Outfit Anatomy: Author and Activist Jodie Patterson on Recovering from Covid-19 and Taking Stock of What Family, Community and Style Mean to Her

Welcome to Outfit Anatomy, a series of comprehensive style analyses that aim to break down the mechanics of why we wear what we wear. Up this week is author and activist, Jodie Patterson.

When I was getting dressed for this story last month, I wanted to be comfortable. I had to take the subway from Brooklyn to your office in Soho and it was raining. I’d been on a few Human Rights Campaign board calls that morning and I did a dress rehearsal for a stage performance I was in called In Love and Struggle.

Mostly I wanted to be strong. I was conjuring masculine and feminine vibes—figure old-world glamour with rude-boy confidence. But that day feels like a million minutes ago. I know the routine well, I’ve done it so many times—running from here-to-there, work-to-kids-to-work again, the A-train to the city and back to Brooklyn. And even though it was last month, it feels far enough away that I can’t exactly taste it anymore.

I know this is hard to say and to hear, especially because I know people who haven’t survived this pandemic—I am one of the lucky few who have—but I respect this time. There is so much loss. And I feel the loss. Yet I can see how something like this was a long time coming. The earth is a living, breathing thing and we haven’t really respected that. Now the earth is saying: stop, think about what you’ve done and come back with a new plan of action. I’m trying to take a step back to think about my actions.

Before I got sick with the virus, I was on four planes, a bus, a train, and three stages—not including three televised appearances. So much of that modus operandi is now under question—should anyone really travel that much? How many things do we really have to do in a single day? It now seems to me unnatural and unsafe. I’m trying to rethink the way I’ll work going forward.

I got sick in Vegas. I arrived there on March 3rd for work but by March 5th, I couldn’t get out of bed. My symptoms were a migraine, body pains, and chills darting down my back. I could barely walk down the stairs at my hotel to get in a cab to go to the hospital, but I made it to one on the 5th and tested positive for COVID-19 there. They quarantined me in the hospital for two weeks and in those weeks, I was relocated twice to two separate hospitals.

Even after my symptoms subsided, I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) travel home. It was hard to not have family around. I relied on one caring nurse who reminded me that it only takes one person to extend a hand and to act humanely—to shift a situation from bad (but still not the worst) to better.

I bet we’re all rethinking things. The term “superpower” has been on my mind lately. What does it really mean? What makes us strong? I keep asking myself: Are our systems—those for our families, our businesses, our country—strong enough to withstand COVID-19 or any “virus” for that matter?

And then there’s this big breakthrough, right? We’re debunking the myth that real work happens in an office. But now, we’re seeing it happen whenever and wherever dedicated people are. Period. Activism is real work. Our nurses, mail deliverers, food suppliers, and grocery story folks—they’re the heroes of today. They’re keeping hope alive.

My jacket is by Zac Posen. It’s hand-embroidered—he gave it to me when I was his director of PR over 10 years ago. It was way out of my budget, maybe a thousand dollars. I can’t recall.

The pants are from my favorite shop, No. 6 Store. I bought them because they make me look really tall. There is no zipper, they pull on and pull off. They’re also oversized and have good form so I feel larger than life in them. I’m pretty sure the shop is closed right now, but have been thinking about ways to support my favorite small brands from a distance.

The hat was hand-knitted in 2001 by an old friend and phenomenal singer, Martin Luther. I love that it’s gray. It’s like a neutral slate that complements any mood or outfit. The color equivalent of jeans. And the knit makes the hat flexible so it works with any of my hairstyles.

Martin and I basically grew up together during college. He was at Morehouse and I was at Spelman. He made one of the hats for me and one for my daughter—my first of my five children, who was two at the time.

The world is always heavy but especially right now. I’m proud to be an anchor for my family, community, and business and am called more specifically to stand in this role in these days, but honestly, some days, I just want to fly up and over it all. Young people, I find, can fly over stuff more seamlessly because they’re not as defined by stuff yet.

On other days, I want to “starfish” as I call it—stretch out and touch the world.

And then on a day like today, in the wake of the outbreak, being “down for whatever” takes on a different meaning. I’ve been asking myself: Are you down for what this moment takes? Can you mother your kids and still be present from miles apart?

My three young boys (ages 14, 12, 11) are out of the city with their dad. (They usually go between my house and dad’s house but under the current circumstance I haven’t seen them in over a month.) My daughter, who is 20, lives in Switzerland, in Zurich, on her own. It seems I won’t see her for until after the summer—and my oldest son (he’s 28) lives on his own in Brooklyn. We speak very often.

I stay up at night thinking: If it comes down to it, how do I make my way back to my kids? How do we gather back together as a family and stay together? Are you warrior enough, Jodie, to make it back? If shit ticked up to the next level, could I handle it?

I think to really handle what’s ahead of us, we’ll need to combine wisdom and a sort of naive, young-at-heart fearlessness.

18 homes is a lot, I know. I like movement. I like change. I like design. But I guess the bigger truth is that I myself am constantly in motion, or at least used to be, and seem to use moving to refresh myself and let major shifts take place every few years.

I was the Fashion Director of sales at VIBE (I was horrible at that!). And I ran my own PR firm for years. We had clients like Nike, Lincoln Center, and Cedella Marley. Now I call myself a writer—I have a memoir out called The Bold World and one coming out soon called–and social activist. Most of the work I do is around LGBTQ awareness and protection.

My eyes are pretty naturally seeing the injustices. The divisions in America and in the world have been clear to me, but I think they’re becoming even more clear—the lines drawn between races and economic groups are deeper than ever. I hear a lot of people saying that COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate and it’s true that the virus doesn’t, but which communities will rise or fall as a result of this? We do have the power to collectively and quickly rewrite the story of The Other and frame it as “We.” I really believe that.

In quarantine, I’ve been FaceTiming with my kids and the HRC board members—my extended family—to keep me sane. I’ve been cooking, cleaning, writing, stretching, and running to stay grounded, and I’ve been listening to music, trimming my puppy, and thinking about the day I’ll get dressed again to keep me smiling.

Everything I wear reminds me of people. My hat reminds me of Martin (and honestly, Bob Marley too). My jacket reminds me of Zac Posen. My pants remind me of my father, my uncle and my grandfather—all the gentlemen who came up around the turn of the century through the mid-1900s in Harlem and down south.

And let me tell you, the men in my family were revolutionaries! My dad opened the first black brokerage firm on Wall Street. My uncle was the singer Gil Scott Heron who wrote “The Revolution Won’t Be Televised.” To listen to them speak on economics, politics, and family dynamics was mesmerizing. And they all happened to be very handsome.

I haven’t really been thinking about shopping since the coronavirus outbreak. Not toilet paper, not bags of rice I don’t need. I’m not consuming much at all—just what I need. I’ve been thinking mostly about health, togetherness, soulful music, and maintaining stability. But once in a while, when I’m feeling light, I’ve popped on my favorite fashion and travel sites (Architectural Digest, Nat Geo Traveler, Clare V., No. 6.,) and daydreamed about ‘tomorrow.’ The places to which I’ll travel and the things I will wear to go see those places.

After coming home from Las Vegas, I took a week at home to be still. I moved from room to room in my house but didn’t interact with the outside world. During that time and even still now, I try to be intentional about what I put on, how I care for my skin, my hair, what goes in my mouth. What I listen to and what I read. I’m going to be home for a long time, like so many of us, but still, I dress. I don’t have to. None of us do, but it reminds me that “the day has begun.” In some way it reminds me that even in the wake of loss and sadness, life itself is still enough. As told to Leandra Medine.

Photos by Sabrina Santiago; Photo Assistant: Beth Sacca.

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Leandra M. Cohen

Leandra M. Cohen is the founder of Man Repeller.

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