May 23, 2020

A Plainer People in a Plainer Time

As the lockdown forces us to turn inward, we rethink what’s important and what we were meant to do.

We’re easing up. Good, it’s time. Spring is here, summer’s coming. You can pass any well-meaning restriction and do your best to enforce it, but great leaders work with human nature, not against it. People need to be together, out in the air, in the sun, and if you don’t let them they’ll find a way anyhow, and then everybody will have to fight.

All 50 states are to varying degree unlocking. How citizens do this will determine the size and severity of second and third waves. It’s almost all in our hands. A report this week from a scientist who helped discover SARS said that a lab experiment confirms what common sense always suggested: Wearing a mask can substantially reduce disease transmission and viral loads. If we all do that one small thing, chances are we’ll get through OK.

How could we not? Especially after we’ve just done something so big.

What we did — essentially shut down a great, complex, modern nation for two months out of concern that people would become sick — had never been tried before. It’s something new in history. We will look back on it, however it turns out, with a certain wonder.

In those two months we learned a lot. How intertwined and interconnected our economy is, how provisional, how this thing depended on that. And how whisperingly thin were everybody’s profit margins. The well-being of the West Side block depends on human traffic, which depends on restaurants and bars, which depend on the theater being open. It was a George Bailey economy: “Every man on that transport died. Harry wasn’t there to save them, because you weren’t there to save Harry.” Every economy is, in the end, and if you’re interested in economics you knew this, but not the way you know it after the business catastrophe of 2020.

But the biggest things I suspect we learned were internal. No matter what you do for a living, when you weren’t busy introspection knocked on the door and settled in. Two different men, professionals, both blinked with surprise as they reported, unasked, that they can’t believe they have their college-age kids home again and they’re all together and they have dinner every night and play board games. They were so grateful. They had no idea this was possible, that it would make them so happy. That it had been missing.

People have suffered. They’ve been afraid. The ground on which they stand has shifted. Many have been reviewing their lives, thinking not only of “what’s important” or “what makes me happy” but “what was I designed to do?” They’ve been conducting a kind of internal life review, reflecting on the decision that seemed small and turned out to be crucial, wondering about paths not taken, recognizing strokes of luck. They’ve been thinking about their religious faith or lack of it, about their relationships. Phone calls have been longer, love more easily expressed, its lack more admitted.

It has been a dramatic time. We have stopped and thought about our lives, and our society’s arrangements. We have applauded together, for the first time, those whose jobs kept our towns up and operating, from nurses to truckers. We’ve rethought not only what is “essential” but who is important. All this will change you as a nation.

Here is what I am certain of. We will emerge a plainer people in a plainer country, and maybe a deeper one. Something big inside us shifted.

Superficially, the hair is scruffier, the roots grew out, but you can almost hear people thinking eh, our time is finite, our money limited — maybe that’s not gray, it’s silver. Maybe that new fringe is my silver lining. We’ve grown used to soft clothes, gym clothes. I have three outfits in daily rotation and I keep them folded on a window ledge, like a child laying out her clothes for school. I like the simplicity of this. I shared it with a friend. “That’s what I do!” he said. “And I don’t want to stop!” We watch TV news and home studios, light makeup and spectral lighting and think OK, sign of the times.

The world has admired and imitated America’s crisp chic, but I see an altering of the national style. For reasons economic and existential a new simplicity is coming, glitz leaving. (All this would be especially true for those over 40, but according to the Census Bureau that’s more than half the country.)

Fashion is a sliver of life. Maybe you approach it as the fun of glamour; maybe you see it as a way of paying tribute to life by making it even more beautiful. Maybe you see it as vanity, chasing youth. But it’s a leading indicator of a nation’s mood, and it will be changed by what we’ve experienced.

We’re getting pared down. We’re paring ourselves down.

I asked Andre Leon Talley, former creative director at Vogue, whose new memoir, “The Chiffon Trenches,” is about more than fashion, if he saw it as I did, knowing he’d disagree. But no. “I think more people will be dressed, when we come out of this pandemic, in almost Amish stoicism — a simple uniform of basic wash and dry. It’s going to be difficult for fashion to exist as a mainstream addiction.”

Vogue, he noted by email, has just published a new issue. “For the first time in ages there is no celebrity cover choice, no high-fashion model in near perfection of dress and grooming. There is a red rose, photographed by the late Irving Penn, which symbolizes more than a mere trend of dress.” He called the cover “iconic.” To him it symbolizes “the larger issues of life” — nature, gardens, fresh flowers.

When he speaks to people in fashion, “they are not even concerned with acquiring the new.” “Women are wearing neat, coordinated exercise gear or track suits as they walk off the extra pounds gained from self-quarantine.”

This, he said, is the mood: “I recently saw a video of Amish men moving a big red barn across a field. Instead of having it raised on a flatbed, 300 men wearing black simply picked up the full-size barn and moved it across a field. That was so moving to me. The idea of how humans can be so resourceful, based on strength and their cultural roots. Amish people are elegant, yet they adhere to traditions that have been passed down generation to generation.”

Women “will always want to look smart, neat and well groomed,” he said. “There’s nothing like a woman who has put on a simple white cotton button-front shirt, a simple skirt, and she has taken a beautiful cotton or linen or silk scarf and neatly knotted it at the chin or the nape of her neck. That is what I mean when I say Amish stoicism. The pioneer genes shall prevail, and women will focus on the essentials: nurturing their children in the arc of safety (homes and schools) providing food (driving to breadlines and food banks) and making do with what is already in the closet. Everything old will be suddenly new again.”

We will lose, for a while, our old patina. We will not much miss it.

America is about to become a plainer place. Maybe a deeper one, too. Maybe that’s good.

Republished with permission from

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