A comprehensive inventory of all the clothes I have purchased since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in February:
1. Dickies hooded brown canvas jacket, heavily used, at L-Train vintage, Gowanus, Brooklyn. $20.
That’s the lot. And I only made that purchase because my daughter, 11 and a zealous convert to thrift stores, was having so much fun buying old pairs of jeans and vinyl handbags that I got jealous.
There are obvious explanations for the parsimony. I’ve got too much of everything I like already. A man with four pairs of wingtips, in subtly different shades of brown, should probably find a new way to express himself. And who is getting dressed up in lockdown? Clothes are for being seen in and no one is looking at me, except my family, who have proven difficult to impress.
But the pandemic has not suppressed my appetite for other forms of pointless or at any rate mindlessly indulgent consumption. Desperate to get out into the outside world, I take any excuse to mask up and go into hardware stores, wine shops, and gourmet emporiums.
I’ve bought power tools, curtains, Christmas crap, canned delicacies and used books in weird quantities. But, when it comes to clothes, I have not sprung for so much as a cosy pair of cashmere socks.
Strangely, my abstract interest in clothes has not diminished. One of the lockdown purchases I’ve got the most pleasure out of is Scott Schuman’s fine coffee table book The Sartorialist: Man, a collection of photos of beautifully dressed men, snapped on streets all over the world, paired with smart observations by the author. The book captures the expressive power of small differences, and I find myself going back to the same pages again and again.
Similarly, I love gawping at Instagram, admiring Sartoria Dalcuore jackets ( Bode patchwork shirts ( Fox Brothers tweeds ( or whatever else. It all still provides a kick, even a little acquisitive spark.
But when it comes time to click “buy”, or even to visit my favourite clothing shops, I can never quite make the final push. And this despite my favourite enticement: price. There has been more or less continuous discounting, even among the best brands, since this summer. This will end with the pandemic, so it would be rational to buy now. Yet I can’t manage it.
This genuinely surprises me. Coming into the crisis, I thought wearing certain clothes would help carry me through. Instead I’ve come to care less and less.
I’m not sure why this is, or how many other clothes-lovers feel the same way. But I have a tentative theory of what is going on: vanity takes practice. It’s an impulse that loses its force when deprived of stimulus. When we spend less time looking and being looked at, the urge to present ourselves in the best light fades away. In this, it is unlike lust or gluttony, which only gain a sharper edge when not indulged.
This makes vanity something akin to an addiction. If that’s right, we have all been forced to go more or less cold turkey, for almost a year. And so the next question is: to what degree is the habit broken for good? The fashion industry had better hope the effect is temporary, and we will fall back into our old patterns, and start buying again. But when people quit smoking, many of them stay quit.
From one point of view, this would be the best news to come out of Covid. Fashion is a famously wasteful industry. The planet would thank us for taking less care of how we look. The economy would suffer, but ultimately we would just spend more on something else (this may already be happening — observe the way Americans have dumped cash into home renovation in recent months). And surely a world less focused on appearance would be freer, simpler, and more egalitarian.
But vanity, like greed, has positive side effects, too. It keeps us in line. Dressing right and acting right are psychologically linked; this is one reason uniforms exist. The desire to look sharp nudges us towards good manners, exercise, cleanliness, and assorted other small virtues that keep us from falling to pieces at moments of stress. Without our vanity, we might be lazier, ruder, more careless. We all know the dangers of caring too much about appearances. In the wake of Covid, we may learn about the dangers of caring too little.
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