Australia is in a Clayton’s Covid lockdown – and an unworn pink dress is haunting me

Photograph: Matt Baron/REX/Shutterstock © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Matt Baron/REX/Shutterstock

The world’s most optimistic garment hangs in my wardrobe. Maybe it hangs in yours, too?

Mine is a cocktail dress. A shimmering, silk-satin tube the same shade of pink as a strawberry milkshake. It’s tight and long with a bow at the back. I bought it on the insistence of two friends and two strangers from a bit-of-everything shop in the old Daylesford convent. This was just a few weeks and a thousand lifetimes ago – before the Omicron wave smashed the Australian east coast.

I have been unlucky with lockdowns; I was caught in Victoria’s for months, and then a short trip to Sydney lasted more months when last June’s lockdown started there, too. Meetups with friends used to be casual. They’ve since become precious – and though their rituals are half-remembered, their energy’s been ferocious.

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So, in the convent shop change room, I wrangled my hair into a French twist with the same intensity I put into believing that parties, launches, opening nights – anything, any event at all involving crowds of people and dressing up – may yet be imminent again. I strutted out to front the gang, and there were two details I failed to appreciate properly.

The first was that everyone was still firmly masked. The second was that the dress was marked down to $40. Whoever had priced it had a wiser eye on the future than I did.

Two weeks later, the dress is untouched in the wardrobe, it’s unlikely to be touched … yet coronavirus seems to be touching everyone, everywhere. Once, cases in the hundreds terrified Australians; now virulent Omicron delivers daily infections here in the tens of thousands.

Social media’s become a public rollcall of infected Australians, famous and not. This week, former PM Malcolm Turnbull has the virus. So does my partner’s mum. A friend’s mother and her son. Another household of friends, including a briefly hospitalised baby.

Australians find themselves in the Clayton’s lockdown – the lockdown you have when you’re still desperate to avoid the virus but the federal government’s not paying jobkeeper. Sickness has crippled supply chains, bare supermarket shelves have returned. The streets of our town are silent again … and I am back to wearing thongs with pyjama pants around the house and pretending they are clothes.

Over these last, thousand-year weeks, the unworn pink dress has become an unnerving symbol of my newest phase of plague distress. Today I worked out why.

The return of New York’s infamous Met Gala last September featured singer Billie Eilish in a peach tulle gown of a square-footage bigger than the average home office. Whether you liked the frock or not, the impracticality of its size and scale of its fluffiness imparted a striking reminder of what it was like to enjoy what you wore – not for comfort or practicality – but for the raw social pleasure of just being seen.

For a few hopeful months, fashion played to the idea we could once again perform our clothes to an audience. The Guardian heralded “colour as the new black”. Vogue offered bright, attention-getting “sweaters to make you smile”. We bled back out into the social world and wild swathes of puffed sleeves were everywhere.

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Then suddenly we were sick, isolating or trying to source unsupplied rapid antigen tests … masked up, staying in and invisible to one another once more. The wearer of my own favourite outfit to last year’s Gala has the virus and now isolates at home.

I admire the fortitude of the iconic Laura Lippman. Back when the lockdowns began in March 2020, the American wrote in Glamour about “how good it felt, getting dressed up and putting on makeup, even if I never left my bedroom”. Nearly two years later, she maintains the ritual. The virus may be the story of the times, but Lippman told me her outfits are “a teeny tiny narrative I create for the day”.

Impressive, too, is the insistent visibility of Ireland’s Taryn De Vere. Ireland experienced some of the harshest lockdowns in Europe and, like Australia, has since been shredded by Omicron; one person in five has tested positive for the virus. Charity shop addict De Vere told me she thought “OK, I’m going to be stuck in the house. Why not be inspired by the things in the house?” She created the #ObjectDressChallenge and now appears on Instagram as pot noodles, milk cartons and even sanitary pad packets, but fashion.

In America and Ireland, at least, style mavens don’t bear the existential burden of wondering where their next RAT is coming from. A local friend’s confession of being “back in my undies and a singlet I can wear straight from bed to Zoom” speaks more to the present Australian sense of ennui.

Omicron spreads, I’m bunkered down in a house which stores an entire adulthood of going-out clothes I have now not worn in years. It’s not that today’s mirror reflects some pale slob in her jim-jams that saddens me, though. It’s the new pink dress that hangs in the wardrobe, and the ongoing sense of remaining unseen.

  • Van Badham is a Guardian Australia columnist

Australia is in a Clayton’s Covid lockdown – and an unworn pink dress is haunting me