As the world struggles on with Covid-19, the arts have begun to assess its impact. In the virtual exhibit 2020: The Clothes We Wore and the Stories They Tell, the Fox Historic Costume Collection (FHCC) of Drexel University considers how clothing soothed, protected, and spoke for us when the pandemic suspended life as we knew it.
The collection called on the Drexel community for items they’d worn, carried, or used. Students, faculty, and staff responded with masks and much more. Contributors were also asked to explain why they chose what they did, and it is their words that make The Clothes We Wore more than a sartorial survey.
Comforts of home
There was a need for softness in the pandemic reality. Whether prompted by a desire for comfort or functionality, people wanted clothes that moved seamlessly from stressful shifts and screen meetings, to homeschooling, dog walking, and nerve-wracking grocery runs.
Alumnus Rebecca Oswald sent a sweater that saw her through the preparation of many meals. Robert Lloyd of the media arts and design faculty nominated a bright red fleece jacket, writing, “I had to choose what to care about, and it wasn’t clothes.”
Engineering faculty member Johanna Casale chose inviting plush-lined boots and thought of her recently deceased mother-in-law. Sarah Newhouse of the university archive knit a beautiful shawl to keep busy in summer and warm in winter.
When the world shrank to home, enrollment management’s Rebecca Weidensaul became a believer in the yoga pants she’d once mocked. Jennifer Sontchi of Drexel’s Academy of Natural Sciences included a love note to the cotton leggings she nominated, calling them “the perfect pandemic partner.”
Rachel Pepper sent footed pajamas that had fit her six-month-old daughter when the shutdowns began. “Looking at them now,” she wrote, “it’s crazy to see how much she has grown … We thought we’d be home with her for a few weeks.”
Drexel President John Fry sought stability in the familiar, coming to campus as usual in his trademark black or navy suit, calling it a “sartorial anchor” that gave “a sense of normalcy… alongside our teams from Public Safety, Facilities, IT, Dining, and all the other groups that make this university run so well.” He submitted a favorite tie, a gift from his daughter.
Shell Myers of media arts and design selected a cap from Trans Lifeline, Myers wrote, “an emergency hotline run by trans people for trans people. I called the Trans Lifeline in spring 2020 when battling depression and dysphoria. [The cap] reminded me of making that call and that I don’t have to struggle alone, even in a pandemic. Someone is always a phone call away.”
Former grad student Newton James designed the canvas tote chosen by library staffer Rachel Weidner. It reads: “Give us our flowers while we’re still here,” and “Black Trans Lives Matter.”
T-shirts were indispensible for the highly charged, distant, mask-muffled expression 2020 required. At the height of demonstrations surrounding George Floyd’s murder, student Mali O’Neal purchased a Black Lives Matter mask and I can’t breathe shirt in Minneapolis. “The first time I wore the mask was to Floyd’s memorial at the intersection where he was killed,” O'Neal recalled.
Putting on laughs
Some shirts poked fun, like one from faculty member Elizabeth Milroy and her wife Diana, commemorating the Fraud Street Run. That event honored Rudy Giuliani’s misplaced post-election press conference at Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Northeast Philadelphia.
Milroy’s colleague Blaise Tobia and his wife contributed homemade shirts emblazoned with New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s customary warning, “Don’t be a knucklehead!”
“These T-shirts were made…to encourage people to observe Covid safety guidelines," Tobia said. "We sent the ‘selfie’ of us in the T-shirts and masks to various local officials.”
Objects in the simply designed exhibit appear against a white background with statements to one side, and it is contributors’ words, rather than the pictures, that give the exhibit its significance.
Take the submission of Jacqueline Genovesi of the Academy of Natural Sciences, a pair of red boxers: “This has been my child’s school uniform. On a good day he attends class (camera off). On a bad day he just lays in bed unable to face the world. I’m sure you will get cute, knitted garments…. But for many, this year was about pain, survival, and maybe, just maybe, having people truly understand anxiety and depression.”
By turns poignant and amusing, The Clothes We Wore reflects what was, and to an extent, what still is. It reminds us of how it felt when the pandemic stripped away assumptions, delusions, and defenses, and shrouded us in uncertainty. We didn’t experience it in the same way, but we went through it together and none of us was left unchanged. That’s a thought to hold on to.
Image description: A pair of pale-blue vinyl gardening gloves, patterned with red and yellow flowers. They’re creased and dirty and appear on a white background.
Image description: A pair of simple black leggings on a white background.
What, When, Where
2020: The Clothes We Wore and the Stories They Tell. A virtual exhibition of the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection, Drexel University. (215) 571-3504 or theclotheswewore.com.