A Farewell to Fancy: The Ongoing Pandemic Is Changing How We Approach 'Presentable'

COVID-19 just hastened the demise of dressing up.

Katherine Matthews
Katherine Matthews models a few of the looks she has sported over the years.

I pulled out my ironing board recently to dewrinkle a shirt left sitting too long in the dryer. A fine layer of dust had settled on the edge of the board. The whole contraption shrieked like a rusty fence gate as I popped it open. Apparently, I hadn’t ironed anything in months. 

At one time, that would have been unimaginable. Now I pondered whether to relegate the board to the basement. And then it struck me: Am I living in a post-ironing society? 

Growing up, I earned money ironing my dad’s endless parade of dress shirts ($1 each) and handkerchiefs (25 cents apiece). Getting ready for church every Sunday was a mad scramble of shoe polishing and clothes pressing, as well as a frantic search for unsnagged pantyhose. As an adult, I decided to get rid of my pantyhose after Carrie Bradshaw tossed hers. And my shoe polish collection has dwindled to five hockey pucks of dry wax. 

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The way we attire ourselves has taken a long slip-and-slide from formality to casualness. I’m not weeping over this, but I am a tad wistful. Not for struggling to flatten the sleeves of a cotton shirt or for worming my way into a pair of L’eggs, but for bidding farewell to dressing up. 

When I first came to Ohio in 1985, fresh out of college, I landed a job at Columbus Monthly. My cobbled-together position involved processing subscriptions in the morning, covering for the receptionist at lunch and selling classified advertising in the afternoon. Even as the youngest staff member, I still dressed up for work, although my style wasn’t particularly businesslike. Favorite combos included a splashy floral midi skirt with sky-high red heels and a denim miniskirt with rose-flowered tights and cranberry suede boots. 

During this era of Dynasty and shoulder pads, dressing up meant glitz and shine. At my engagement party, I wore a quintessential Moonlighting-era Cybill Shepherd look: a pink satin skirt and matching draped top, complete with padded shoulders and sparkly rhinestone buttons. This sounds over the top now, but it was darn near perfect then. 

In 1987, I headed to Ohio State for graduate school, in pursuit of a master’s degree in English. A 24-year-old teaching assistant with a baby face, I looked barely older than my students. So, I eschewed jeans and sneakers in hopes of appearing mature. Or, at least, old enough to drink legally. Vintage frocks, beaded cardigans, black boots, tubular knit skirts, oversized white shirts and wide, grommeted belts were my go-tos for classroom wear. My hair was big, and my earrings were bigger. 

After securing my degree, I settled into the 1990s and motherhood, which meant a suburban mom uniform of jeans, T-shirts and white Keds. Everything had to be able to withstand the foul trifecta of spit-up, peanut butter and poop. 

Once a year, I would glam up for a formal winter holiday party in the Hyatt Regency’s enormous chandeliered ballroom, courtesy of my husband’s law firm. This meant tuxedos and long gowns and drop earrings and tiny evening bags. Every December, I trekked to the silk-and-sequin wonderland of Lazarus’ eveningwear department. One favorite stands out: a sweeping pewter-blue taffeta skirt paired with a gleaming blue-and-black brocade bodice. 

This outfit turned out to be a unicorn. My other formal duds saw nightlife only once or twice, but the blue ensemble managed to leave the closet multiple times. However, I did not don the dress to drink cocktails and schmooze with grown-ups. 

As a writing instructor at Thurber House, I’ve taught in costume many times. That blue dress convinced fourth and fifth graders that I was a woman freed from a Dutch Baroque painting at the Columbus Museum of Art. When I taught steampunk writing to middle schoolers, I grabbed the skirt and turned it quasi-Victorian by pouffing it with petticoats and topping it with a lace blouse, tweed vest and brass-buckle corset belt. At Thurber House’s summer camp, I impersonated Louisa May Alcott by adding a high-necked blouse, powder-blue shawl and my grandmother’s cameo. I fashioned a bustle from a small pillow, and the blue skirt worked exceedingly well—although I could not say the same for my attempted Boston accent. 

Odds are I will recruit the skirt for a future costume, but I have no expectation of wearing it again in my own time period. Those fancy holiday parties at the Hyatt no longer require fancy dress. About 15 years ago, I noticed that the younger attorneys had started to abandon tuxedos and gowns. As time passed, I saw hemlines come up and heels go down. I adjusted my garb accordingly. I also mothballed my rhinestone earrings and necklace to avoid looking as though I’d been invited to dine on squab and aspic with the Crawleys at Downton Abbey. 

When mulling over these shifts—and my dusty ironing board—I can’t help sympathizing with dry cleaners, a declining industry that got further walloped during the pandemic. In the 1980s and early ’90s, I regularly patronized Caskey Cleaners in Merion Village which, unlike many dry cleaners, does all the work on-site. Caskey sits inside a vast, steamy, concrete-block building, scented with starch. A battalion of rotating racks hold hundreds of cleaned items, each draped in filmy plastic. Back then, I trundled in every two weeks, my arms loaded with my husband’s Oxford button-down shirts (light starch, hang). At 8:30 in the morning, Caskey was always hopping, as popular as any fern bar on a Friday night. 

Once Lands’ End invented the miraculous “No Iron Buttondown Dress Shirt,” I stopped making the trip to Caskey. But I never forgot it. When I discovered my son’s wedding suit stuffed in the trunk of my car, wrinkled and sweat-stained, the pant cuffs caked with rust-red Virginia mud, I knew what to do. If anyone could save this once-proud suit, Caskey could. I deposited the postman-blue mess on their counter and crossed my fingers. When I picked it up, the suit was perfect. 

So Caskey may survive, as long as groomsmen continue wearing suits. Other kinds of clothing have changed so drastically, I scarcely recognize them. At one time, if my shirt slipped and revealed a bra strap, I was terrified someone would notice. That strip of material was meant to remain unseen, like the creepy clown who hides in the sewers in Stephen King’s “It.” You knew it was there, but you pretended it wasn’t. 

Showing a bra strap now is a fashion choice, not a faux pas. My only mistake would be flashing a boring beige strap. Better yet, if I’m wearing a sports bra, I can skip a top and wear the bra by itself. More than 20 years ago, soccer star Brandi Chastain celebrated a big win by doffing her jersey, revealing her black sports bra. When the image of her, fists raised and midriff exposed, appeared on the cover of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated, the nation clutched its pearls. But now? Stop by any GoYoga, and half the class will be wearing sports bras in a dazzling array of colors and strappiness. 

Not to mention leggings and yoga pants, which have so insinuated themselves into our daily lives that I cannot imagine a world without them. Even my 84-year-old mother-in-law loves her leggings. And she looks great in them, since she hits the gym far more than I do. However, if 24-year-old Kathy suddenly materialized as I headed out to yoga class, she would likely grab my arm and say, sotto voce, “Ma’am, do you realize that you’re only wearing tights? Where’d your pants go?” 

As I fumbled for an answer, she would politely add, “And your bra strap is showing.” 

That once-clear dividing line between what we wear in public and what we wear at home has nearly been erased. Now my daily goal is to wear outfits that come as close to pajamas as possible. Since I’m constantly sitting in front of a computer, there’s no good reason to suffer a tight waistband. I’m well-stocked with leggings, yoga pants and joggers. If I can’t do a plié in it, I don’t want to wear it. 

During the pandemic, the performative nature of clothing fell away. No one was striding down a city sidewalk trying to impress strangers or vamping up to attend a party. As people broadcast from bedrooms and dining room tables, public selves and private selves became one and the same. And we didn’t hate it. 

While this change felt sudden, social formality has been fading away for years, just like our dressy clothing. Almost everyone is on a first-name basis with everyone else now. We swear more and we share more. The salty exchanges between me and my daughter would burn my mother’s ears, but I revel in them. 

Still, as I sit here in my oh-so-comfortable gray sweatpants, I can’t deny my nostalgia for bygone days. I’m not alone. The middle schoolers in my steampunk classes surprised me by embracing the world of calling cards and oyster forks. They found Victorian England, with its strict etiquette and elaborate rituals, as exotic as any fantasy world. For our final class, everyone designed their own costumes and arrived impressively attired in velvet skirts and top hats, lace-up boots and pocket watches. 

Clearly, I’m not the only one who likes to dress up. 

Nonetheless, I don’t want to trade in my yoga pants for velvet skirts. I’ll take the loss of gloss in exchange for the joys of informality and openness. And the fact that I don’t need to plug in the iron anymore? That’s just a bonus.  

This story is from the January 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.