Like many others quarantined at home, I find myself with an abundance of time to spend in front of the television. Passing from streaming service to streaming service, docu-series to foreign drama, digitized film to YouTube short, the days of the Coronavirus have increasingly been defined by what we’re watching. While a few choice programs, like Tiger King, are able to sweep the nation (the Nation of Netflix, for which we all stand), the decision of what to watch is left to one’s personal desires. So what does it mean if all I can watch are period pieces, set decades or even centuries before I was even born?
It all started with a recommendation from Rebecca to watch Babylon Berlin, a German neo-noir TV-show set in 1929 Berlin. Needless to say, I was tantalized by the glittery fashions, clever plot twists, and mysterious, shadowy figures of the city’s criminal, political, and even medical underworld. For perhaps the entirety of the first season, I recommended the show to anyone who would listen, and waxed poetic about the incredible costumes, precise set decoration, and absolutely breathtaking world creation achieve by the production team.
For the next few weeks, I craved the same sort of exhilaration I felt while watching that show and seeing a masterfully crafted work unfold before my eyes. After a lot of watching and even more scrolling, it has become clear that while the world creation I so adored was driven on its face by a need for beautiful visuals, it’s hiding a desire for escape in a moment characterized by a constant state of unpredictability and worry.
To be sure, my list of “Have Watched” and “Want to Watch” reads like a cinematic traipse through some of the most lavish and visually compelling periods in modern history. In the former column: Netflix’s Freud, another German mystery set in the early 20th century; Hulu’s A French Village, a drama about a small French town during German occupation; The Tudors, a royal drama from Showtime; the ever-enchanting Gilda, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette; Gosford Park; The Aviator…The latter column is populated with more of the same: The upcoming Mrs. America on Hulu, a show about the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s; Planetarium, a film starring Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp as a pair 1930’s psychics; Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York; Elizabeth and Elizabeth the Golden Age; Netflix’s Alias Grace; Howard’s End; A Single Man … the list goes on.
I was able to convince myself for quite some time that what was attractive was the idea of visually exploring these different fashion eras without the pressure of a time constraint. That was until a friend recommended a show on HBO, High Maintenance. Set in contemporary New York (or as contemporary as 2012 can feel right now), it’s a comedy about a bicycle-riding marijuana dealer who ventures to different clients’ apartments in Brooklyn and the peculiar people and situations he encounters along the way. It’s one of those shows that puts a specific facet of New York life on screen for everyone to see and enjoy, and warms the hearts of those lucky enough to live there.
Or that would be true if New York weren’t the global epicenter for an era-defining pandemic. I found myself unable to make it through a single episode of the show, and when my friend pressed me on why, I realized I couldn’t stand to watch normal 21st century people going about their normal 21st century lives. Not because the thought of anyone within 6 feet of each other suddenly made me squirm, but because it somehow felt as foreign and bygone as those other period pieces I’d been watching henceforth. Captive in my parents’ home and an ocean away from the city where I thought I would be spending this year, a return to normal—if even through a TV screen—seems as far-off a dream as wandering into the court of Louis XIV, manteau and all.
American television makes squaring the now with the very recent-past even more difficult due to the constancy of news, updates, and presidential pontificating. The crisis is inescapable from newspaper to news channel, and suffocates the mind, sending it spiraling in directions economic, political, medicinal, familial, and on and on and on. It seems the only respite from one’s own mind would be to erase the present altogether, and settle into a bygone era. An era either free from the complications of the present, or familiar enough that the mind can relish in the comfort of knowing exactly how it all plays out, and release the anxiety of uncertainty.
For us fashion lovers, film and television have always been an enjoyable part of our research. Allowing myself to escape into a period where beaded dresses were de rigeur at a nightclub or a corset was a social necessity or one was never to leave the house without at least a swipe of lipstick was always the best way to engage with the stories and societies that surround clothing—and it becomes especially enticing when I have no reason to wear anything but sweatpants for the foreseeable future. But in a moment where the fashion industry is faced with a reckoning the likes of which it has never encountered in its modern iteration, I fear to neglect an examination of the contemporary would be doing a disservice to the possibilities of the future. When every aspect of fashion production and its international scope is affected by changing buying habits and the global threat of infection; When multi-national luxury conglomerates have transformed their perfume manufacturers to hand sanitizer suppliers; When home-sewing has seen a resurgence to provide necessary equipment for our doctors and nurses; When all this and more is true at this very moment, it seems to me that the fashion of the near future and beyond will be forever changed. Decisions about what that change looks like relies on those of us who spend our days contemplating fashion’s constant importance through history and beyond.
Of course, I will never not recommend Babylon Berlin, as it’s certainly a masterpiece of the genre (CGI train notwithstanding). But in these next weeks of isolation, I think a valuable exercise may be one of actually allowing myself to come to terms with this moment and what’s to come: what’s to come for my studies and, more importantly, what’s to come for fashion.