In early March of this year, Céline Dion stepped out onto the streets of Manhattan in an outfit I can only describe as high equestrian camp: double-breasted cape-dress with a matching tattersall dickey from Michael Kors, knee-high riding boots, a gold-buckled cordovan belt, and a jaunty little felt fedora cocked over one eye. Dion was in town for a week to perform at the Barclays Center as part of her “Courage” tour, and for several days in a row she turned the city sidewalks into her own personal catwalk, peacocking and hamming it up for photographers. In the Kors ensemble, she posed with her arms on her hips, fanning out the cape behind her like a superheroine, and then waggled the garment in front of her body like a toreador. Other times, she strutted through midtown in head-to-toe daisy print; a flamingo-pink Peter Do ensemble; and, most dramatically, a floral Oscar de la Renta skirt that she paired with a fresh bouquet of peonies, which she let fall around her feet as she twirled.
Dion’s impromptu clothing parade seemed to have no point other than her own amusement, a playful impulse to pluck items straight from the Paris runways and show people how they were meant to be worn. As is often the case with Dion, her bravado was easy for the press to mock, or at least to view as mawkish; she seemed to be walking a delicate tightrope between celebrating high fashion and parodying it. When I look back on those images now, though, they mostly just feel like postcards from another universe. I thought, at the time, that Dion was setting a tone for the year, throwing down a gauntlet with her ecstatic, effulgent expression of style. What I did not know then is that in the weeks following, New York would shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19, and Dion would cancel all her remaining tour dates. As it turned out, Dion’s fashion statement was not an opening salvo but a kind of punctuation mark on a year abruptly interrupted.
I had been planning to write about Dion’s grand sartorial promenade, as part of a piece about the singer’s emergence, in recent years, as an unlikely high-fashion icon. But, as the coronavirus accelerated, the subject suddenly seemed very silly. I’d spoken to Dion’s stylists, Pepe Muñoz and Sydney Lopez, but the juicy details they gave me (that Dion, for instance, had dreamed up the feather hat at one in the morning the night before she wore it, and Muñoz had to send a frantic, wee-hour email to milliner to get one in time) would have to wait. These were the early, terrifying days of the pandemic, when even first responders could not locate N95 masks, and medical staffers were forced to wear trash bags, snorkel masks, and swim goggles as ad-hoc P.P.E. I turned my attention to writing about the designer Christian Siriano, who had quickly converted his midtown atelier into a mask-making factory.
I was lucky enough to be able to stay home—I work from home even in normal times—but for a while I continued to get dressed every morning as if I had somewhere to go. I put on turtlenecks and polka-dot dresses and even continued to wear my beloved high-waisted jeans, which made me feel pulled together, but squeezed my midsection like it was a tube of toothpaste as I sat inside all day. (Walking pants and sprawling pants, I discovered, are entirely different species.) On Twitter, as a pick-me-up, I posted a call for people to dress up on Sundays in their own homes and share a picture with the hashtag #distancebutmakeitfashion. (More people than I’d expected took the assignment: “I did it and it felt fantastic, like weirdly wonderful,” the writer Laura Lippman later said in an interview.) The prompt was intended to provide a small diversion from fear and boredom—and, I hoped, encouragement to stay indoors and away from other people—and it was, for a while, heartening to scroll through pictures of people standing in their living rooms in ball gowns and boleros. But, as quarantine stretched on, I stopped posting. It seemed futile to fight the entropic pull toward Lycra spandex. I quietly closed the closet door on my dresses and glitter boots and structured jackets and instead began raiding my “soft drawer,” where I keep balled-up elastic-waist pants and long, shapeless caftan-type garments. I gave up hard-bottomed shoes for the marshmallow bounce of shearling-lined boots.
The only time I dress up in “outdoors” clothing now is to hop into a Zoom meeting or get-together. I toss on a satiny blouse, big earrings, and a swipe of red lipstick, but my heart isn’t fully in it. Is an outfit still stylish if it is only a simulacrum of what you would wear to go somewhere (and if you rip it off right after the call ends and change into a stained sweatshirt?). Fashion, for me, has always been about the experience of moving through the world in clothes; as the infamous editrix Diana Vreeland said, “You gotta have style. It helps you get down the stairs.” How does style change when you’re pleasing yourself alone? There are plenty of people who were confined to their homes long before the pandemic began, and some of them have helped demonstrate, through social media, how it is possible to cultivate a striking sense of flair even in isolation. You need not have a cadre of paparazzi waiting for you on a New York street corner to turn a look. But what I’ve felt, perhaps, is a yearning for the spontaneous ways that clothing and public life can collide—the feeling, say, of riding the subway, en route to a holiday party, wearing something sparkly and foolish underneath a puffer coat.
There have still been fashion trends peculiar to this year—cashmere leggings, Hill House Home’s nap dresses (which sold a million dollars’ worth of product within hours when they restocked in October), that strawberry dress that looked great on TikTok, celebrities matching their masks to their outfits on Instagram to “attend” virtual awards shows. The former Band of Outsiders designer Scott Sternberg pivoted to sweats with his new company, Entireworld, at just the right time to become a sensation. The handbag designer Telfar Clemens changed the luxury-goods market forever with his innovative “Bag Security” program, which insures that everyone who wanted a Telfar tote can have one without having to pay exorbitant resale prices online. Sites that push pre-owned clothing, like thredUP and Poshmark, have thrived as people have less to spend and more time to dig through digital bargain bins. (Just a week ago, Siriano, the fashion world’s quarantine M.V.P., partnered with thredUP to create a new “Thrifted” logo in an attempt to add a new allure to secondhand items.)
But for every brand that successfully pivoted there are others that have struggled. By May, clothing sales had dropped sixty-three per cent compared to 2019, and, though those numbers have risen somewhat since, retail is still hurting. The Neiman Marcus Group, J. Crew, Brooks Brothers, John Varvatos, Men’s Warehouse, and J. C. Penney are among the companies who filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this year. H&M closed a hundred and seventy stores after a fifty-seven-per-cent plummet in sales. Even brands that sell loungewear suffered; Victoria’s Secret reported a forty-six-per-cent decline in revenue. Some stores in New York City have reopened (and some elsewhere never closed at all), but many storefronts still sit dormant, or have closed their doors forever. When we emerge from this period, the thoroughfares where we used to stroll and window-shop will be much changed, particularly in areas where independent designers had stores.
The fashion historian Anne Hollander wrote, in her masterpiece “Seeing Through Clothes,” that “when you are dressed in any particular way at all, you are revealed rather than hidden.” Even as I have embraced the ethos of loose, drapey everything these past months, I have not completely let go of the pleasures of getting dressed and of being seen. Lately, I’ve settled for a look I like to call “old Hollywood dressing table,” which involves a procession of vintage pajamas and robes. I keep clicking on the link for these pine-green velvet house shoes, from the British footwear designer Olivia Morris, which cost two hundred and forty-five British pounds and are barely available and are even more impractical, but which I’m convinced would change my life should they come into my possession. Not long ago, I also bought a blue velvet cloak from the nineteen-thirties on eBay. I had nowhere to wear it—I still don’t. It’s too heavy for my radiator-steamed apartment, and it would look ridiculous for a trip to the UPS store. But I’ve been visiting it in my closet, imagining the adventures we may have together when I can go to theatres and dark bars again. I’ve started to sort through my old high-heeled boots and bedazzled dresses—not culling them, because any item that whispers of future outings sparks joy for me, but reorganizing for the day I can wear them again. It’s not a Céline Dion moment I’m craving, swathed in the newest, flashiest designer goods. I’m homesick for the city I live in, and I miss the clothing I already have.
2020 in Review