’ school.   But that’s the thing - I was dressing my part, I think, more than I was dressing my self.  Which, even though I sort of delighted in it, is lame, if not sad.  I am even reminded that before I went back to work in the 90’s, while I was still just thinking about it, I went to Saks and tried on business attire to see if I could look the part after years as "just a mom." Dare I say it?  I looked good, and empowered; I got the job.

More recently it has bothered me that I still sometimes feel the need to dress to prove something, mostly to prove I am not, quite literally, a social or sartorial misfit in any given situation.  But prove it to whom?  At my age, really, who’s paying any attention to what I wear? Instead of different outfits for here or there or another place or situation, why don’t I just have clothes I like to wear, clothes that fit me and the life I’m living (not someone else’s carefully curated lifestyle), clothes that reflect — rather than project — who I am, clothes whose only message is that I am comfortable in my own skin and don't need fashion armor?  The pandemic has clothed our world in mourning — for lives and livelihoods lost and for a society riven by racism.  Fashion is, and always has been, frivolous, fanciful, a fantasy. So thinking about what-to-wear-today is, yes, an escape.  But it’s also an opportunity to clean out the closet of my psyche and, well, yes, dress for success, bra or no bra.

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