I conducted a casual poll recently, asking friends to name the most crucial item of gear that had helped them survive these past eighteen months. Results ranged from cars and air pods — the most-cited items — to a microplaner, likely used to grate untold amounts of lemons and aged cheeses upon countless home-cooked meals. A college friend in Vermont sent along a detailed list of cold-weather running gear; another one in Montreal wouldn’t have made it without her espresso machine. A designer in Baltimore tipped me to an $11.99 field pant liner procured from an Army and Navy store that could have come off the runway, while a bi-coastal museum director that has been traversing the country by car introduced me to a delightful pop-up tent that self-assembles when tossed like a frisbee. So many weighted blankets! So many different kinds of face cream! Melatonin gummies. CBD joints.
How are workaday objects transformed, seemingly overnight, into crucial infrastructure during troubled times? What constitutes a ‘need’ in the face of a global pandemic? How do our desires inform the way we perceive our needs?
We could frame these questions in damning consumerist terms: The American impetus to acquire hasn’t abated during the pandemic, even if the ways and means by which we did so may have changed. Whether forced by lockdown, lost jobs, or fear alone, restricted spending gave us the opportunity to re-evaluate and redefine our relationship to stuff. Almost overnight, we became desirous of things like hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, surgical masks — items that I certainly didn’t have on hand back in March of 2020 but still stock with regularity and maybe always will.
In thinking about these questions, I plucked M.I.T. social scientist Sherry Turkle’s Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (MIT Press, 2011) from the depths of my bookshelf. In a fascinating series of personal essays, Turkle and her collaborators explore the emotional bonds people form with objects through various forms of psychological association. In her introductory essay, she invokes sociologist Victor Turner in a way that I found particularly relevant to the present moment: Turner calls times of transition liminal or “threshold” moments, and Turkle considers objects associated with transitional times to have particular significance.
The pandemic definitely represents a threshold moment. It makes sense then that objects we have grown close to over these past months would begin to feel like needs, even though they would most certainly have qualified as wants in the Before Times.
I laughed out loud when my friend Emily texted to say that she had purchased Madonna’s seminal Sex book during the pandemic, listing it alongside the Ring Fit Nintendo Switch and white Crocs leftover from her 2016 pregnancy (“pregnancy is the original lockdown”) as critical gear. “It feels like Madonna made this book and then everyone just stopped having sex — like this is the last document of human sexuality.” “I’m pretty sure that’s what actually happened,” I replied. My closest friend in Brooklyn said that color had become her pandemic talisman.
Some objects of pandemic desire aren’t objects at all. What are yours?
Pandemic Objects (Victoria and Albert Museum V&A Blog, ongoing); Really Thinking About Things (New York Times, November 8, 2007); The Pitfalls of Pandemic Shopping (The Guardian, August 23, 2021); Is Your ‘Go Bag’ Ready? (New York Times, September 2, 2021); The Best Gear For Your Bug-Out Bag (Wirecutter; September 10, 2021); An Oral History of Norma Kamali (Vogue, June 1, 2016); Madonna’s ‘Erotica,’ ‘Sex’: Why Musical Masterpiece, Defiant Book Still Matter (Rolling Stone, October 19, 2017)
Faithful reader, it won’t come as a surprise to you that I have been quietly acquiring fashion over these past months, knowing damn well that I have had virtually “nowhere to wear” these pieces. (I wear them everywhere.) My favorite thus far is my long-coveted and ever-iconic Norma Kamali sleeping bag coat in classic silver, purchased during what felt like an exceptionally brutal pandemic winter and chosen for its reflective properties and likeness to the NASA space suits Kamali looked at while designing the coat’s formidable technical features. The sleeping bag coat has enjoyed a well-deserved resurgence in the press over these past couple of years, which Kamali wisely spun into a massive pandemic sale.