Taste is the New Bread: Making Our Own Aesthetics While We Stay Home

In a time of global lockdown, when almost everyone is either shut-in at home or covered head to toe in PPE at work, why should anyone be concerned with maintaining their appearance? Lifestyle articles like “Giving In to Letting Go” or “Why Get All Made Up with Nowhere to Go?” encourage us to swap a high maintenance look for something more low key. 

Sorry we're Closed due to Covid-19. Foldable advertising poster on the street (Photo GETTY IMAGES)
The U of T team’s serological test, which works in under an hour, involves dousing a blood sample with purified SARS-CoV-2 proteins so that antibodies can bind to them (Photo Tajinder Ubhi)

The quarantine shows that many of us prefer to obey a dress code, instead of dressing for personal satisfaction. While we cannot dismiss the human need to conform and to belong, we can still aspire to make our individual aesthetics our own, free from social and cultural pressures. If we recognize our aesthetics not as an obligation, but as an individual choice, then our routines become irrelevant. Even if our fierce individual aesthetics may not get the respect and recognition from others that they deserve, they’re worth the effort—if not to challenge social norms, then at least our own fears. 

The current slowdown might be the ideal opportunity to reevaluate our urge to fit in and to explore alternative options we haven’t had the time or reason to consider before. It may seem insensitive to be examining our aesthetics while the world is in turmoil, but one aspect of human nature is that there are always imaginative people who find possibilities in difficult times. While we acknowledge our collective grief, we can also embrace our individual creativity. 

During World War I, when thousands of men were fighting in the war, women were encouraged to take their place in the workforce. The revolutionary French fashion designer, Coco Chanel, spotted the need to develop practical, yet chic women’s clothing that could support their new demands and responsibilities. One of Chanel’s greatest contributions to the world of fashion was ditching the feminine corseted form and introducing outfits that were as functional as they were beautiful. Like Chanel, developing our aesthetics during the current lockdown could allow us to emerge as less conventional and our more creative selves. 

Coco Chanel in 1972 by Man Ray. (Vintage Photography Archive)
Coco Avant Chanel (Photo: Warner Bros)

First and foremost, remember the primary audience is ourselves: If we aren’t enthusiastic about the clothes, the hairstyle, the makeup or the glasses we wear, then it doesn’t matter what anyone else says or thinks. It’s vital to recognize the way we feel about ourselves, before we let anyone else share their opinions. 

Differentiate our inner voice from our inner fear: We all have intuitions about what we like and are comfortable wearing, but we tend to give more weight to our incessant  inner critic. We need to learn to trust our gut and develop the courage to stay loyal to our own vision. Being brave and taking ownership of our aesthetics is an intensely liberating experience.  

Champion taste over fashion: While taste can be fashionable, fashion isn’t always tasteful. Tasteful clothing is timeless, while fashionable pieces usually only offer a temporary sparkle before becoming an embarrassment. Good design has a long life. Take the Japanese fashion designer Johji Yamamoto. Yamamoto’s pioneering fashion collections from the early 80s still look spectacular a half century later. Personally, I’ve treasured my own white oversized Johji Yamamoto men’s cotton shirt since I bought it in the 90s. 

A look from Yohji Yamamoto's Fall 1981 ready-to-wear collection (Photo: John Bright/Penske Media/REX/Shutterstock)
Yohji Yamamoto (Photo: Nicolas Guerin)

Incorporate high with low-end fashion brands:  Cultivating our aesthetics doesn’t have to break the bank, particularly during these financially trying times. On the contrary, it can teach us to become creative consumers and to spend our money wisely. If we use contrast—one of the key principles of design—then we’ll learn how to skilfully combine pricey with bargain brands. For example, a vintage Louis Vuitton Speedy purse with an understated Muji trench coat will never go out of style.   

Buy only what we love and will value for a long time: I find this is the simplest way to live a less wasteful and more enriching lifestyle. Whether we’re dressing down for a cottage weekend or up for a dinner party, every article of clothing needs to embody these two key attributes: longevity and commitment to one’s taste. 

Rate every potential purchase on a scale from 1 to 10: Before handing over our credit card, let’s ask the following: Is it our style? Is it well made? Is it timeless? Will it work with what we have? It’s crucial to be as honest as we can and make each question worth up to two points. If the final score doesn’t add up to more than seven, let it go. Life is too short to buy shit. 

Invest in quality, not luxury: Well-made luxury clothing lasts a long time. Yet talking about ‘luxury’ brands can sound elitist. Luxury conveys something that’s neither common, nor easily available or affordable. While luxury brands don’t always deliver quality, they offer a sense of exclusivity. Nowadays, the concept of quality has been reduced largely to luxury brands. But if we have something we’ve loved and worn for a long time, we’ll understand the value of good quality as opposed to the price of a  glamorous brand. 

Embrace criticism and accept compliments graciously: Defining our aesthetics is packed with unforeseeable moments of criticism and compliments that require a great deal of graciousness, courage, and resilience to handle well. I try to take each comment as they come and see what happens. The rewards may not be immediately obvious and they often come from unexpected places, yet I find that each adds to my own enigmatic sense of aesthetics. It’s an ongoing process, with one self-realization at a time.


Making Space
for Time

In his inaugural 1961 speech, John F. Kennedy told Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” In 2020, during our COVID-19 lockdown, we might “ask not what we will do with our time, ask what we will let our time do with us.” Under the current quarantine, we’ve realized that having an abundance of time can be as hard, if not harder, than not having a second to spare.

COVID-19 assessment centre in Ottawa (Adrian Wyld/CP)
A messaging advising Canadians to ‘stay home’. (Cole Burston/Bloomberg/ Getty Images)

According to today’s standards, to live a meaningful life means to keep busy. Even during the Coronavirus’s ‘new normal’, we carry on in our old ways: filling our days as much as we can. Whether working from home, watching Netflix, listening to podcasts, baking bread, or FaceTiming with friends, there’s no shortage of activities to distract ourselves with.  

The unexpected amount of free time has become overwhelming, mainly for those of us living alone or staying at home. Certainly, the global lockdown has generated unforeseeable limitations, and every day only deepens our nostalgia for our frantically busy pre-COVID lifestyles. Instead of addressing what we cannot do, why not scrutinize the ‘old normal’ and recognize the opportunities the current lockdown offers? Although we’re restricted to certain kinds of activities, we have permission to do less, to slow down and reflect. Instead of our being compulsively busy, we could use time to create space. 

No shortage of activities to do during Covid-19 lockdown.

In graphic design the role of space—or negative space as it’s often called—is essential. Without a sufficient amount of breathing room, a design solution can easily become unremarkable, if not irrelevant. Contrast of space is one of the key principles that designers can not do without. The right amount of negative space allows design elements to visually connect with one another and to provide an opportunity for people to engage with the design. Despite the importance of negative space, designing emptiness is intimidating for many designers, especially at first. Doing less is harder, because we’re not measuring the quantity of what we do, but the meaning of it. 

An effective use of negative space for the Royal Shakespeare Company poster for their Othello production, 2010.
A diferent use of negative space in Emigre #55 issue, 2000.

If we take our cue from good design, we’ll also challenge ourselves to do less, and to realize that we’re not wasting our time if we don’t use every second to text friends while filling our nails and learning Russian. Designers know a design needs space that’s purposefully left empty–it’s not a waste, it’s an investment. 

The value of space is as crucial in our daily lives as it is in graphic design. Like numerous aspiring designers, we too feel more comfortable packing our days to the fullest. We don’t realize that by doing so, our busy lifestyles can become as flat as cluttered, overdone designs. Applying the principles of negative space could help to transform the apocalyptic lockdown experience. It could leave time and space for the possibility of something meaningful to emerge and give us the tools to resist what we do the best, keeping busy.