Dress for the Pandemic You Want, Not the Pandemic You Have

S.R. Studio. LA.CA. Spring 2021 Couture Collection - Apparitions

Sterling Ruby is challenging my notion of couture. He is pushing at couture in a way that only an outsider is able to. Originally trained as a painter, Sterling Ruby has been expanding his artistic practice to include garments. Sterling Ruby’s debut couture collection featured garments that looked ready to face the pandemic and also offered ideas of how one might dress in the new normal. It is post-apocalyptic/post-pandemic couture. But it is also couture for the here and now.

“Apparitions”, the title of Ruby’s collection, conjured up punk apocalyptic pilgrims, floaty nymphs, and architectural power suits reminiscent of David Byrne. There were references to nature in digitally printed floral fabrics and brightly colored denim treated with bleach forms splotches like glowing lichen. Ruby gives care to material, texture, color and pattern. Giant shaggy textiles envelope models like a comforting blanket, a place to hide away from the realities of the world, but also perhaps, the comforting armor one needs in order to face it. The clothes are painterly, and there is an attention to detail and a level of care that is particular to visual artists.

Sterling Ruby’s couture collection faces reality head on. He does not shy away from the pandemic. Instead he presents ways of dressing for it. Or rather, he presents ways of dealing with the grief of the pandemic, by way of getting dressed. These are not party dresses to wear once the pandemic is over and we are repeating the glamour of the 1920’s, like some are predicting. These are garments of weight and substance. They acknowledge the heaviness of grief and the lightness of happiness. They encapsulate the rollercoaster of emotions we have all been feeling.

We can luxuriate on our couch, comfort eating in one of his loose, wispy chiffon dresses. A rectangle of cloth so light it threatens to fly away, it has been stitched with narrow channels of drawstring, shirring and gathering the cloth in light folds across the surface of the body, and radiating out at the seams, like a halo.

We can armor up in one of the ensembles with the bonnet that takes away our peripheral vision, and focus on what is ahead of us. Made out of a heavy denim with large flecks of bleach, the bonnet looms over our vision of the world. Worn with a matching shirt dress and wide leg pants, the voluminous shapes pull towards the ground. A grounding, but also a weighing down.

That weight becomes a source of comfort in the warm and heavy embrace of one of the shag-carpet inspired pieces. A white, red, and blue plaid ambiguously shaped garment envelopes the figure. Maybe it is a jacket. Or maybe it is a skirt suit. Whatever it is, it looks as if it provides the soft comfort of wrapping oneself in a down comforter and has the same calming effect as a weighted blanket. It can also serve as a form of camouflage, to become one with your carpeted surroundings.

When we emerge from under the blanket, we will have to acknowledge the new normal. Wide legged pants, a denim jacket, and a geometric poncho, all printed with the same abstract and textural digital print will be what we wear for our reemergence. Yarn has been haphazardly attached, as if the garment has weathered a storm, emerging with debris clinging to the surface.

Sterling Ruby’s garments are not for show. They are for telling. Sterling Ruby used his debut couture collection to work through his feelings about the pandemic. He did not present us with garments to distract us from it. The garments are practical. Functional. They are to be worn now, and not saved and accumulated for the future.


But eventually we will have to recognize this world as the new normal.

But lately it is hard to motivate ourselves to get dressed at all. Let alone, get dressed up. What purpose does couture serve? Did it ever serve a purpose at all?

How can one channel that grief into the fantastical, dream world of couture?

Couture is about storytelling and excess. Couture transports you. It is about labor and handicraft. We are seeking comfort by escaping our lives and binge watching television. We want to be transported, but we also need to look reality in the eye and take it on. Our values are being challenged. Like most of us, Ruby is looking to the past, calling up shapes reminiscent of early pilgrims. There is an uneasiness and a playfulness to the clothes. Bleach treatments resemble neon lichens. Digital prints of flowers. Shapes are ambiguous, yet also defined. There is loose flowy clothing and protective gear. Comfort in luxury.

Seeing this collection does leave me wondering what the relevance of couture is during a pandemic. The pandemic has caused us to reevaluate what is important to us. It has also caused us to seek solace in television and movies, in the ways they transport us out of our world and into theirs. Couture is a fantasy. Is its purpose now to provide comfort? Like binge watching Bridgerton. Does it now have to transport us even further away from reality? Maybe not.

I wonder if couture can help us shift our values and priorities when it comes to the clothes we wear. Couture puts labor front and center, in a way that we don’t usually think about. In couture, we admire the labor that goes into the garment, and are willing to pay for it. But why can’t we bring that same ethos into the way we purchase the clothes we wear everyday? That level of care should not only be reserved for the clothes we purchase to wear for special occasions.

When most people think of couture clothing, they think of fantastical garments created from swathes of flowing fabric. These garments grace red carpets or are put on display in museums. Couture is reserved for those who can afford it.

You can’t just decide one day that you are going to start designing couture. Couture has specific rules and requirements. Couture is protected by the French government, and you have to be invited in to be officially recognized. Couture is not driven by trends. Couture doesn’t have to sell. It usually doesn’t. Couture is where designers really get to be storytellers. They can take us on a journey into a world they have created.

Couture clothing is constructed by hand, and made to measure. The hand is the most important element of couture. It sketches. It hand stitches the garment. It hand stitches any embellishment on said garment. There is a hand in every element of a couture garment. How can one labor away on a couture collection, the most laborious way to produce garments, when we are weighed down by the grief of the pandemic? But not just the emotional burden of the pandemic. How can we continue in this cycle of production, especially of these excessive, one-of-a-kind, custom garments when unemployment is skyrocketing, and the systems around us are crumbling?