In the Before Times, some of my favorite clothes were black. There were the black vegan-leather leggings that made me feel like Sandy in the carnival scene from Grease; the black suede Stuart Weitzman 50-50 boots I gifted myself as a “holiday bonus” after my first year as a freelance writer and one-woman S corporation; and a black tulle skirt from Reiss that I liked to wear over a thin black Uniqlo turtleneck (my 6-year-old daughter said this outfit made me look like a witch, which I took as a compliment). I hardly considered myself goth, but I always felt starkly cool, and quintessentially New York, when wearing black. That is, until the pandemic hit.
On what felt like Day 4,567 of quarantine, I came to and found myself decked in head-to-toe rainbow: a hot-pink-and-purple tie-dye sweatshirt, a trio of Skittles-color Roxane Assoulin bracelets stacked on my wrist, and a woven friendship anklet tied just above my right Stan Smith—all while clicking Buy on the brightest, floweriest Rifle Paper Co. fabric mask I could find on Etsy. My reality may be “38-year-old mom barely keeping it together,” but my wardrobe screams “teen camp counselor stoked for color wars.” I’m this close to ordering plastic yarn—which my childhood friends and I called “lanyard” —and schooling my kids in the elusive cobra stitch of my early ’90s youth.
The appetite for ever more trippy tie-dye is insatiable. A targeted ad for a set of tie-dye socks is currently following me around the internet. (In the immortal, recently tweeted words of comedian Alyssa Limperis: “If I get through this quarantine without buying a tie-dye sweatsuit, I can do anything.”) When the temperature spiked to almost 80, my faded old cutoffs siren-called from storage—one of the first times I parted from the overalls I’d discovered in my closet and had begun living in. Ditto the metallic Birkenstocks waiting for me in the summer section of my shoe rack. My Mother’s Day gift to myself reminds me of a more refined version of the jewelry a camper might string together in the arts-and-crafts cabin: a whimsical, gold-plated charm necklace by designer Hart Hagerty of Charleston, South Carolina, festooned with a giant heart, a flower, a star, and the letter A, for my husband and children’s last name.
Pre-pandemic, the last time I wore tie-dye, it was on a T-shirt from a souvenir shop in Kennebunkport, Maine, the summer before fifth grade. But it doesn’t take much self-psychoanalysis to realize I’m dressing the way I want to feel—happy and colorful—in throwback pieces that remind me of simpler, more innocent times.
Judging from Instagram, I know I’m not the only one turning to tie-dye as an unofficial stay-at-home uniform. “I wear tie-dye socks and Birks every day now,” Anna Mack, cocreator of the upstart tie-dying shop Defiant Optimists and the maker of my cheerful new sweatshirt, told Vogue. “Full-on camp counselor chic.” (Birkenstock sales are up 700% during the pandemic, according to ShopStyle.)
Mack said that, as a purposeful Virgo, she needed a project during quarantine, so she and her friend Katherine Kirkland began the bicoastal tie-dye project from Vermont and San Francisco, with all proceeds going to COVID-19 local Direct Relief funds. Their sweats, tees, and socks “encourage people to stay home and stay cozy, while also bringing a little brightness into their lives,” Kirkland said. “At one point I had to relocate my quarantine from San Francisco to Texas, and I’ll tell you: Tie-dyeing next to the Guadalupe River in full multicolor and a straw hat really made me feel like a camper again.”
True to her tweet, Limperis is indeed quarantining in tie-dye, including a bright blue hoodie by a @puppiesmakemehappy. She has ordered a “massive, pink, sparkly scrunchie” too. But the nostalgia goes beyond just clothes: I’ve found myself thinking about little mementos of summer-camp tween and teen life, showing my daughter how to make origami “fortune tellers,” and playing MASH. (Our pantry has become similarly nostalgic, with Fluff and Funfetti cake mix). Limperis jokes that just as she was starting to feel like a 30-year-old adult, the pandemic is bringing out her inner child. “I love puzzles and chalk and beads and for my birthday I want a scooter,” she said in another tweet.
“When you’re a kid, you really have to follow the rules, and I almost feel like the pandemic is creating those rules for us again,” Limperis told Vogue. “It’s like a return to youth”—one that has forced Limperis, a workaholic, to slow down, play hopscotch on regular walks in L.A., and contemplate springing for Rollerblades. She’s already ordered the beads: “I think I’m going to make friendship bracelets that say ‘BFF’ on them.”
In the throes of a pandemic, the usually appropriate and expected ways of dressing can just feel futile. Vogue visual director Samantha Adler, who is known to wear all black all the time, has shocked colleagues on Zoom with sudden pops of color, including an “old Proenza tie-dye T-shirt” and a “tie-dye sweatsuit from Target I bought as a joke with my friends in L.A. trying to be a hypebae.” (Amazon, Adler notes, is her preferred tie-dye provider.) “Everything else, especially in the beginning, was so not normal,” she said, “that dressing normal just felt like an insane action.”
Black has become too dark for what can feel like already bleak times. I’d rather slip on my new tie-dye socks (I will be powerless to resist) and get cracking on some dandelion flower crowns and popsicle crafts. Summer camp may be largely canceled, but the aesthetic is alive and well in my closet.