What role does clothing play in an epidemic, where we’re supposed to be distancing from each other? On one hand, traditional clothing is inherently about signaling. But without an audience, there is no need to signal – no need to establish allegiance, aspiration, or identity when one is home alone. On the other hand, on those brief moments when one is outside, there is a sense that dressing up somewhat preserves a sense of calm and normalcy in the midst of this pandemic. A slight sense that – seeing someone who, say, took a moment to put on a necktie and sportcoat (and is perhaps using that fine silk Drake’s scarf as a makeshift N-95 mask) – isn’t quick ready to go Mad Max when the markets are out of toilet paper for three days in a row.
One historic parallel that keeps being mentioned to our current situation is England during the Blitz, when the citizens of London would quickly don inexpensive siren suits (essentially, workwear onesies) when the alarms of a pending bombing would sound, and run to shelter. The inimitable Winston Churchill won the hearts of the Britons by making nighttime rounds in siren suits of his own, to show that he was there with them, in the trenches.
However, his siren suits were tailored by Turnbull & Asser, and had subtle details to connote a sense of dignity and authority. Whereas the high street version was made of simple canvas, Churchill’s had some bespoke of gray chalkstripe wool, subtly evoking the dignity of a suit in an otherwise pragmatic garment. He so enjoyed his siren suits that he had others made out of bottle-green velvet as a variation on a smoking jacket.
Indeed, these became such a part of his public identity, that he chose to wear one when he sat for an official portrait – a way of reinforcing the central role that he played in the Second World War. — ANV