It’s February 18 1960. Jean Cocteau has just released his film The Testament Of Orpheus. Mme Francine Weisweiller is in it, just a small part, but important nevertheless. Mme is not an actress but the aging poet’s best friend and she plays ‘la dame qui s’est trompée d’époque’ or, in translation, and I fear less smoothly, the woman who found herself in the wrong decade. Janine Janet, the creator of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s surreal window displays, is the costume designer, but Mme wears a trailing white dress by Balenciaga himself, which she paid for. Instructed by Cocteau to take his inspiration from Claude Monet and Sarah Bernhardt, Balenciaga produces exactly what suits Mme best and into the bargain doesn’t sully his reputation. Cocteau describes Mme’s appearance as a ‘live phantom of flesh and bone’.
Despite the state rhetoric of ‘locking down’ our physical movements haven’t been suspended, they have adapted: adapted to demonstrate our participation in a new, collective, movement practice called social distancing. I’ve seen people jogging with their arms extended like wings and others lurch off the pavement onto the road, risking ensuing traffic to evade human contact. There seems to be either the tactic of retreat – ducking, dodging and swerving – or the unwavering confidence that the other will and must move. These gestures all ask of the other ‘please don’t touch me,’ or the more assertive ‘don’t you dare touch me.’
The surplus of time and money of the Upper East Side clientele is mirrored in the quiet and calm behaviour of the store personnel: it is a Veblen-esque type of conspicuous consumption which shows off the privilege of the leisure class: a dressing down of your high economic status, and squandering time just because you can. These leggings and sports bras in muted colours are markers of status and wealth, an opulent lifestyle expressed not through golden logos but mesh fabrics. The group habitus of these women shapes the bodies and local economics of the area, which is densely populated with plastic surgeons and athleisure stores, mirroring each other in the quest for physical perfection.
On this second day our mood was still cheery, and we continued to wear our best behaviour like freshly pressed clothes. The next day’s stuck-in-the-mud situation got a bit dirtier. The cheeriness had already faded over breakfast as the kitchen staff repeatedly delivered the wrong order. Frustration and annoyance followed us into the car. Mr Honey Badger directed his anger at me and I looked for relief in the trees and the bush outside the window. Our mutual frustration and anger grew and swelled in the heat as the day progressed. We got stuck in the mud again. It engulfed the car like smooth porridge and nearly did the same with our feet. A few nearby construction workers came to our rescue and helpfully pulled us out with their car. We continued along the rocky, uneven road. Eventually we reached a river, only to realise there was no way to cross. We opened the windows to let in fresh air, but annoyance, frustration, and anger clung to our clothes like the red Tsavo dust.
A Conversation with Mohammad Saeed
‘Clothes are very important because people always look at what you wear. They don’t think about who you are, they only think about what you wear. I don’t like it, but I accept it. When I dress up, to go to a restaurant or to work, people look at me well, but if I’ve just woken up and haven’t made an effort they will judge me. They look at me like I’m bad. I don’t really like my clothes now, but I have to wear what I have because I’m living in a camp. I have clothes in Syria, in Turkey, in Greece, everywhere. The only clothes I miss are the clothes I was wearing when the bomb struck and I was hurt. I asked my mum to save them, and she did. One day I will come back for them.’
A Conversation with Abdul-Wahed Daaboul
‘All my clothes were taken: my jacket, a T-shirt that my best friend gave me before I left Syria with “Lamborghini” written on it. They were my favourite clothes. When my backpack was stolen I had to buy everything new: I bought a jacket and a pair of jeans for €50. In the camps they gave clothes away for free but I couldn’t take them. I don’t know why. Maybe because I had some money, and I felt I should buy my own clothes. There were so many others without money; they should get their clothes for free, not me.’
A Conversation with Bushra Al-Fusail
‘I only have a few things from home now. One is a cotton scarf, it’s black with a red stripe. In Yemen I would have worn it to cover my hair, but here I wear it around my neck. I have a silver necklace too, with a dark red stone. I wear that a lot, though I often take it off when I work with the Yemeni community here in New York. They are often simple people, and they’re not used to seeing a Yemeni woman without an abaya or a hijab. Many Yemenis don’t want to change, even when they’ve left Yemen. The Yemeni community in New York is very strict, so I don’t want them to identify me as Yemeni necessarily. It’s funny: I’m so attached to Yemenis on the one hand, but I also want my space.’