From donning school uniform to raiding the fancy-dress box, readers share how they are dressing while they are forced to work in the house
Two weeks ago, Bonita Waldman put on a gold lamé dress that had been crocheted by her 94-year-old mother 40 years ago. “It made me feel close to her,” she says. Her mother was very ill in a care home at the time. Waldman couldn’t visit her, or see anyone else, because of the lockdown. So she worked from home wearing extraordinary outfits and posting the results on Facebook to “cheer up” her friends.
She sent a photograph of herself wearing the dress to the care home where the staff printed it out to show her mother. Tragically, her mother died before she could see it. “It’s a sad story,” says Waldman, “but it is also a happy one in a way, because I have these dresses that she made.” Waldman says she will wear more of her mother’s exquisite creations during lockdown, including the wedding dress her mother crocheted for her, as well as “funny outfits” – such as a flamenco dress – to raise friends’ and colleagues’ spirits, as well as her own.
We asked our readers what they were wearing in lockdown. Some of the stories, such as Waldmans’, were more poignant than we could ever have anticipated. Some readers said they were simply relieved to be spending more time in elasticated waistbands. Many readers were using clothing as a means of comfort, distraction and fun.
“I always choose clothes that lift my mood,” says London-based sewing teacher and fashion designer Karen Arthur (pictured in main image). “Making an effort helps me to feel a little better.” She made her outfit out of a pair of curtains her friend Ian found in his dad’s attic. Although Arthur’s business has ground to a halt, she is making face masks instead. “I brought my sewing machine and some fabrics home with me just before lockdown was announced, thank goodness,” she says
Many of us might feel a bit Miss Havisham all dressed up home alone, but Arthur is far from alone in dressing brightly at this dark time. “My friends and I have made a pact to wear beautiful long party gowns to the supermarket the next time we shop in Sainsbury’s,” says Rachel Bailey-Hogg, who is a lecturer. “It’s all a giggle and hopefully makes others smile too.”
Hen, an events assistant from Bristol (pictured in main image), is another believer. “I’ve been pretty much forcing myself to wear as much bright colour as possible,” she says, “to trick myself into brightening my mood and not feeling quite so scared. It’s been a partial success. I’d describe myself as a fairly bold dresser anyway – I’m known at work for wearing big novelty earrings – so I’m trying to lean into that and make WFH as much fun for myself as I can.”
Another vivid dresser, Lizzie, wears a cardigan which recalls the children’s rainbow drawings that adorn windows across the UK. This, she says of her outfit, “is peak work-from-home chic. The skeleton leggings cost a fiver and the bones glow in the dark.”
Some readers are using clothing to recreate the rhythms of a normal week. “Getting dressed in the morning motivates us to get up and start the day – as does coffee. It is a small daily ritual that gives us something to look forward to,” say 28-year-old art student twins Becky and Alex Chipkin.
Antonia, 38, has instigated “fancy Fridays” for video calls with her colleagues. “It makes Friday morning feel like the evening preparations before going out,” she says. Online, attempts to make Fridays feel special through clothing proliferate, with hashags including #DressUpFriday and #FormalFridays often trending on social media.
The popular style blog Man Repeller has struck a nerve with the hashtag #goingnowherebutfuckitimgettingdressed, with almost 7,000 people posting photographs of isolation outfits on Instagram.
“For many people, dressing is a survival mechanism and at the end of the day, from the most trivial to crucial corners of the human experience, that’s all any of us are trying to do,” says Leandra Medine, founder of Man Repeller. Her own strategies include a dress code for “date nights” with her husband, in which both parties are “required to get dressed, even put on shoes, to meet in the living room”.
That makes sense to psychologist Dr Carolyn Mair. “Not knowing when this lockdown will end really is stressful for us – we feel a lack of control,” she says. “Getting dressed is a form of taking control and structuring our day and reassuring ourselves that we have not lost our value. Routine is hugely important.”
Some are dabbling with fancy dress in lockdown. Online, photographs of digital project managers wearing jester hats or archaeologists dressed as Power Rangers in Zoom meetings proliferate. Jo Parry, from Cardiff, has pledged to wear a different costume every day, ranging from Cruella de Vil to Gollum. Ella, a 34-year-old climate change scientist, has been raiding her festival fancy-dress box since lockdown began. “I didn’t want to fall into the trap of spending all day mooching around in pyjamas, so I decided to wear something every day that I couldn’t wear to work,” she says. “It has raised more than a few smiles when I’ve been out for my daily dose of fresh air.”
Just as many seasoned home-workers extol the mind-focusing values of wearing shoes indoors, some head teachers have advised children to wear school uniform for home schooling, in order to make the “mental switch” required for learning. One reader, Siân, a single parent and film and TV lecturer from Carlisle, has taken this further for morale-boosting purposes. “Having to work from home while also overseeing my daughter’s education and daily activities has been tough,” she says, “so I decided to make it a bit more fun by dressing in our ‘business pyjamas’.”
Personal sartorial challenges abound. Some are crafty and intimate: Gina Bennett and Ron Evans have transformed one of Evans’s old T-shirts into a top for Bennett and are now wearing matching outfits for – they insist – the first time ever.
Alex Pratchett, from Oxford, a “kit geek” who draws footballers for a living, is alleviating football withdrawal symptoms by wearing “a different football shirt every day until the lockdown ends. If I run out of shirts before it’s over, the virus wins. If nothing else, it will help mark the passage of time, as I was previously struggling to remember which day of the week it was,” he says.
Online, creative types whose working lives have stopped abruptly have been using their wardrobes as performance art. Andrew Downs, of the set designers James English Productions, for example, has been wearing vintage clothing to stage baroque, Acorn Antiques-like tableaux for Instagram with his mother and husband. Dressing up, he says, brings “structure. Otherwise you are changing from your day pyjamas into night pyjamas.”
But for every person extolling the mood-lifting benefits of dressing as they would have done four weeks ago, there is another revelling in the opportunity to shed their skin.
Matt Hepworth, from Bristol, speaks for many in gravitating towards one well-worn item of clothing, in his case a “comfy old raving hoody” because, he says, it “makes me feel young, is warm and I wouldn’t dare ever wear it to work”
Colin, a library assistant in Scotland, is “usually fairly respectfully dressed” at work in a uniform of lilac shirt and smart trousers. The upside of working from home, he says, is getting to wear his favourite band T-shirts. “I wonder if many of the library users would know how much I am into heavy metal, doom metal, heavy rock, grunge and other noisy music genres,” he says.
Teacher Emma Leslie is working her way through her wardrobe of casual clothes, which she would never be able to wear at school due to a strict dress code. “It’s not always the most practical thing to be doing but it does help to take my mind off the situation,” she says.
Dressing without an audience has proved liberating for many. “My current job is the first place I’ve ever worked where I am out as both queer and non-binary,” says H, a 27-year-old computer programmer. “Working from home has been an interesting experiment as I tend to see connections between my gender and my clothing choices quite a lot. It’s been nice to experiment more with my femininity from the comfort of my own home without the pressures of how I might be perceived by the outside world.” This dress, they say, is a favourite: “It’s super-light and floaty, which puts me in a good positive headspace.”
One anonymous 24-year-old says: “I am female, blond, rather petite and have an accent when speaking in English. I was convinced that my appearance decreased my credibility in a rather male-dominated, imposing and English-native environment.” In the office, she says, she was a “power dresser” and saw blazers and heels as a way to appear more “confident and convincing”. After a few days of working from home, “I got more and more comfortable in my casual clothes. I am now receiving calls without video,” which she feels has “balanced out the power dynamics”.
Jogging bottoms have never seen so much action. In these unanchored times, even US Vogue editor Anna Wintour has been photographed wearing them. Jyoti, who lives in London, says: “I’m always having to think about that top half people would see on teleconferences but, unless I have to stand up, no one knows what lies under that top half. It’s going to feel weird to go back to smart trousers.”
But do clothes really help lift our spirits? Carolyn Mair, believes so, citing a 2012 study in which participants’ ability to pay attention sharply increased when they wore a white coat they believed had belonged to a doctor. What the study suggests, she says, is that it is our own beliefs about our clothes – the stories we attach to them, for example – that can make a difference to our behaviour. “It’s the power of the belief of the wearer,” she says. In other words, one person’s immaculate printed dress is another’s decades-old raving hoodie. And if it works for you, wear it.