The Zen of a Pressed Shirt
My sartorial hero these days is a six-year-old girl. The daughter of some very dressed-down friends in Brooklyn, Emma raids her mother’s closet every weekday morning to create dramatic new outfits to debut for her online classmates. Cinched, flounced, or sweeping, each ensemble is more extravagant than the last -- and always traded at dismissal for grubbier playclothes. Similarly inspiring is our daughter’s ten-year-old friend, who prevailed upon her otherwise very practical mother to lay out the good china at mealtimes for the duration of their quarantine, drinking her OJ and milk from a crystal champagne flute.
These kids are onto something. There’s a profound optimism about their need in the slouchy grey midst of COVID-19 for pomp and circumstance, their refusal to give up a sense of occasion and formality -- not out of respect for propriety so much as a spirit of self-care. With our worlds shrunk to the confines of our homes and one day blending into the next, perhaps we should all take a page from their book.
It’s now Week Six (or is it Seven?) of the Great Lockdown, and for the most part, we’ve let ourselves go. It was liberating at first. In the midst of all the fear and uncertainty, it was good fun in those early, fumbling Zoom calls to see your colleagues wearing T-shirts, hoodies, and sweatpants (or no pants) in a spirit of sanctioned subversion recalling Pyjama Day back in primary school. The novelty has now worn off a bit, however, and the liberation of “I don’t have to go into the office” has become oppressive: “I can’t go into the office.” We may have reached the limits of the freedom that casual clothing can confer.
Cultures known for impeccable personal presentation have always understood clothing to be anything but superficial. Italians and Japanese, for instance, may have widely divergent core beliefs about the self, the individual’s place in society, and perhaps even the meaning of life itself, but they both articulate them quite eloquently through the care they take with their attire. Both cultures believe that pleasant or precise appearance isn’t something imposed externally, but should rather reflect the personality and poise within -- whether it’s a Neapolitan’s sprezzatura while sipping an espresso or a Tokyo salaryman sweating through his suit in the summer heat.
Over the past few decades we’ve been so thoroughly conditioned to prefer shapeless, stretchy softness in clothing that we tend to confuse it with comfort itself. Comfort is more than a physical sensation, though -- it’s a contented state of mind that comes from doing, saying, or wearing the right thing at the right time. Those sweatpants are wonderful for loafing on the sofa, just as the feel of a well-cut suit is that firm pat on the back you want when giving a presentation before the board. It’s the opposing balance between these two modes that give them both meaning, the sartorial yin and yang that helps make business pleasurable and relaxation productive.
If our homes must be workplaces, shouldn’t that work itself be quarantined? Shouldn’t it be kept focused, disciplined, and most of all distinct from the rest of our lives? Many of us were perhaps doing a bit too much checking in, reaching out, circling back, and moving forward at home even before the virus; perhaps this lockdown is precisely the hard break we’ve been waiting for to restore some old boundaries. Maybe establishing and observing our own dress codes has as much to do with protecting our private and personal lives as it does respecting our professions. Maybe this is some small part of reclaiming our lost agency.
Maybe not. Nobody’s judging track pants. If you’re reading this, however, there’s a good chance you’re someone who actually enjoys dressing up a bit, and you shouldn’t feel judged for that either. Especially these days, when so much has been taken from us, there can be real satisfaction -- even redemption -- in the small daily pleasures of dressing well, of being held by your clothes rather than swaddled in them, pressed rather than tumbled, composed rather than sniff-tested.
Given its single upside -- spare time! -- the lockdown is actually a great opportunity to get a bit more out of your clothes by investing a bit more of yourself in them. If you aren’t already in the habit of pressing your own shirts, for example, this might be a good time to discover what a pleasantly meditative place your ironing board can be. What would be drudgery in bulk is ritual in the singular -- a ceremony of maintenance and renewal, smoothing order from wrinkled chaos. Breathe in those billowing clouds of nourishing steam. Listen to the gurgle and hiss of the iron, its quick sizzle on damp cotton. You might even consider some spray-starch -- not so much to look crisp, but to feel it, transforming you from a flatmate, husband, or dad into a colleague, executive, or boss. Seven minutes or so and it is accomplished.
No job is mandating pressed and starched shirts these days, and that’s exactly the point.