All dressed up and nowhere to go

Ruth La Ferla, The New York Times

Posted at Aug 11 2020 10:37 PM

Last summer Nicole Gordon posted an Instagram snap of herself framed in a doorway at home. In a slinky sleeveless dress, vivid makeup and towering heels, Gordon, a writer and art adviser, was the picture of cocktail-hour glamour.

Just weeks ago she posted a nearly identical image: her lips tinted scarlet, hair swept back from her face. That dress, as she noted, still fit, though she’d filled out in the interim. Her caption, a cross between boast and lament, read: “What a difference a year makes.”

Gordon, 51, was alluding of course to the pain and sense of powerlessness that the pandemic has sown. “It has stripped me of everything that I knew of myself,” she said last week — not least the semimonthly lash extensions and Botox treatments that were among her cherished maintenance rituals.

She had rigorously prepped for her most recent post, tugging on two pair of Spanx, rimming her eyes in dark liner, and coating her feet in Lidocaine to help her squeeze into the stilettos she had not worn since March.

“I told myself,” Gordon said, “that I was doing all this just so I could feel like my old self again.”

That sentiment has swelled among like-minded artists, fashion influencers and style-minded civilians, for whom pre-coronavirus life was a runway and personal style a performance. Robbed of a stage, some are at sea.

“How do we continue to express ourselves through the joy of dressing with no place to go?” Ari Seth Cohen, asked plaintively. During lockdown, Cohen, 38, the creator of Advanced Style, a popular street blog, two books, and a film celebrating the sartorial quirks of the senior set, was hard-pressed to find subjects. Instead he posted pictures of himself turned out in gaudy turbans and leopard-print caftans.

At a time of widespread suffering and social unrest, that gesture may seem brazen. “Even among high-level fashion people, posting outfits is apt to be viewed as kind of tone-deaf,” said Lyn Slater, a professor at the graduate School of Social Service at Fordham University.

Slater, 66, who moonlights as a model and blogger, persisted nonetheless, coolly vamping on @accidentalicon, her Instagram account, in a wardrobe of slogan T-shirts and rainbow-hued kimonos, her trademark silver bob grown out during quarantine to shoulder length.

Social feeds have lately teemed with similarly colorful, often wickedly over-the-top fashion portraits and selfies. They proliferate these days on strikingly varied individual accounts and with hashtags like #quarantinelookoftheday and #quarantinefashiochallenge, reinforcing a sense of joy and connection, serving as a platform for self-promotion (and more rarely, social activism), and restoring, for many, a sense of self as fragile and faded as an old postcard.

“We’re all cobbling behaviors together to get through the days,” said Leandra Medine, 31, the founder of Man Repeller, a popular blog. Medine announced in June that she would “step back” from the company after being called out for a lack of diversity on the site. But on @leandramcohen, her personal Instagram feed, she shows off a playful cacophony of wildflower, stripe and kaleidoscopic tie-dye motifs.

Her posts are a reflexive response to the dreariness of lockdown, she said, “when there is no one to evaluate who you’re telling the world you believe yourself to be.”

To some social media die-hards, posting in that kind of vacuum is life-affirming. “It’s a joy to be your own muse,” Cohen said, illustrating that notion in posts that show him garbed in a manner that is partly inspired by his grandmother.

“I’m wearing all her old jewelry,” he said. “During quarantine that makes me feel connected to her again.” He also draws for inspiration from a well that includes Marc Jacobs, who has created a minor internet sensation posting quasi-comic makeup tutorials and high-glam images that show him wreathed in pearls, and balancing on king platform boots.

No question, Cohen said, such flamboyant get-ups can bring comfort now and then, and express the hint of optimism that is a tonic during somber times.

The impulse to fan out one’s feathers can be deeply ingrained. As Eleanor Lambert, the venerable American fashion publicist, once observed: “You cannot separate people, their yearning, their dreams and their inborn vanity from an interest in clothes.”

Sharing that itch on social media “is no different from any other effort to be seen,” Medine said. “What any one of us is doing is trying to prove that we are worthy, lovable and socially acceptable.”

If only to ourselves. Online, as in life, “We’re dressing for the audience in our head,” said Merle Ginsberg, 67, a fashion writer and former judge on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Ginsberg recently posted a photograph of her favorite John Fluevog floral-patterned Mary Jane pumps. “I used to get excited for fall around mid-July,” she said in a caption. “Now what? Nowhere to wear these puppies.”

Still, the aesthetic impulse never goes,” she said in a phone conversation from rural Michigan, where she has been sheltering. She recently unearthed a pair of powder blue Dr. Scholl’s sandals at a local thrift store. “They cost $2,” said Ginsberg, who was thinking about showing them off in a post. “But I feel like I’m wearing Louboutins.”

Shawna Ferguson, 37, a stylist and art director, has sprinkled her account @Ferguson_darling, with a series of sassy self-portraits. She was turned out in a recent post in a peach-colored off-the-shoulder dress, a bit fancy, she acknowledged, for a day spent at home.

“This may or may not be a bridesmaid’s gown,” her caption read. Inappropriate, for sure. But so what. “I do what I want,” she wrote, adding with a dash of gallows humor, “Dressing for the end of the world.”

Bella McFadden, 24, aka @Internetgirl, publishes selfies primarily as a way of keeping her brand afloat (Her thrift store finds are in high demand on Depop, a popular e-commerce app.) But posting during quarantine boosts her confidence as well, she said, and lends form to her vision, a fusion of late-1990s mall rat and Y2K Goth. Posing feline-style in a black sweatshirt and tiny kilt, she asks in a caption, “Anyone else playing dress up for a slice of excitement?”

McFadden occasionally splices her feed with enjoinders. “Pause,” she urged fans last week. “All lives won’t matter until Black lives matter.” Her account, like those of some contemporaries, doubles as a platform for activism.

On his Instagram account, @youngblackarchitect, D’ Smith Alexander, an architect and musician, captioned a portrait of himself dapperly turned out in a bright blue suit and patent leather loafers. “I am a Black man,” Alexander, 33, wrote, his post a call for unity. “I build. I don’t tear down other Black Men!”

Jason Rice, 44, has taken his activism in another, equally pointed direction. “For me posting is an act of rebellion,” said Rice, a partner in Changez Hair Salon in Royal Oak, Michigan: one way, he explained of ridding himself of the stigma of wearing women’s clothes.

“I grew up a queer kid,” said Rice, who appears online variously garbed in ultrawide paisley neckwear, layered jeweled chokers and, in one instance, a filmy blush-tone off-the-shoulder dress. “For me posting is a way of stating, ‘I refuse to let this moment take me down,” he said.

Slater, of @accidentalicon, posts, she said, in part as a retort to ageism. “Many older women have felt vulnerable this crisis,” she said, adding that implicit in the ubiquitous messaging about at-risk populations is the notion that older people should remove themselves from society.

She is not having it. “For me posting is much more about expressing who I am,” she said, “regardless of my age or what others think or have to say about it.”

Paula Sutton, a lifestyle blogger in Norfolk, England, has taken up the gauntlet. On @hillhousevintage, her Instagram account, she fans out her skirts or cavorts on her lawn in a series of colorful garden-worthy frocks, her poses expressions of unfettered joy.

“I am fifty years of age and I see no shame in enjoying pretty dresses and attempting to live life as beautifully ad positively as I can,” Sutton declares in one of her extended captions.

In the text accompanying an image that shows her in a gingham dress with extravagantly puffy sleeves, she urges fans to follow her lead. “Show your face, show your homes, show your gardens,” she writes, “and celebrate your version of beauty.

“Pose like Dovima,” she adds. “After all, life is hard enough without feeling pressured into being self-censored by the frivolity police!”