For a guy with a closet full of clothes that call back to college campuses 60 years ago, I’m relatively wary of nostalgia. When I scroll through collections of old photos on Instagram (the new Tumblr), panning for menswear mood board gold, I try to be cognizant of the broader setting of the scenes I’m mining, and the reasons they might appeal to me. I want to bring the good stuff into the present, but the clothes we wear, and our fathers wore, are weighted with association and meaning, not always positive. Maybe I think a ’60s Ivy League student looks objectively rad, but behind that assessment are ideas about class and aspiration that reflect on me, and reflect the social position of that student.
Sometimes I choose to examine what my taste might mean about me, and sometimes I just button down my collar and go on with my day. (And that’s just Ivy; not the only fashion influence with an eye firmly on the rearview mirror.)
When I look at what I’ve been shopping for and wearing since the advent of COVID, though, it’s heavily nostalgic. Not so much for an earlier era, one that I didn’t participate or live in, but for earlier eras of my own taste. I attribute this tendency in part to the collapsing of pillars of modern men’s clothing, and wanting to cling to pieces of Brooks Brothers or J. Crew in case they disappear. But nostalgia also a tether in a disorientingly unmoored year.
As Dr. Valentina Stoycheva put it in a July New York Times piece on nostalgia in the COVID era,
Trauma takes away our gray areas. It divides our timeline into a before and an after. And while it has the danger of creating this longing for the before, when things were maybe safer, and when we were unaware of all of this and protected by our naïveté, there’s also something about nostalgic behaviors — fashion, clothes, movies, music — that serve as a transitional object. [Such an object] increases your ability to self-soothe during a stressful time… Anything that can help you calm yourself down, feel more soothed, feel more grounded, is very useful.
According to my eBay history, I’ve been soothing the hell out of myself. This summer, I lived in the types of styles I wore, or wanted to wear, 20 years ago — fatigue shorts and Ralph Lauren khaki shorts (best eBay find of the year? A lot of 40 pairs of vintage RL shorts for <$100), band t-shirts from bands I don’t really listen to much anymore, and ’90s Nike designs. Mesh shorts. When I have to dress nicely, I look like a ’90s GAP ad: OCBDs, khakis, and loafers (OK, they’re brown suede tassel loafers, not the beat-up Bass Weejuns I had in 2000.) You may have noticed a higher than usual amount of this type of stuff in our eBay roundups, courtesy of me.
As we move into fall, I’m not really looking to branch out or stretch my style. I want more of the same, plus the types of clothes that served as gateway drugs for me in the 2000s, when I first started being more thoughtful about what I wore. Since I’m still avoiding in-person thrifting or vintage store browsing (it’s likely safe, but doesn’t meet the need vs. risk threshold I’ve set for myself), I’ve been stalking online vintage marketplaces for the items that would’ve made my day in a thrift store in 2008: deadstock Brooks Brothers, pre-90s Abercrombie and Fitch, old L.L. Bean, assorted work and western wear. Plus t-shirts that would’ve been in my drawer (or a friend’s) as a teen — indie and hardcore bands, surf or skate shops and brands — that sort of thing. I have not yet made the leap to shopping for Big Johnson shirts or JNCOs.
And that’s probably because I’m trying to connect with a version of myself that I like — an enthusiastic guy, hungry for knowledge and optimistic about the future. Not so much the insecure kid, wanting alternately to blend or stand out, on occasion obliviously callous toward people who cared for me. Unconsciously, at least at first, I’ve been reminding myself, through clothes, of what I consider the better parts of my life — and my personality.
In a year in which it’s been hard to find things to celebrate or things to look forward to, I’m reaching for these north stars of style even more so than usual. (It doesn’t hurt that the stuff I’m talking about tends to sell relatively cheaply, giving me discovery’s jolt of pleasure and something to look forward to without requiring me to make a lot of budget trade-offs.)
In that NYT piece, Danielle Campoamor wrote “Self-awareness is key when navigating not only the present moment, but the ways in which nostalgia presents itself as a coping mechanism… nostalgia is neither good nor bad, but that you should think introspectively about what, exactly, you’re truly getting out of it. Ask yourself: Why am I doing this? Why am I craving or longing for this thing in particular, and what do I hope to get out of it?”
I still have room for new, exciting ideas in fashion and style, but right now, not for myself. For now, I’m wrapping myself in a quilt of threadbare hardcore band tees, stuffed with Shetland sweaters, and patched with RL tartan, and settling in.