Leftovers: Wardrobe changes of 2020

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There aren’t many aspects of life that have been left untouched by the pandemic. Even if only by a few degrees of separation, I’m hard-pressed to think of anything outside of breathing that’s the same.

But according to a friend in New York City, an occasional asthma sufferer, that’s different now, too. 

“It isn’t just the lighter traffic or less-crowded sidewalks,” she said. “The air is cleaner. You can see it in some parts of the city and I can tell because I’m not short of breath as much.”

She told me about a classic time she forgot her inhaler when hastily leaving her flat. This happened, she discovered, after climbing three flights of steep stairs to a job interview. 

“It was a second interview and there I was gulping for air,” she said, laughing. “I’m sure I looked like a fish on land, opening and closing my mouth. Understanding what was going on from the few words I managed to get out, the receptionist reached in her desk and grabbed her own Albuterol inhaler. Can you imagine that happening today?”

Actually, I can. 

I, too, have a coworker who gave me an inhaler. After watching me frantically search my bottomless tote, she reached into her pristine Dooney & Bourke handbag to make a gift of hers. Accustomed to my forgetting keys, cell phone, laptop charger, lunch, and how many scoops of coffee I’ve counted, she is, as my mother The Betty would say, “Well-put-together from head to toe.”

My coworker is the only person I know who continues to dress as she did before COVID-19 hit. I’m talking endless accessories, impeccable makeup, well-coordinated fabrics and colors, classic-but-still-trending shoes – the whole enchilada. 

Suspecting this gives her a sense of professional normalcy, she is laser-focused and immune to the squirrels running through my mind when we’re working together. Somehow tying this to her keeping Talbot’s in business, I’m intrigued by the shifting work-from-home challenge the fashion industry and retailers are facing. 

We’ve all seen the memes of Zoom meetings with grown men wearing silver cufflinks and Italian ties paired with off-screen plaid flannel pajama bottoms and flip-flops. In April, Vogue ran an article titled “5 Work From Home Outfits That are Comfortable and Chic.” That same month, InStyle featured “What 16 of Our Editors Are Wearing to Work From Home,” and just this month Andrew Seaman, editor at LinkedIn News, updated an article called “Are you ready for WFH dress codes?”

Falling deeper into the rabbit hole, a well-respected holistic health website published an article in March with the headline “Pants Are All but Obsolete – Here Are the Comfiest Undies to Wear Instead.”

Previous statistics and new data about productivity are being tossed around, and there’s no doubt that dressing for success and looking-the-part-to-be-the-part is a proven mindset. Fashion schools will be studying the 2020 workplace/home attire shift, just as they did after World War II, the 2008 recession, and other events outside of runway trends.

It isn’t just adults who are navigating what’s in their closets. Living near an elementary school, I’ve seen kids with backpacks who are dressed like every day is picture day. One first-grader I’ve come to know by name said since she doesn’t go to school full-time anymore, she wants to wear her “favorite, best stuff” when she does.

“My Opa said it’s putting my best foot forward,” she said, cracking up as if that were the funniest thing ever and pointing at her sparkly red Mary Janes.

“I’m done trying to tell my kids what to wear or what matches,” said her mom, standing 6 feet away from me at Lib’s last weekend of the season. ”Things are hard enough as it is.” 

My friend in New York goes into her office three mornings a week, mostly by choice. She talked about being both resentful and relieved that she’s motivated by necessity to stay well-groomed and dress as if this were a world not looking for a vaccine.

“Maybe I’m in denial, but I don’t like it when every day is Casual Friday,” she said. “It just isn’t, well, normal.” 

My best-dressed colleague, my pal in New York, and my young friend who wears her fuchsia ballet tutu upon every occasion are all dressing-to-make-sense of things for themselves. 

Following their lead, I’m going to step it up and mix in what I love with what inspires me to do good work, and hopefully get into good trouble. A Springsteen T-shirt, casual black pants, a snappy jacket, and low black Converse Chucks seem like the winning wardrobe ticket for me. And, of course, my inhaler. 

We all need to be able to breathe.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at natalie@portlandphoenix.me.