During my freelancer days a few years ago, I started rewatching “Sex and the City.”
We all know the show’s fashion is legendary, but one of the smaller and more timely joys I found the second time around was observing Carrie Bradshaw’s at-home outfits while she was writing her columns.
From tube tops and full coverage undies to fuzzy sweaters, arm bands and headscarves — and sometimes just a basic camisole — it was a whole different dress code, with a more private sense of risk taking that still revolved around the idea of comfort and security.
We are nowhere near Carrie’s sense of whimsy when it comes to fashion — or life — right now. But as the new coronavirus pandemic whips its way across the world, many (this writer included) are feeling some existential whiplash, especially as our separation of work and home unravels. That’s where fashion inevitably comes back into play.
For the people who are able to work from home during the pandemic, there is an immediate sense of comfort in the ability to fully hunker down and individually contribute to the global effort at leveling the curve of the pandemic. That should not be taken for granted. But there are also some logistical issues, like keeping in touch with coworkers, engaging in virtual meetings and trying to maintain a sense of order in the day while staying healthy.
What to wear is certainly not the most pressing thing on our collective minds right now. And yet, it’s a question we ask ourselves each morning when we wake up, even when we’re not leaving our homes.
I was first asked to self-quarantine upon returning from Milan and Paris Fashion Weeks in early March, isolating myself in my Brooklyn apartment as the outbreak was sounding its alarm in Italy but still of little public concern in the U.S.
As I worked from home there, I was immediately transported back to my days as a freelancer a few years ago. At that time, I was a work-from-home newbie, after spending more than eight years in offices (and much of that in just one office). And my fashion choices underwent what I’ve come to understand as a natural evolution of work-from-home personal style.
I spent the first week reveling in how deliciously wrong it felt to spend all day in my pajamas, only changing to put on workout clothes and showering after I had returned from a class or a run outside in the late afternoon. The next week I graduated from pajamas-all-day to work sweatpants. Even though I worked in fashion, I marveled at all the time I had wasted over the past decade getting ready for work, putting on makeup, lamenting outfit choices.
But by week two, I started to feel like both a hot mess and a neglected pet. I was answering a full hour of emails before brushing my teeth. Sometimes I didn’t brush my hair at all. My work hours stretched from 7:30 a.m. to past midnight. I knew that I would need to reinstate my morning getting-ready routine if I wanted to return to a sense of normalcy.
Working from home can generally be more productive for workers, as many studies have shown. But more specific studies on the topic have shown that what someone wears while doing so can have a major impact. A 2012 study from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that professionals performed better on tasks when they wore pieces of clothing that carried a symbolic meaning. For example, doctors were more focused when wearing a lab coat. For me, it wasn’t a dress or a pair of heels that I needed, but just a cozy sweater and a pair of jeans that flipped the switch to work mode.
So I gave myself a few rules: 1. As soon as I wake up, I would shower, groom and get myself ready, as if I’m about to head for the subway and into the office. Later, that included feeding and walking my dog. 2. Every other day, washing my hair was an optional must. 3. Coffee and breakfast would be taken without a laptop in view. 4. A touch of makeup was needed, enough that I wouldn’t feel embarrassed if I had to do a FaceTime call. 5. My WFH uniform would consist of a pair of jeans and a real shirt or sweater. Shoes, socks and slippers were optional, but most days I ended up wearing a pair of flat slide sandals that I reserved as indoor-only footwear. Comfort still ruled at the end of the day, but it had to have a presentation factor.
I’ve brought these rules with me to our current situation, this time adding an earring to my outfits — which so far have not failed to garner comments in any given video meeting. That observation alone has reinforced my belief in fashion, that a glimpse of it can provide a bit of much-needed light in someone’s day and that seeing something beautiful can act as an emotional salve to a grim reality.
As we go through this chapter of long-term isolation and social distancing, we’re all bound to experience a roller coaster of emotions, and we’ll need a wardrobe to help comfort us in the down moments. I’m certain that there will be work days when I’ll need sweatpants. And if that’s the worst it gets, I will consider myself very lucky.