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In Defense of Playing Dress-Up

May 28, 2020 — Articles

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Rosalie Uggla profile photoRosalie Uggla

Writer and community member Rosalie Uggla shares from her home during the Minnesota stay-at-home order. In her essay below, she explains how isolation can lend an opportunity for playfulness, restoration, and connection instead of self-inflicted productivity.

Georgia O’Keeffe wearing a black hat and adjusting a button on her shirt with her hands.

Georgia O’Keeffe, by Alfred Stieglitz

Dragging my living room furniture out onto the deck in a bright pink cocktail dress has been one of the most life-affirming experiences I’ve had in quarantine. I can’t seem to resist the stories I find in the clothes I wear. Last week, I discovered that I had worn a small, frayed hole in the elbow of my favorite pajamas. My stomach churned, knotted up in the narrative I’d been carefully avoiding since layoffs began. Had I worn that hole in a pair of jeans, I would’ve worn it proudly. A hole in your jeans indicates a life fully lived— cue summer montages of days spent outside, gardening with a lover maybe, falling down and laughing about it. Unfortunately for me, I suspect that this only indicates propping my head up against my linen sheets for one hour too many, dressing each day in the same cotton shirt at some indiscriminate hour without urgency or purpose. The horror story of my new pajama hole reveals something ugly about this dark yet clarifying time— a nauseating sense of guilt, and an abject fear of my own inaction.

Frankly, I don’t have the stability of mind to fully process the rhetoric about productivity that I see online. My own productive energies have been almost entirely unavailable since this all began. Starting this essay, for example, was a tremendous struggle. When I finally did find it inside myself to try, I couldn’t seem to untangle my thoughts into one cogent string. I’ve rewritten this many times, trying to get it right, trying to make it sound like myself. But I feel like I’m using the majority of my energy to keep my mind wrapped around the fact that life is different now, more different than I ever thought life could become in such a short time. I tell myself that life has turned sharper corners throughout history. I imagine the first bombs falling over London in 1940, or the 2005 hurricane in Louisiana, and I feel like a coward. It feels like cognitive whiplash; I know that things are very serious, yet when I look outside there is no smoke or rubble— the world, through my lazy window, looks normal. It just looks like Tuesday, Wednesday, passing indistinguishably by. It’s hard not to be so hard on myself. The last thing that I can tolerate on top of all this is a lifestyle blogger telling me that my failures have been born from not a lack of time but instead a lack of discipline. Beating that old, tired bootstrap drum. Maybe that angle works for people who are fundamentally different from me, people who respond well to inaction’s promise of failure. But productivity is not something that I can manufacture out of shame. For me, productivity is something that I generate once I coax myself out of the shame that is already there. I am an American girl who is made only of what I’ve been able to accomplish. So who am I now?

I want to live in a world where I don’t reflexively measure my worth against my ability to generate capital. I’m suddenly rich with time, and without reframing my perception of what it means to be ‘doing well’, that wealth will be meaningless. I’ve been reading some, certainly not enough to boast about, but enough to know that I still remember how. Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy has been a real tonic, if you can’t tell from the title. She mostly writes about the cultural sickness indicated by our collective understanding of what it means to be productive. “The point of doing nothing,” Odell writes, “isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive.” I’ve tasked myself with that questioning, because it is kinder, because it is absolutely crucial to my wellbeing to find the value in stillness, in gentleness, and in empty time.

A dark haired woman with arms raised above her head.
A close-up of Georgia O’Keeffe's face and hands.

Georgia O’Keeffe, by Alfred Stieglitz

I’ve been at a loss in terms of how best to care for myself. For someone who struggles with any variety of mental illness, mandated isolation feels more like a sanctioned episode. I miss my friends, the ambient noises of crowded restaurants— the weather improving feels like a joke. The classical forms of self-care just aren’t cutting it. Doing facemasks day after day seems banal, and I’m skeptical that they do that much for my skin anyways. I don’t have a bathtub in my apartment, and telling myself that bathing is a special event eventually turns into not showering often enough. Making my bed each morning seems important, but somehow untenable. And now that I have the time to ask, I’m wondering if the things I’ve done to care for myself in the past have really been about being ready to work harder than ever once my self-care practices end. Suggestions online for how to take good care only seem to double down on our obsession with productivity. The most flagrant of the quarantine-self-care arsenal is the advice to get dressed each morning as you would, you know, before.

And before, dressing myself had been the main event. I love my clothes, I love the way it makes me feel to stand in front of my closet and touch all the sleeves one by one while I make my decisions. As a teenager, I was drawn to garments that were more precocious— it made my brooding disposition feel sophisticated instead of angsty. In college, I dressed to seem more bookish— it pushed me to be a better student. And before all of this, as a postgraduate twenty-something, I dressed wildly— it made me more fun at parties. Now, when I put on a simple pair of jeans with a sweater, I look in the mirror and it feels like I’m telling myself a joke. What does one put on in the morning to emulate a talent for jigsaw puzzles? To be more efficient while obsessively organizing the refrigerator? Since I’ve been fully sentient I’ve been dressing to tell a story about myself, and suddenly I’m without a narrative and without an audience.

Now is a good time to let you know, if it isn’t obvious, that I am not working from home. Most mornings I put on whatever is cotton and soft and close to my hands. But I can imagine how it might be helpful, even necessary, to get dressed every morning when you’re saddled with the delusional task of pretending that your dining room is your office. The ritual of dressing demarcates a turning point in each day that many of us no longer need to perform— the point at which we seamlessly change out of the private self and into the public. When I picture the person who still performs this change, she is wearing Everlane cashmere and diligently maintaining her professional emails. There is a cup of green tea steaming beside her laptop on the coffee table. She has a lot of plants and probably doesn’t exist, but I resent her all the same. I resent the fact that I don’t really have anything urging my clock along, just its dumb and endless marching. Regardless, I can understand how keeping life as close to normal as possible could make all of this feel less frightening. I promise you, I’m not writing this to convince anyone to stay in their tattered pajamas in spite of their best interests. I’m simply wondering, in a moment when almost nothing— save the view through the window— is normal, why continue to maintain a normalcy that might no longer serve us?

That beautiful afternoon on the deck, my roommate and I sat in our estate sale orange armchairs and had a cocktail in the sun, ducking into our bedrooms every so often to surprise one another with an increasingly absurd ensemble. That’s the power of clothes. While they can make us feel insignificant, or turn us into the person we present to our employers, they can just as easily transport us into the shoes of someone we’ve never been before. The game we played was the most acute relief I’ve had from my snare of cowardice. For a moment, my world looked as absurd as it felt. Sitting on my deck in a latex dress, a Stinson hat, and kitten heels, I felt the least crazy I’ve felt in weeks.

I think my problem is that I take things so seriously. I’ve got a habit of taking a fatalistic approach when gone unchecked. Not so deep down, though, I just want to feel vital. But I’d like to live lighter, especially now. Adding my own emotional weight to a circumstance already so heavy with grief will inevitably lead me toward sinking. Maybe the best way that I can care for myself is to play again, to shimmy out of the self that is tasked with worrying and slip instead into the self that can dance again. Because I really miss dancing. Lately, playing dress up has been the thing that’s allowed me a magical exit into a version of myself that I miss, and maybe even into a self that I hadn’t previously had access to. One that is liberated from the story I had been trying to tell to the world, you know, before.

It is an inevitable impulse to want to make the most of this weird, collective pause. I just can no longer tolerate being held hostage by my commanding fear of doing nothing. I have a feeling that we’re on the cusp of cultural reset, and if it’s coming, I want to be ready and open for what it has to offer me, pajama holes and all. I like to imagine that on the other side of this, we can re-emerge into a world that isn’t so afraid of stillness, or nuance, or the absurd. I hope that everyone is as eager to embrace play as I am. And as frivolous as it might seem to some, clothing can be a way to get there. I know that someday my knees will tear through a pair of jeans again. But in the meantime, playing dress-up and subsequently slipping into some well-loved loungewear feels to me like a self-care practice that is, finally, oriented toward the self, and who the self could be. This is my moment to explore.