Could this be a good thing? Yes, if we pay attention.
We are learning that our bodies extend beyond their physical borders, mingling with the biological ambit of those around us. I might imagine, for example, that my spoken words or shouted greeting belong solely to me, but the airborne transmissibility of this virus teaches me otherwise. We now keenly grasp that one person’s speech, song or exhaled sigh has physical substance — those invisible particles that travel from one body into another, potentially bringing illness, even death. Of course, we’ve long understood viral transmission. But we’ve never contemplated it as vividly before. We’ve never had a starker lesson in our shared physicality.
Nothing makes this clearer than the wearing of masks — the fashion accessories of the pandemic. We wear masks because we’re all just fragments of one vast, collective organism: What I breathe out, you breathe in. My exhalation is your inhalation. And so while masks signify painful human separation — the impossibility of kissing or whispering — they equally highlight the startlingly conjoined nature of our breath. (Studies show that women wear masks more regularly than do men.)
Beyond this shared physical, body-to-body reality, the pandemic brings new appreciation of our shared global reality. Covid-19 spreads from country to country, irrespective of borders. If we truly absorb this lesson in planetary interdependence, then the pandemic could bring renewed urgency about climate change. In a post-pandemic world, climate change denial will feel impossible.
Such heightened planetary awareness could translate into increased demand for fairer and more humane labor practices in fashion and for greater sustainability. Fashion is among the most toxic industries, producing over two billion metric tons of greenhouse gases annually. We could start turning away from the global, jet-set model of fashion, with its extreme dependence on fossil fuel (for travel, shipping, etc.), and toward a more regional, local model, creating openings for new, more diverse designers (who normally can’t compete with corporate behemoths).
Finally, in demanding we attend to our bodies in newly thoughtful ways, the pandemic could help make fashion — even haute couture — more comfortable and embracing. We are already seeing softer, more flowing, less painful clothes on the runway (including more athleisure, even nightwear-inspired looks). This could enhance body positivity and physical diversity in the fashion world, which is still limited by constrictive stereotypes of beauty and size.
Fashion has always played a more critical role in culture than most of us assume, but it acquires far greater significance in a pandemic. In the months and years to come, fashion can help us create a path forward for our bodies, our culture and the planet itself.
Rhonda Garelick (@rkgar), the dean of the School of Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons/The New School, is the author of “Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History.” She is working on a book on the future of fashion.
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