July 31, 2021

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Pandemic Dressing Takes a Dark Turn

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I don’t really remember when I pulled the black Everlane pants out of the drawer and onto my body. Was it spring, after the lockdown started and we were still doing videoconference happy hours for fun? Or the summer, when the rhythms of remote work seemed to settle in? Or the fall, when I began to see my co-workers do things like put on earrings for a meeting while I was still trying to keep the camera off for as long as possible?

Recalling the pants’ entrance into pandemic life is difficult because this particular pair of pants — priced at $98, made of an Italian wool trademarked as GoWeave — is supposed to transcend any one season. What this means is that it is not right for any season. They are too hot in summer, too flimsy in the winter, easily soaked by spring showers and … well, they are OK in the fall.

The fabric feels cheap, though. I hate the fabric. I hate the fit. They squeeze my thighs when I pull them up to my natural waist and flatten my butt when they fall to my hips. They are bulky without keeping me warm, and there is no shirt that can make the awkward length — too long to be “short pants,” too short to cover my ankles — work at all. And yet, beginning in September, I have been wearing them at least three times a week.

This is, as I have been telling anyone who will listen, a “hate-wear.” I am now hate-wearing clothing.

The Everlane pants aren’t the only item that I am hate-wearing. I have a lot of T-shirts that I dislike for a variety of reasons — dumb logos of tech companies, weird sizing, expensive fabric but bad color — and yet also wear. These, at least, are mostly comfortable.

The essence of a hate-wear is that it is not about thinking you look bad in something (which can also be objectively true). It’s pretty normal to have items of clothing that you love even if you don’t think you look particularly great in them. The inverse is also true. You can have a dress that you think makes you look good, even though you don’t actually like the item itself so much.

A hate-wear is when you put on the clothing even though — because? — it makes you feel bad. Neither stylish nor particularly comfortable, yet constantly in rotation.

This past year has been strange and terrible in so many different ways. Everyone has had a different pandemic, as the disease shattered our social compacts and laid bare the infrastructure of our lives. Not knowing how to dress is the least of anyone’s problems, even mine. But we still do (mostly) have to put on clothes. For those of us who now work at home, that has resulted in some weird choices.

For my friend Sonal Kaur, a 37-year-old designer in Brooklyn, this has meant avoiding the mirrors in her apartment. After I sent out a tweet about hate-wearing clothing, she sent me a photo of herself in a shirt, sweater, pants and socks to illustrate her own fits, with some commentary.

“Uncomfortable sweatpants? Too small and short,” she wrote in a text message. “Roadside T-shirt that makes me feel like Dumpster Dad and also a hand-me-down sweater from an actual dad with maybe some holes in it,” she added. . “Notice the hatred emanating from the sock.”

(The socks, to be fair, were halfway off her feet in a look that resonated deeply with me. I also walk around the house with the uncomfortable feeling of a sock that is about to fall off, and I just can’t be bothered to pull it up.)

The bad feelings about items of clothing can be tied to specific 2020 memories. Carly Chalmers, 32, a marketing manager in Toronto, wrote on Twitter that “the wool blend sweater I wore basically every day of spring lockdown suddenly became a symbol of stress and sadness.” She ended up donating it rather than facing her Covid sweater every day.

The locus of my personal clothing habits is a bit more difficult to pin down. When the pandemic started, I had just started going back into my office for a new job after having my second child.

The previous year had been chaotic, filled with hormones and changes and a layoff and the death of my mother-in-law, and I was desperate for this office job to reorient my sense of self. So desperate, in fact, that I volunteered to go back months earlier than my generous leave policy offered.

To get ready to be myself again, an adult professional, I bought a new leather bag. None of my non-maternity clothing fit, although I did try to jam my body into pants with buttons and old Spanx. The lockdown started about a week after I returned to work, making my bag seem so sad, a small buoy on an ocean pulling me back into my house.

When we got babysitters over the summer, I had a bit more mental space to think about how I appeared to others, and myself, but the picture was cloudy.

Of course I didn’t know what to wear; I didn’t know who I was. When I left the house — mostly to walk a few blocks and then turn around — I obsessively clocked people’s outfits for any hints of what I could be. (A lot of leggings and sneakers. Workout wear. Not helpful.) Hence, hate-wear. Like an old wannabe goth, I wear ill-fitting black pants on the outside because that is how I feel on the inside.

The closest I’ve seen this kind of behavior reflected in pop culture is the Frances McDormand character Jane in Nicole Holofcener’s 2006 movie, “Friends With Money.” I think about Jane all the time. She’s a successful clothing designer in Los Angeles with a strong marriage and kids she seems to like, but she has stopped washing her hair. When her friends confront her about it, she brushes them off. “I’m just tired,” she tells her husband.

To be fair, there are some other signs that she’s troubled — she has an epic fit at an Old Navy when someone cuts her in line — but I love how the movie doesn’t treat her like someone who is completely nonfunctional. Eventually you learn she is having a kind of midlife crisis.

“I feel like there’s no more wondering what it’s going to be like,” she says toward the end of the film. “What’s it going to be like. My fabulous life.”

Jane did not “let herself go” in the stereotypical (and sexist) harried-mother trope; her ever-more-disgusting hair more intentional. This is how Claire Howorth, the executive editor of Vanity Fair, sees the hate-wear phenomenon: “less letting yourself go, more forcing yourself to be gone.”

“We are all sitting at home, largely unseen and unfelt by one another, floating in this endless ether that is the wait for this pandemic to be over, and so our dressing,” Ms. Howorth, 39, wrote in an email, “can express a bizarre cry for help.”

Floating. Ether. Help. Now that it’s officially winter, I will say that I don’t wear my terrible pants as much as I used to. Another force has stepped into the void: consumer escapism. You can now buy sweatpants at a variety of prices and fabrics and colors, so I took my unresolved sense of self and just started searching online for sales.

Google, perhaps suspecting that we’d like to pretend to be someone else in a different place, added a variety of backgrounds to its video calls, so now I attend meetings from a candy-coated cloud.

But some hate-wear still manages to slip through. For some reason, there is always a bunch of orange knit Carhartt hats lying around the house. They are blindingly bright; they feel like a Brooklyn cliché; they press the top of my hair down while empowering the sides to rise up, Bozo the Clown style. And yet, more often than not, I will grab one off the dresser in the morning and put it on for the day.

At least, this hate-wear keeps my head warm.

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