I’ve always wondered whether I dress for myself or for others. 

Getting dressed is a personal ritual, and yet the end result is meant for another’s gaze. Tiny nuances that typically escape notice are placed under a magnifying glass so as to avoid critique. The Gucci loafers with the golden horsebit accents can not, under any circumstances, be worn with a silver-tone earring. These pants are charcoal-black and this blouse is obsidian-black; therefore, they do not match. 

It’s an exhausting exercise, but I can’t seem to let go of it. Fashion is control. I can’t erase political corruption or make my brain produce more serotonin, but I can dictate my appearance. The veneer I present to the world is mine and mine alone. Whatever I lack – wealth, poise, insouciance – can be simulated by the right handbag. 

It’s a comfort and a curse, but it’s familiar.

However, no one’s looking at me in quarantine. I see the same three people every day (all of whom I’m related to), and none of them care how I look. My daily uniform consists of leggings, a tank top, and tube socks. Sometimes the leggings get swapped for joggers, or the tank top for an oversized t-shirt, but the foundation is the same. I have lost my coping mechanism. And the irony of it all is that I exert less control than ever. I have no control over the virus, my financial situation, who I can see, or where I can go. I spend my days watching television and warding off depression. 

However, after about a week of isolation, I noticed a pattern. I was still avoiding denim and makeup, but I was subconsciously considering color palettes and silhouettes. I realized that I was still performing, albeit for an invisible audience. My decisions were influenced by a mythical viewer, and it was imperative that I impressed them. 

I decided to try the opposite approach: throwing on random items with no concern for coordination. Unfortunately, it wasn’t liberating. I felt schleppy and unworthy of effort. I had to admit cultivating my appearance improved my self-confidence. 

The problem is that this source of fulfillment is intrinsically performative. I don’t know how to separate my personal style from the influence of the public gaze. Is it possible to separate the two? Does consideration for outside opinion invalidate my sartorial autonomy? 

Maybe the invisible audience I’m dressing for in quarantine is myself.

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