24 Aug Pandemic Inspires Richmond Residents to Dress Their Way
Oghenetaze Etibo embraced a more colorful look after COVID-19 made him feel like he was dying.
Story by Maria Bernal | Photos by David Meza
Electric blue hair, a bright pink bomber jacket, and a blond eyebrow are staples of 26-year-old Richmond artist Oghenetaze Etibo’s look, but that wasn’t always the case.
As the pandemic has changed many people’s clothing habits, people in Richmond and beyond have decided to express themselves in ways through fashion, wearing more of what makes them feel comfortable and confident.
Etibo’s style, which he now describes as hippie and colorful, changed because he got COVID-19 and said he felt like he was dying. That inspired him to “dress up.” So he started dyeing his hair different colors and wearing attention-grabbing statement pieces.
“COVID really taught me that I could die anytime. Let me just dress up. It taught me that anybody can just die,” he said. “It kind of felt like I was dying, so I was like, you know what, I’m just dyeing my hair. Let me just do this and this, because it felt like my life was ending.”
Before COVID, Etibo would wear “a lot of hoodies” and dark colors and would purposely cover his birthmark, but now he wears T-shirts that showcase the birthmark he calls art.
“I like to show my birthmark, and then just express myself more. So, yeah, I never liked to dress up or even like eyes on me and stuff. Now, I’m like you know what, … I don’t care; I like that,” he said.
But not everyone appreciates his new look.
First, someone reported him at the clinic where he works. Then, he was asked to tone his style down because it was considered unprofessional. Indeed, Etibo has had many people judge him for his choice of outfits. Still, he says he gets more compliments than criticism and will continue to express himself.
“It might be too colorful, not professional. I try to express myself the more negative feedback I get,” Etibo said. “I’m like, nobody’s complaining, but only a few people over there are just trying to ruin me or trying to put me in a shell. I just do it because I just want to move my art to my fashion.”
Also in Richmond is a Maya wood carver’s daughter who picked up Maya art as part of her wardrobe. Ixchel Contreras, just 7 years old, wears a Maya-inspired black crewneck made by her parents, for example.
She also recently got a necklace depicting the Maya goddess for whom she is named. In the Maya religion, Ixchel, whose name means rainbow woman, was the goddess of the moon and more.
“When I was going to school, I loved dresses,” she said. “I wear dresses every day, and then now, COVID, I wear more shorts because I’m now starting to like shorts — shorts, tank tops, sweatshirts, hoodies, all that stuff.”
Ixchel said she prefers to wear comfortable clothing as well as clothes her parents designed for her. She likes that in fashion people have the freedom to be creative like her father.
“I like how everybody makes their own designs, stripes, circles, maybe even stars,” she said. “[My dad] painted my jean skirt, and he put a lot of Mayan stuff like butterflies with the sun, the moon, the rainbow, all that stuff. And a lot of flowers.”
Ixchel said she is the only person in her school who uses Maya art in her wardrobe. She has not seen her classmates because of COVID and cannot showcase her outfit online.
“Everybody there just wears different fashion stuff,” Ixchel said. “It’s just like a culture that I love and it’s just, perfect and everything and everything I wear is just so nice, because like it’s all, it’s my culture, most of it is just my culture.”
Dr. Dawnn Karen, a fashion psychologist, told CNN that the trends tell us about our state of mind and how clothes can be used to lift the mood.
Looks from the 1970s and 2000s are popular now because these eras represent escapism and a form of healing, Karen said.
One resident throwing it back with vintage outfit choices is 21-year-old Jonathan Leal. They draw inspiration from their aunt and sister’s wardrobes from the past. Leal also does not conform to gender norms of dress and will wear brassy, geometric earrings they discovered at the flea market.
“Change the stigma of feminine clothing and male clothing. The whole thing of clothing having genders. ‘Oh, guys should wear this.’ Question that,” Leal said. “But in reality, you should wear whatever you want, what makes you feel comfortable.”
During the pandemic, Leal started feeling more comfortable wearing brighter clothes and more jewelry. They said that being alone transformed the way they express themselves through clothes.
“Wear something different. Something colorful. Yeah, like I’m telling you will feel 10 times better, 1000 times better, so be yourself. Don’t worry about what people got to say about your outfit.”
They wear a black Star Wars bomber jacket accessorized with pins collected at events. Leal paints their nails and always carries an electric blue canvas bag made by a local artist, as a memorial to a friend who died.
“Learning to be with myself and depending on myself — that boosted my self-esteem … I just felt like a whole different person,” they said.
Style also changed during the pandemic as public spaces closed and people started working from home. They did not have to dress up, so relaxed clothing became a go-to look.
Sales of sweatpants went up during the pandemic and they were at a peak of popularity in December 2020 for Google searches. Slippers, loungewear and pajamas also peaked in Google search popularity at the same time.
Richmond artist Gabriela Diaz, 30, embraced two trends, adopting a minimalist casual look during the pandemic and looking to the past for inspiration, namely Hugh Hefner. She admires how the Playboy publisher known for wearing a silk robe and pajamas was able to live a life of pleasure and luxury.
“That’s the mentality that I have when it comes to fashion,” Diaz said. “But other than that, I really strive for comfort and to look like myself.”
She said she is drawn to loungewear, silk soft fabrics and sneakers. She loves the basics at Target because they are affordable and come in a variety of comfortable options.
Diaz said she wants “to make the best with the least amount of effort.” Before the pandemic, she would wear jeans and would wear “uncomfortable outfits” and makeup with the “uncomfortable strip lash.”
“I feel like [during] COVID, people kind of tone it down, and if you notice what’s trending now, is, like, really natural: really natural eyebrows, natural skin makeup, very minimal eye shadow,” Diaz said.
Diaz will wear “pristine white” pieces of clothing and add a pop of color with accessories. She also prefers to live a healthier lifestyle that includes drinking water and getting enough exercise.
“This new way of leisure and optimal health in order to look good, is really cool to me and I really, really love that,” she said. “As somebody who likes to take care of their health and their skin and stay looking young for as long as possible, it’s really encouraging to see people hopping on the trend.”