Pandemic must-haves? How the pandemic has transformed the affordances of daily items

Illustration of a girl lying on a pale blue floor, surrounded by clothes and accessories strewn around her.
Raina Yang/File

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Slippers/Slides

There used to be a time when I had to jump on the dance floor wearing a pair of 6-inch black lace stilettos that my mom bought me as my coming-of-age gift. The shock waves starting at my feet and traveling up my body were sometimes stronger than the bass vibrations of electronic dance music echoing in my ears. In fact, I started wearing heels as early as middle school, since I was a firm believer in their promise of a mature, feminine look (I once wore my mom’s heels to attend my own parents’ meeting). That might explain why the joint at the base of my big toe sticks out, which is one of the symptoms of a bunion. But still, my stilettos and I had a rapport going for many years — even in the Bay Area, where casual-style outfits reign, I wore them to club banquets and photoshoots and, sometimes, lectures.

And now, after being a “Zoom University” student for more than half a year, I can’t recall the last time I’ve worn or seen my heels. Meanwhile, since I stay home for more than 90% of the time, no other style of shoes can compete with the affinity between my slippers and my feet. I wear them to showers, to work at my desk, to meet with people, to walk my dog or to prevent myself from directly stepping on his pee at home.

This shift of style had me wondering about the historical roles of slippers and their transformations of our contemporary life. My research shows that they actually played various important symbolic roles in history. The soft and frail slippers worn by members of a sultan’s harem made it impossible for them to escape for freedom over any rough terrain, and they were seen as the ideal footwear for expensive Persian carpets. On the other hand, the Pietro Yanturni slippers made of gold brocade and silver silk, the bright red Papal slippers and the highly decorative slippers worn in ancient Chinese courts were signs of power, authority or opulence.

But now, slippers, as well as slides, are symbolic of personal space, the tiny area of our life that we have control over even as the world outside plunges into havoc. While dress codes had already begun to relax before COVID-19, our pandemic living style is accelerating the transition from the (sometimes painful) beauty standard related to self-presentation in front of others to a standard that focuses on satisfying our personal needs. As we spend more and more time at home, we choose slippers that are catered to our soles, the ones that are meant to make our feet fully stretched and comfortable. Indeed, according to Beth Goldstein, NPD Group accessories and footwear analyst, slipper sales doubled in the past year, with slides remaining popular; meanwhile, sales of dress shoes, especially heels, plummeted.

I don’t particularly miss my heels now. And, after spoiling my feet in slippers, I doubt that I will slip a heeled shoe back on in a post-pandemic world.

 

(Noise-canceling) headphones

 It’s no big news that headphones, especially white headphones both wired and wireless, are becoming an increasingly popular fashion statement. According to Dazed, the credits go to Marine Serre, who incorporated white headphones into her “futurewear” collection — described as “a splicing of fragments from contemporary life with futuristic references.” But the rising popularity of this high-tech look is inseparable from its practical usage, perhaps especially so during the pandemic, a time when we realize that we would wear headphones just as frequently even though no one’s watching.

I work at home with little sense of time passing between days and nights, adapting myself to different time zones around the world. I also live with my parents, who spend five hours every night watching TV in the living room. For my writing tasks and remote lectures, I need noise-canceling headphones to create a space void of distractions, as well as to navigate a virtual lifestyle in which most, if not all, of my work and entertainment take place online.

I work at home with little sense of time passing between days and nights, adapting myself to different time zones around the world.

I used to be an avid headphone user during the first half of college. I blasted music in my ears that granted me a sense of confidence as I walked around campus. But at some point, I started hating the auditory isolation and became paranoid that I might be missing greetings from friends or interesting conversations happening nearby. 

The debate surrounding whether headphones are making us lonelier and more antisocial started late in the relatively long history of headphones. Headphones began with phone operators in the late 19th century, shortly after which people started using them to listen in on live performances from theaters. Headphones were also used to focus on the sound of the radio and became popular for home listening in the 1960s. Up until this point, they were seen as a wonderful social tool for connecting people to the larger world and allowing them to coexist peacefully in the same space without annoying one another with noises. It wasn’t until the Walkman was introduced in the 1980s that people could listen to music wherever and whenever they wanted.

But since we’re staying home most of the time now, the accusation that headphones are leading to isolation seems to carry less weight. We’re now using headphones to not only privatize our public spaces but also establish connections that we otherwise can’t get. Sometimes, I use my headphones to video chat friends. Other times, I rely on the noise-canceling function to be able to stay within the presence of my parents or boyfriend without getting distracted. Either way, I stay connected, digitally and/or physically. This double function of headphones is what really makes them great for a pandemic lifestyle, even though I sort of miss listening to music while walking on campus and lip-syncing rap songs like a fool in order to be cool.

 

(No) earrings

 I have four ear piercings, and I used to love statement earrings — dangles, hoops, sparkles, fake diamonds, bold and striking colors. I especially loved wearing mismatched ones. I even got a fifth piercing on my cartilage for the sake of increasing combinations but had to let it heal due to a terrible inflammation. 

I stopped wearing them once I realized how hard it is to put on and take off face masks while wearing big earrings.   

Strangely enough, it’s now part of my style to leave off the earrings. I decided that it’s time to learn to accept unfilled holes.

 

 Pajamas

 The liberation of pajamas involved a liberation of female sexuality. While men began stylizing their pajamas in the late 19th century, women kept to plain nightgowns because it was seen as adventurous for women to wear pants, especially in public. Around 1920, however, Coco Chanel strolled along the Riviera in her “beach pyjamas” — baggy pants with a loose-fitting shirt or sleeveless top — and became a revolutionary figure in both fashion and the women’s movement. Following her lead, two women caused a scene in Brighton as they walked along the seafront in pajamas while smoking pipes. According to journalist Robert de Beauplan, pajamas gave “women an unprecedented look, more free, cheekier, and its relaxed attitude always remains tasteful.”

Wearing pajamas in 2020 feels liberating, too. In fact, taking off a bra is one of the most liberating feelings in the world. But what does it mean if you, like me, wear pajamas all day every day while working at home?

Robin Givhan, chief fashion critic for The Washington Post, said in an NPR interview that “when you stop using your clothing as a way to create chapters in your life, it all starts to blur into one big sort of muddled sentence.” And yes, that’s exactly how I feel when I meet with my classmates and professors at 3 a.m. in my pajamas (the struggle of international students who stay in their home countries), do work at 11 a.m. in my pajamas, eat with my parents in my pajamas and then work again at God-knows-what time in my pajamas. It means working without boundaries and feeling anxious whenever I’m not working. To be honest, it sucks.

By wearing pajamas all the time, it feels like I’m limiting my possibilities to the stale smell of yesterdays.

Tanisha Ford writes in her book “Dressed in Dreams” that our clothes are a powerful social skin that makes us feel things and that “through our clothes we can do our own form of world-making, imagining possibilities beyond what our current status says is our reality.” It scares me to think how I might lose my individuality and potentiality little by little by forgoing the ritual of picking clothes to wear, especially considering how important that ritual used to be for me, a former “Best Dressed” superlative winner for three student clubs (feels like ancient history now). My rented room near campus was small, but my clothes took five large boxes to pack. Dressing with what some people called — somewhat sarcastically, I felt — international-fashion-style clothes used to be my self-defense against my seeming quietness. It’s my way of negotiating my voice with others, my way of experimenting with the ideal self.

By wearing pajamas all the time, it feels like I’m limiting my possibilities to the stale smell of yesterdays. The person snoring on the bed was the person typing out essays was the person waking up with bloodshot puffy eyes is the person attempting to talk professionally with others while yawning with tears. No more experimentation, no more renewal. In this sense, despite the comfort they provide and the transgression they imply when worn in public, pajamas during the pandemic are depriving us of the process of growing and refining our characters. You can even argue the same about the slippers.

Well, comfort and work and fashion and freedom and captivity and isolation and connection. It’s all one big sort of muddled sentence.

Contact Raina Yang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @rainayanglw.