Not long ago, Dawnn Karen hopped on the back of her fiancé’s moped, done up for a night on the town. She wore a halter-top jumpsuit with red lipstick to match, a leopard-patterned mask, and a cape that flapped like a banner in her wake.
Her look, she acknowledged, was over the top. But like many of her clients, Karen, a writer and psychologist, is dressing in italics, venturing toward fashion’s wilder shores to celebrate a freedom that has eluded her much of this year.
“Being confined during months of lockdown does take an emotional toll,” said Karen, 31, who has branded herself as a fashion therapist. But the cautious resumption of outdoor dining, shopping and entertaining in small groups, has been a boon, she said, with gussying up for such moments a source of mood enhancement.
“Now that we have this chance, we’re dressing to the nines,” she said, “tapping into the joyful side of ourselves.”
A recent surge in the coronavirus infection rate, an incipient chill in the air and the anxiety surrounding Election Day have done little to dampen the spirits of those devoted to dressing nicely. Bored rigid with their tracksuits, caftans and floppy men’s shirts, they are uncorking long-suppressed impulses, no errand or assignation too inconsequential to trot out their best or even shop for something new.
“For me, a trip to the Post Office is the excitement of the day,” said Monica Mahoney, 50, a fashion designer in Los Angeles, where there are experts in dressing for the dull warmth of a heat lamp on a chilly night. Whether she is walking her dog or shipping mail orders to her customers, she likes to swap her T-shirts and khakis for a frothy pink baby doll dress of her own design. “I’m not letting this pandemic ruin me, I want to feel pretty,” she said.
Relaxed restrictions in some parts of the country have set the stage for a sartorial reset. “We can’t go to the theater or most social events,” said Jennifer Rizzo, the 35-year-old director of an art gallery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
One in a klatch of friends sampling grapes and fudge brownies in October on the terrace of their friend Arezu Sohn, Rizzo wore a thigh-length Celine tuxedo shirt, knee-high Prada boots and an extravagantly hooded Coach coat.
“Dressing up,” she said, “is a way of taking your life back, of finding your place in this new world.”
And of making a statement, it seems. “Getting together gives us purpose,” said Denise Moore, 46, who sat on the far side of the terrace. “The way we get ready before an event, having our makeup done, picking out clothes for the occasion, all those things are so exciting to us,” she said, adding metaphorically, “We are done with the ‘Canyon Ranch covid-19’ spa vacation. We want to get back to our lives.”
A few paces away, Nicole Gordon, 51, a painter who writes about art, flaunted an effusively ruffled pink coat, a mask fringed in crystal, and a collection of weighty cocktail rings. She had primped unabashedly for her friends. “Yesterday I had my first manicure in a salon,” she said. “It felt so wonderful to sit in a chair and be tended to. I haven’t been pampered in months.”
Some are unreservedly mining the moment for impact. Sari Cooper, a sex therapist, and her husband, Steve Cooper, a lawyer, have entertained throughout the summer and early fall. Friends gathered in Adirondack chairs around a fire pit in the Coopers’ backyard in Southampton, N.Y., welcomed the chance to commune face to face and show off a bit of finery.
One turned up in a party dress and silver sandals, Cooper, 51, said. “You could see in her face how happy she was. She told us, ‘This is the first time I’ve had lipstick on all year.’”
In a population parched for novelty, that kind of elation makes sense. “There is a joy in getting together again,” said Jacqueline Azria, who has done robust business selling quirkily patterned sweaters at her store Paulette Cold Spring in Cold Spring, N.Y. “Fun fashion is a part of that.”
This goes some way toward explaining why people began strategizing for fall as far back as late August. “All season we wore sweatpants,” said Marina Albright, 37, an executive at a fashion rental company. Recently Albright and her like-minded friends performed a stylistic about-face, unearthing showier pieces they had bought before the pandemic.
At her engagement party in September at the house of a friend, Albright and guests warmed themselves under heat lamps, wearing wispy dresses under duster coats and long sweaters, she recalled. Some of those friends gathered on Columbus Day for a low-key gender reveal party, grouped around a makeshift outdoor fireplace and sheltered under blankets Albright had bought on Amazon.
Come what may, neither she nor her friends plan to give up entertaining outdoors. “Some of us are already scouting for those weird plastic tents,” Albright said. “And we’re thinking of trying a yurt.”
Plunging temperatures have not stopped some hardier souls from releasing their inner divas, their often willfully incongruous fashion choices reminiscent of Villanelle, Jodie Comer’s wickedly insolent character in “Killing Eve,” stalking London’s gritty in cascades of candy pink tulle.
Indeed, lockdown has teased out a peacocking tendency that may not subside any time soon, Karen said. “In the midst of a crisis, embracing a little formality can impart a sense of control,” she said. “The longer this goes on, the more people will dress up or even overdress. We’ll be wearing suits on the plane and probably even to the baseball game.”
Certainly, this is true for Kimberly Steinberg, who breezed into town in October for a hair appointment. “I never go into Manhattan without wearing something sparkly or furry,” said Steinberg, 50, an event planner from Huntington, N.Y.
She had garnished her Lululemon yoga outfit with shiny Givenchy slides and a recent purchase, a fuzzy imitation fur jacket. “It’s important to me to create a sense of ‘coming into the city,’” she said.
Others, more frugal or tracksuit fatigued, are content to shop their closets. “I rediscovered my whole wardrobe,” said Anne Marie Marcus, 63, an executive recruiter who met recently with friends at the Staley-Wise gallery in SoHo, for a show of Priscilla Rattazzi’s huge Western landscapes. She had unearthed for the occasion a Zara leather jacket and Maude Frizon pumps to complement her twirly-skirted, bright red frock. “It’s thrilling to wear a dress again,” she said.
Carina Kingston, a Swedish-born New Yorker, dressed more classically for lunch at La Goulue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She had eased into the afternoon in a cable-stitched cashmere sweater, a Christmas gift from her son, slung casually over a silky tie-front blouse. “Dining out is a chance to put on something that makes me happy,” Kingston said. “I’ve come up with a lot of things in my closet that I haven’t worn in years.”
Still, plenty of people are indulging in a bit of guiltless retail therapy.
“People who were in shock during March, April and May have just started to realize that life will go on, but in a different way,” said Robert Burke, a luxury consultant in New York. By August, with their spending diverted from restaurant dinners and lavish vacations, “they were looking for ways to treat themselves.”
Izak Zenou, a fashion and lifestyle illustrator in New York, invests in self-care, splashing out when he can on fragrances and body creams, including a soothing decoction of coconut and tea tree oils. Zenou, 55, reserves wardrobe outlays “for things that are comfortable, sustainable, solid and rich,” he said. “I don’t feel guilty because I know I’m going to keep these things for years.”
An acquaintance of Albright had been fantasizing about bringing back the fur-line Gucci loafers popular several seasons ago, “the ones that look like you stepped on a rat,” Albright said.
Highly sought-after items include oversize wraps conducive to layering. The so-called shacket, a beefy hybrid of jacket and shirt, and shawls that envelop the body like a hug have been tough to keep in stock.
At Norma Kamali, blanket-like cover-ups, especially the much-coveted sleeping bag coats, newly patterned in rustic tweeds and plaids, sold out within days of being posted on the designer’s e-commerce site. Wearing them can be soothing, Kamali said, “like wrapping your arms around someone when they are fearful.”
Shoppers’ acquisitive zeal has not been confined to the high end of the marketplace. Zara’s greatest hits include a shearling-lined biker jacket, a camel wool coat belted like a robe, a hefty overshirt with generous multiple pockets, and an imitation leather shoulder bag trimmed in dense fleece.
After months of near isolation, plenty of people are buying relatively inexpensive items priced at $300 or less, Burke said. “Especially during times of crisis there will always be those making feel-good purchases,” he said.