But, looking back, there was more style in this hell-fire year than I remembered — and every bit of it reflects political, social, and personal developments. I’ve always had a passion for “statement pieces”; this year, every piece made a statement that went beyond fashion.
Of course, we all went into 2020 knowing it was going to be a terrible election year, with democracy itself on the line. I dressed up in homegrown vintage for a New Year’s Eve dinner with friends, feeling like I had one big chance to be festive before putting aside everything else for activism.
After dressing to impress in January, I dressed to be arrested in February. During the impeachment process, I figured that, since 2016, I’d done everything else that I could: Organizing other activists in person, online, and by newsletter; getting out the vote for Democrats by canvassing, calling, and writing; pressuring my elected officials via calls, emails, in-office meetings, and protests outside their offices. I went to every kind of event. There were protests, rallies, marches, meetings, meetings to prepare for other meetings, performances, legal clinics, fundraisers, town halls. What I hadn’t done was join the people who had long been putting themselves physically on the line to resist the abuse of power. Once I committed to doing that, I was really committed. I was arrested three times at civil disobedience actions in under three weeks, most memorably in the Capitol Rotunda in D.C. with nine other women. But I was most majestically photographed in Times Square on February 16.
I wore my grandest political-statement piece for all three arresting occasions: My slow-fashion motorcycle jacket customized by artist Andrew Lyko with the words “Never Again Action.” That jacket conveyed my deepest motivation for resistance, but it was also practical — the oversize style meant I could wear so many layers under it that I felt immune to cold and unpleasant police frisking. I think my record was seven layers under the leather jacket, including two hoodies.
During this part of the year, the novel coronavirus was looming, but there was intense denial about how much havoc it would wreak, even though experts had warned of the potential lethality of a global pandemic for years. The disease was viewed as a problem for China, where it was first identified, and cruise ships, which are notorious for spreading viruses in close quarters. Two days after the Times Square protest, the global death toll from COVID-19 was reported to be 2,009, and people dismissed the new disease as no worse than a bad flu. (Suddenly, it seemed, everyone was well-versed in flu death statistics, if only to minimize what was coming.)
I think it’s fair, for the purposes of this post, to count a February 29 outfit as March’s look, right? By then, I was hesitant to go to my friends’ career celebration at the University of California at Davis scheduled for that date. UC Davis Medical Center was treating one person who was thought to be the first person to get COVID-19 from community exposure rather than having arrived with it from overseas. That was also the date of the first COVID-19 death in the U.S. In hindsight, it’s incredible to me, but I decided to take my chances partly because I was sure I wouldn’t be getting on a plane for a long time after this short trip. I’m glad I lived to regret that, and I haven’t been on a plane since then.
By March 1, the coronavirus was detected in New York State. People grew warier and everything started slowing down even though the Trump regime continued to dismiss the threat. New York declared a state of emergency on March 7; the American president followed suit on Friday, March 13. That day, I met my friend Chiara at the hospital for her chemo appointment, sure that I wouldn’t be able to go to another one with her, which turned out to be true. The next week, schools and non-essential businesses in New York were officially shut down, and for six weeks after that, the only time I left the apartment to walk the dog, always with my nose and mouth covered, despite the conflicting instructions about masks.
The thing is, even in a pandemic, it’s dangerous to give a would-be dictator any leeway, so when a few equally cautious activist friends suggested a series of masked, socially distanced protests on April 28, I agreed to join them. I took a bus I’d never been on before to Wall Street, because I had heard they were emptier than subway cars. It was a strange trip, partly because I was wearing my painted Never Again jacket with a top hat that made me look like the Babadook. I was also wearing two masks — one with a bandana print for a little extra flair — and the baggy Madewell jeans I’d spent the last six weeks in while lying on the couch and staring at the ceiling. Those jeans are much more comfortable than leggings, trust me. They’re also the same jeans I wore for the three arrests earlier in the year because I could layer tights AND leggings under them, which, like the layering I did under the leather jacket, kept me warm and kept me from feeling too thoroughly frisked. Check out the little hole in the left knee in this April photo. We’ll get back to that later.
After that, I returned home and stayed home until May 20, when I went to Times Square for the first time since the February arrest. It was eerily empty; normal business had not resumed. Activist groups had declared National Day of Mourning protests for the 90,000 people who died of COVID-19 in the U.S. alone. (Remember earlier in the year when the global total was just over 2,000?) We deliberately kept our action to a small, socially distanced, masked photo op. I put on what I’d come to think of as a quarantine/protest uniform: The practical Madewell jeans, the two protective masks (I switched from the bandana to a skull print), the “Never Again” jacket, comfortable shoes, and — because it was interesting in photos and amused the passersby — the top hat.
It felt like New York would be a ghost town forever. Hospitals and health care workers were overwhelmed, the disease wasn’t understood well, and public health messaging was all over the place. But just five days later nothing could keep righteously angry people off the streets. I’ll get into that in the second part of this post. Imagine, I thought I would have nothing to say about what I wore this year and why I wore it!