Notes from the Summer of Tie-Dye

When the future is uncertain, we turn to tie-dye.

At the Western & Southern Open last week, the tennis tournament played right before this year’s US Open, no. 9 seed Diego Schwartzman showed up in a tie-dye Fila t-shirt. It was bright, colorful, full of life, and made perfect sartorial sense for the Jewish Argentinean tennis player who still wears string bracelets.

Immediately, I wanted to purchase that t-shirt. Every part of me longed for that t-shirt. No other item of clothing mattered.

I googled and learned Schwartzman loves the shirt (“I really love the new shirt,” he told Tennis TourTalk. “It was a nice change. I knew since the beginning of the year, but I was hoping to play at this tournament and to wear this shirt. So I’m very happy to be here and using these clothes for Cincinnati.”). I also learned, unfortunately, it’s only sold in men’s sizing. I did still debate buying it — but ultimately opted for my (third) full tie-dye sweatsuit instead.

It seems like the entire world has pivoted to a need for tie-dye clothing. My Instagram feed, likely inspired by my googling, has been exclusively ads for tie-dye clothing for months now. Most friends I know have either tie-dye’d something themselves, or purchased a new tie-dye item. When I informally polled my coworkers on Slack, four of them said they had, indeed, purchased a new tie-dye item since March. (We are a very small team so this means that essentially all of Team Alma has purchased a new item of tie-dye.) We’re suddenly all tie-dye girl from The Parent Trap.

Yet, my desire to purchase new tie-dye in the middle of a pandemic didn’t totally make sense to me. Now that I work from home, I wear the exact same thing every day (t-shirt, leggings, sweatshirt), making it all the more confusing why I was coveting all these new tie-dye clothes that seemingly no one but my boyfriend will see me wear. But I think — I know — that it all comes back to comfort.

For me, tie-dye is a print that immediately brings me back to childhood. It makes me think of summer camp; of those animal-shaped rubber band bracelets; of running to stop the ice cream truck on a hot August evening. In a 2018 trend piece on tie-dye, Sophie Benson writes in Dazed, “Tie-dye lets you dip into a point in time and bring a little bit of it back with you. It’s a bright, beautiful comfort blanket you can bring out of storage when you need an escape. Inhale it and remember better times. We need this, OK?”

And so maybe it’s no surprise that tie-dye has popped up once again as people are craving comfort in the face of total uncertainty. There’s a reason the only thing I want to wear right now is a tie-dye sweatsuit: the ultimate calming clothing wrapped in the ultimate nostalgic print.

It’s that sense of comfort that clicked in my brain when I first saw Diego Schwartzman’s Fila t-shirt. It’s why, when news of a Jake Gyllenhaal/Russ & Daughters tie-dye t-shirt crossed my feed, I purchased it as soon as I saw it (along with every other Jewish person on Twitter, causing it to sell out and delaying deliveries for a month and a half).

It’s not just tie-dye, either. I seem to be falling for more novelty items of clothing I would typically debate about purchasing, and then usually not, pre-pandemic. When I saw “llamakkah” pajama boxers on sale from PJ Salvage? I did not hesitate (they have llamas! In tallit!). When I saw the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association was partnering with BreakingT to sell t-shirts in support of their fight for equal pay? I bought two. (They read “Pay the women” and “Never stop fighting for equality.”)

I’m not alone in my desire for t-shirts that support causes I care for. As New Yorker writer Rachel Syme tweeted, “show me the last novelty t-shirt you purchased, preferably during quarantine,” because “i have a hunch this is a booming market.” Similarly, author Celeste Ng tweeted on Independent Bookstore Day that she is “thinking of celebrating it by ordering T-shirts from indies that I love.”

What does it mean to purchase new clothes right now? And why do so many of us seem to be gravitating toward the novelty and nostalgia?

First, let me just step back and recognize the privilege I have in having disposable income to purchase any new clothes, at all, right now. I know it can seem kind of silly to be talking about shopping when so much of the world is up in flames — but that’s also kind of the point.

My relationship to clothes has fundamentally shifted since March. I have never loved shopping. My wardrobe has barely shifted in the past five years, though I cannot resist purchasing a new denim jumpsuit every spring. But — cue March 2020, lockdown, the pandemic, stay-at-home, permanent remote work… you know how the story goes. Suddenly, I found myself scrolling longingly through clothing sites that I had never visited, subscribing to newsletters (more newsletters, why did I do that to myself) for sales and discounts, and buying multiple tie-dye sweatsuits.

My relationship to what I wear is usually in relation to how I am feeling about myself. Until March, I always felt better in a pair of funky earrings — but now with noise-cancelling headphones, wearing earrings is out. I love(d) jeans, like truly I can’t even tell you how nothing feels better for me than wearing a Canadian tuxedo, but the thought of getting out of bed to go to walk ten feet to my desk in jeans? Absolutely fucking not. Writing this essay, here in late August, I think I have worn jeans a total of two times since early March.

Now, clothing is so much less about how we present ourselves to the world, but how we cope with the world itself. When I’m at my most anxious, I want to go back to those days at summer camp, creating lanyards and wondering what the ice cream treat of the day will be. I want to be in cute matching outfits with my younger sister. I want to be anywhere that feels more safe than here, wearing anything that makes me feel secure. I want to inhale it and remember better times.

So yes, this was the summer of tie-dye. It was the summer of seeking out comfort wherever we can find it. And, I have a feeling that it will continue this autumn.

Header image design by Emily Burack. L-R: “Tie-dye girl” in the Parent Trap, Jake Gyllenhaal via Russ & Daughters Instagram, Diego Schwartzman image by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images, and author in 2020 and 2002.

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