Remember the opening montage in “The Devil Wears Prada,” when all of the “clackers” are getting dolled up for work in luxury lingerie and hosiery, sample-size runway looks, designer heels and accessories galore? And they strut out of their chic Manhattan apartments with perfect makeup and polished hair and hail cabs to take them to their low-paying fashion editorial jobs?
Ugh, I yearn for that experience. I wish for it like a starry-eyed college kid with big-city dreams and mounting debt—or at least some semblance of it. The difference now is that I’m decades older, and though I have that fashion editorial job, it’s playing out across Zoom and Slack and unanswered emails because 22 months later, we’re still in a pandemic.
While I can’t say I ever related to the clackers—Annie’s sweater vest and bagel are more my speed—both offer the same energy. It’s that transformative feeling that happens when you get up in the morning, pick out an outfit that makes you feel like the best version of yourself, and step out into the world.
It is among the most minor of inconveniences and hardships brought on by the pandemic, but working remotely has stripped away a ritual that until 2020, I didn’t truly realize how much I enjoyed and relied on to conquer the day. Before the holidays, my employer announced it would postpone the mandatory “return to office” date set prior to Omicron dominating daily headlines. It was the appropriate decision to make as New York City sees new daily records for confirmed Covid cases (and hospitalizations here just topped 10,000 for the first time in 20 months!), and it’s reflective of how the company has protected its employees and their families throughout the pandemic.
But behind the screen, I low-key felt deflated and alone in my disappointment. The new dresses, tops and tights I’ve joyfully acquired in anticipation of going back to work would continue to pile up on my overflowing bedroom chair.
Sure, commuting can be a pain, especially in NYC where subway crime is inching up to pre-pandemic levels. I also save money working remotely because I’m not buying $6 coffees or being tempted by the stores I pass by, but I confess, I love working in an office. I wish I could join the chorus of voices proclaiming how “WFH” has freed time for new hobbies, exercise routines and rest, but it turns out that I thrive in the curious world of office theater, including making a concerted effort to dress the part each day.
I work for a fashion media company, after all. It’s more than likely that anyone working here has some sort of appreciation for fashion and style even after they sign off for the day. Maybe they even feed off of it, like I do.
It is not like the stereotypical snobby, label-obsessed offices depicted in films, but the clothes people wear to work have the power to reveal glimmers of their personality—insights that are not as easily gleaned remotely. Veterans can be identified by their classic and seasonless style and unique accessories collected over the years. You can spot the millennials who’ve been influenced by brands and aesthetics born on Instagram, while recent college graduates have an enviably youthful knack for mixing thrifted threads with streetwear or whatever strikes their fancy.
Though attendance is not mandatory, the office reopened for employees who wish to come in, and more recently they’ve been encouraged to re-acclimate to the environment—like bagged goldfish adjusting to the water temperature in a new bowl. I jumped at the chance to return to work, plodding to the office most days since September 2020.
A group of “regulars” has formed from different brands and departments, bonding over a shared fondness for traditional work settings and responsibilities, like photo shoots and attending events, that require us to leave our homes. As a result, the office now feels like it’s our territory; individual offices and cubicles our own plots of land. Newcomers, who almost always wander around in bewilderment telling everyone they haven’t been back since March 2020, are viewed with caution and suspicion.
But this desolate land of few occupants has a laidback Summer Friday-type vibe compared to the pre-pandemic office, one that doesn’t call for dry-clean-only clothing or even ironing, for that matter. There are simply not enough people present to appreciate a sparkly pair of heels or a feather-trimmed blouse, much to my disappointment.
I often wonder if the same people who are now “regulars” were also the kids who eagerly looked forward to the first day of school. I know I was, carefully planning outfits in advance to the point where I had socks tucked into shoes and a week’s worth of clothes laid out. It is the same experience now as it was back then. Like most kids, I longed for summer break, but after lounging around in T-shirts and shorts I was ready to get back into clothing that matched, preferably with buttons and zippers.
Admittedly, I have taken advantage of the perks that come with doing my job remotely, including working in pajamas, which quickly lost its appeal within the first couple of weeks. I have, however, spent priceless time with my family and our pets as we all hunkered down at my parents’ house in Florida during the bleakest days of 2020. These moments are made even more precious as our beloved 18-year-old chihuahua brought all of us home again before he crossed the rainbow bridge a year ago. As an adult, I’ve had the opportunity to create new rituals with my family—things I haven’t had the chance to do since I was a kid—like catching up on vampire TV shows with my brother (if you’re not watching “What We Do In the Shadows,” you’re missing out), walks with my mom at a nearby trail, and our daily mid-day coffee break.
By working remotely, I had the opportunity to finally help with the house projects that I normally never have time for during my typical whirlwind visits. I was also in a better position to help with expenses when my father was jobless like millions of other Americans in 2020.
I am painfully aware of how lucky and privileged I am to not only be allowed to work remotely and earn a paycheck for a job that I’m passionate about (in media, nonetheless) but also to do it without the loss and heartbreak millions have experienced due to covid. I am sometimes paralyzed by the luck, anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop. It doesn’t sit well with me that some of us, simply through a stroke of fate, are finding moments of enjoyment from a situation that has shattered the lives of so many around the world.
I don’t think I am alone in feeling an indescribable emotional cocktail of relief, guilt, gratitude, and hope when I got my first and second vaccines, and now booster. Relief that fewer people would die, guilt over the nearly 5.5 million worldwide who already have, gratitude for the vaccines, and hope for a return to normalcy—just basic, ho-hum normalcy. Because it’s not really about the fashion or the desire to peacock around the office. It’s about missing out on the daily nuances and routines like getting dressed for work that made life feel normal, or at least normal-ish.
The office will eventually reopen. And when it happens, I’m sure I’ll miss being able to mute certain colleagues. There inevitably will be days when I’ll wish I could cocoon myself in bed with my laptop, my phone and nothing more. But that’s not life and the pandemic didn’t happen so we could sit faceless and voiceless and increasingly detached behind a screen for 8-plus hours a day. Getting up and dressed for work is just the first little step toward nabbing a good seat on the subway, the Starbucks baristas remembering my order, making afterwork plans and that wonderful sense of contentment when you finally return home from a long day at work and can relax in your pajamas.
For some, it took a global pandemic to take stock of what we have and find joy in the small moments and simple pleasures that make up a single day.