“We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it “is one of my father’s favorite sayings. “Until the cows freeze over “is another. A blended idiom or cliché is called a malaphor. The combination of two hitherto unrelated concepts makes us smile, and puzzle over how we come to know the things we know. One of the irrefutable ingredients in our weird and wonderful mental schemata is the society in which we live, and one of the most fabulous markers of society and culture is fashion.
What we see literally becomes part of who we are. And the bridge burning timeline is certainly relevant in the here and now.
When I first moved to China in 2013, masks were another whimsical fashion afoot in Asia. They formed part of the initial reports back to friends and family back home. If the proclivity for our host country to sport facial wear to battle smog, SARS and other meddlesome biohazards wasn’t enough to shock Europe, there was always the then common slit panted babies, outdoor pajamas and the “passion killer” nylon ankle socks.
“I’ve seen people out with camera lenses that would make Annie Liebovitz swoon. One guy threw himself down on his belly to take picture of the ninjas blowing bubbles from the double buggy last week. It was all I could do not to roll right over him,” I typed. Weeks later, the same picture showed up on a wall in Xinjiekou subway station.
In Asia, everyone embraced their inner Annie. Amateur photography combined with agile gymnastics to capture lights and angles unseen to the Western eye. Snapping images was very a la mode. The pajama clad, slit panted, slipper footed photographic contortionists of yonder years, against grey skied backdrops and the masks where what most stuck with me. My children drew pictures of grey skies, green grass. Their eyebrows rose in puzzlement when I asked “Why not paint the sky blue?”
Thanks to the tremendous Green push on the part of the government, blue skies have become a pleasant addition to daily life in Nanjing in recent years, and the influencers of the up and coming generation no longer sport their outdoor jim-jams, even in the midst of winter. Things change.
Covid came. The mask literally disappeared from stores from one day to the next.
Masks were the new black.
Handwashing, time spent in solitude and a deep examination of the ego ensued. Sanitizers followed the masks out the store doors. Mysteriously, in the West, toilet paper also vanished. In Asia, we were left scratching our… heads in wonder. These are the times we are living.
Indeed, I see it in my own life. Walking through the school foyer that fateful first Monday back, my limbs moved in an odd, triangular way. At first, I couldn’t quite place the discomfort, the tension tingling in my pores. It wasn’t until I sat down on my newly sterilized stool that it hit me like a ton of toilet rolls- the seams of my clothes were too close to my body. The mask on my face was stifling. My muffled outbursts of cognitive fairy dust reduced to “and that is why wemufhabaykoncheddar the importance of the shwafflehufflefrump essential…”
We all know those eyes – the “Huh?” eyebrows. Someone said, “They should invent a mask with a clear window so we could see your lips.”
“You should do it,” I replied, enunciating clearly and slowly. We slowed down. I pre-wrote class notes. We adapted and move forward.
In the case of the mask windows, someone has beaten us to the chase. Eric Kim, a student from Portland, Ore. High School worked within the deaf community. He felt that communication without the facial cues and lip-reading aids would be unfathomable, and so he set to making face masks with a transparent window with pipe cleaners, vinyl and regular facemasks. He has shipped 17 so far and raised over 2,400$ on his GoFundme page which he will donate to the Deaf Community.
Reading this heartened me. Even in the depths of uncertainty, of doubt, of apprehension, the human spirit still reaches out to help. Always look for the helpers, says Mr. Rogers.
Parallel to the diverse reactions of the human species to Covid19, Fashion too has evolved since January of this year. On a personal level, much the same as the seams of my work pants suggested themselves too strongly upon my soul that morning, so too did my shoes oppress, my shirt confine and my sensible socks constrict. Social isolation had stripped my wardrobe bare of buttons, zips, fastners and buckles. Denim was banished in the first wave, anything that needed a reading of the care label in the second. Soon, only the stretchy pants and fleecy pjs were to be found on the once vibrantly stuffed shelves. Hoodies, soft and thick hung where silks and linens used to sway.
The skirts were culled. For the men, the most visible stamp of Covid has been the renunciation of hope for a professional hair trim and running the gauntlet with the home trimmers, or worse, at the hands of someone who had “done it loads of times before. Oooops.” If you want to enjoy gems such as “Just let my girlfriend attempt a skin fade and now I look like I’m about to nuke America,” you can check out delightful hashtags like #coronacuts, #don’tdothis, #bigmistake, #thehorror.
The flexibility, nay lithe glee with which my wardrobe morphed into a leisure wear dystopia is similarly reflected across the world, now that lockdowns extend across Europe and The States. There is the horrendous issue of The Roots of Wrath, black and grey valleys running deep beneath rolling hills of blonde and russet browns. Scarves seem to be a way forward; simply bandage them around your head until you can feasibly claim that it’s a balayage. You could also just rock those roots like a total influencer and be the first to embrace the new normal- The Way I Am. It may also help shift attention from the new Joe Exotic haircut your loved one is sporting. It may help with the seams.
I love scarves. I love roots. The important thing is to reach out to someone else too, see who we can help. Maybe not making miniature miracles out of pipe cleaners, but there is always a way, if we look.
Elizabeth Savetsky, an influencer who lives in New York has had to revamp her blog content to remain relevant during lockdown. To compensate for the lack of creativity social distancing has imposed on her blog, she’s begun to explore a deeper layer of herself, and share it with the world. Recently, she posted a video of herself singing, and old photos and snacks have started to appear in her blog posts, reflecting a going inwards and an acceptance of another side of an of an influencer’s life - the tie-died sweater, sweatpants clad human in the cave, grazing on snacks. Rarely shared, it’s not hard to imagine how heartening it is for kids to see their idols living a pretty similar life to their own right now, fashion bedamned.
It’s not rocket surgery. Unprecedented times cause unprecedented change. Our armors fall away when we spend time sitting with them. It becomes harder, and in a sense, pointless to keep up old pretenses. We can become more aware of our personal narratives, and the whims of fancy that dictate them.
We can relax, at last. We can begin to process.
Covid 19. Bringer of Roots, Cutter of Dodgy Skin-Fades, Seams Redeemer.
We have opened this can of worms, or bats, and now we must lie in them.
Covid is here. But we are still here too.
*First published in The Nanjinger, May 2020