The day I realised my lockdown wardrobe was becoming a problem began exactly like any other day. Which was precisely the problem. I had just started work when I looked down at what I was wearing – chunky navy sweater, faded jeans, the leather ballet shoes I wear as slippers – and realised that I had been wearing pretty much exactly the same thing, every day, for as long as I could remember. Somewhere in the dark days of lockdown No 3, my go-to sweater had crossed a line from favourite to being a kind of cable knit therapy pet. With nowhere to go, I had stopped thinking about what to wear. Had I forgotten how to get dressed?
Have you? When did you last get dressed? I don’t mean put clothes on – I mean properly get dressed. Now we are not seeing anyone, or even leaving the house much, clothes have been absorbed into our domestic routine. They have become household objects, like saucepans or cushions or doormats, rather than fashion objects. Wake up, put the kettle on, change out of pyjamas, open the curtains. Shoes on, take the recycling out, kettle on again. If you feel fancy, some earrings on before you switch the laptop camera on. Repeat to fade. We are still wearing clothes – indeed we can look perfectly presentable, when we need to. On a Saturday, if we are going for a walk and to splash out on a flat white at the new posh place that has the queue, we might even push the boat out and wear, say, a jazzy scarf.
But getting dressed is a whole different ballgame from just wearing clothes. It’s when you plan an outfit; when you think about the optics first, and just make the practicalities work. It is being convinced that the shirt you can’t find is the only shirt that works today and rummaging through your cupboards until you find it, rather than shrugging and sticking something else on. It is getting the iron out because there is something specific you want to wear, not because the ironing pile is about to topple over. It is standing in front of a full-length mirror and changing your mind about your shoes. Is this ringing any bells? It was called normal life.
Imagine when it’s your friend’s birthday, and you can eat cake in their kitchen rather than on the doorstep. Thrilling! You are definitely going to want to dress up for that. First day back in the office – that is going to be a big day. A trip to relatives out of town will involve a lot of photos, so your outfit will be recorded for posterity whether you like it or not. I’m excited for all of this, and I’m dying to have stuff in the diary to dress up for. I went through a stage last year when I doubted I would ever go back to high heels, but now, you know what? I’ve been on so many sodding walks that once this is over I intend to wear 4in stilettos and take taxis absolutely everywhere. All of which is a way of saying that personally, I am very much in the bring-back-the-roaring-20s camp. But even so, I’m anxious. Life after lockdown sounds fabulous. But it also sounds kind of … tiring? And complicated. What do people wear to restaurants? Are zebra stripes too much on a school night? Wait, if you stay out late does it get really cold? Was there a rule about white shoes? I’m concerned I’ll exhaust myself with a two-hour wardrobe crisis and end up staying home in my sweatpants.
But this is not really about clothes. It is about relearning how to operate in polite society after a period in which we have gone a bit feral. Feeling self-conscious about putting on a party dress and worrying that you have forgotten how to make small talk are expressions of the same core anxiety. There is no getting away from the fact that re-engagement with the world is going to require energy. The return of the commute means setting your alarm earlier. Real-life social interactions won’t allow the option of checking out when you’ve had enough, then blaming it on wifi or your laptop battery. Getting dressed for a social occasion takes more effort – that’s why it’s called making an effort. But it’s worth it because it’s fun, and that’s the part we have lost sight of. For a year, our clothes have reflected our derailed and diminished lives. We have hated the clothes we wear because we don’t like what they stand for. Puffer jackets are what you reach for when you are scared, and you want to look bigger and braver than you are. A puffer jacket looks like a thought bubble of anxiety wrapped around a human being. I’m pretty sure that once the carrot of fun gets dangled in front of us again, we’ll shake off the coats along with the anxiety.
Anyway – back to me. That day, feeling trapped in my emotional support knitwear, I figured out where I was going wrong. I was wearing the clothes that chimed with my schedule (dull) and my mood (ditto) when what I should have been doing was using fashion as a lever to make my day better. Pull myself up by my kitten-heeled ankle bootstraps. Dressing down after a lifetime of dressing up may be logical, but it was making me feel as if I was losing my identity. So I started planning outfits again: nothing fancy, just layering shirts with proper collars and cuffs under sweaters. Wearing my posh cream trousers for work even though no one could see them. And it worked, as I knew it would, because clothes are a powerful mood-altering substance. This is why getting ready for a night out can be the best part of the night because you are in a whole new frame of mind before you have even left the house.
In lockdown, getting properly dressed helps ring the changes between groundhog days. On Sundays, we roast chicken; on Wednesdays, we wear pink. And once we get to the next stage, clothes can be a stepping stone to help us slowly transition from sofa to social life. I think the sensory overload of face-to-face socialising will be such that in the early stages we can wow each other simply by wearing, say, trousers without a drawstring waist. So if you have got used to only needing to be presentable in front of a laptop, zoom out and start thinking in top-to-toe outfits. Keep it practical: with alfresco dining opening first, the new normal is going to be breezy, so you are going to need sleeves, layers or both. There’s a big world out there. It gets a bit hectic, but it’s fun. And once we get back out there, I reckon we’ll know exactly what we want to wear.
Expert tips from the Guardian and the Observer’s styling teams
Wearing ‘hard trousers’
Graduating into ‘hard trousers’ after months of joggers and leggings may prove tough going, so avoid high waistbands and tapered legs, and ease yourself in with a relaxed, wide-leg pair. I recently bought some navy ones from Jigsaw and experienced a forgotten joy at the lift around my bum and thighs, a feeling that you only get with a fabric that’s definitely not jersey. Tuck a jumper in and revel in your grownup clothes while being quite “sofa ready”.
How to wear shoes
Obviously we know how to wear shoes, but we haven’t worn proper ones for months. The segue shoe for comfort and aesthetic appeal is basically an outdoors slipper – the ballet pump. Remember them? Big in the 00s, Kate Moss, Amy Winehouse and Alexa Chung were never without a pair. They’re back and on Angelina Jolie’s feet on the cover of Vogue to prove it. If you’ve kept yours, now is the time to dig them out or even track down the holy grail of ballerina flats – Chanel’s two-tone version, on Vestiaire or eBay. When it comes to versatility, the ballet pump works extra hard; wear them with jeans, high-waisted trousers and summer dresses. Ideal for all those sunny picnics, shopping trips and pub garden dates we have planned.
After finding comfort in wearing matching loungewear at home, it might seem hard to enter the world of colour again. An easy way to start is to try what fashion stylists call “tonal dressing”. Rather than experimenting with several shades of the rainbow, keep the colours within a small spectrum. Start with the item you most want to wear, and build an outfit around it in similar colours as well as pops of white to lift the outfit. The key is to keep it light, and steer clear of black and navy. If you want to test the waters, start with neutrals and muted hues and build your way up to brighter colours. It’s a great way to reclaim the joy of dressing up with minimal effort.
If you, like me, have spent the past year living in the same jeans, jumpers and trainers, with an oversized duvet coat for a walk in the park, this is one easy way to smarten up. I used to live in midi floral dresses, which can be styled so many ways, whether layering over a roll neck, under an argyle tank top, loose with trainers or belted, blouson style, at the waist to shorten the length, with a tan knee-high boot. For an embellished detail, add a statement necklace – worn like a bib around the neckline for the evening, finished with a blazer. Or you could pull out and highlight the floral with a colourful pair of tights (Sarah Jessica Parker style), or embrace Prada’s runway look with a sock and kitten heel. The perfect piece for a return to life’s variety.