After Quarantining in Paris For Over a Year, Author Danielle Steel Dreams of Dressing Up Again
In this essay, she explores life during and after COVID, and reuniting with her gloriously full closet in her long-empty home.
On February 27, 2020, I arrived at my second home in Paris to meet my three daughters who work in fashion (Victoria, Vanessa, and Samantha Traina) for the ready-to-wear shows, which I love going to with them - I never miss Chanel (both ready-to-wear and haute couture). Fashion has been my passion since I was a child. I wore the white wool coat my grandmother gave me for my 14th birthday backward, as a dress. The same grandmother treated me to my first haute couture suit by Jacques Heim at 17, and my first Hermès Kelly bag at 18. I've been attending the shows in Paris ever since. I passed on the fashion gene to my daughters and took them to the shows as children. I attended Parsons School of Design at 15 and became a writer instead. But I love fashion!
When I arrived in Paris in February 2020, there was a rumor about a nasty flu in Italy, and for the first time I canceled my seat at the shows, with an odd premonition. My daughters did the same and left Paris two weeks early on March 1, after they finished their work. They didn't linger; they wanted to leave Europe as soon as they could. I had no idea that was the last time I would see my children for 14 months. The rumors rapidly became frightening fact as the pandemic took hold, and on March 13, I was ordered into lockdown in Paris, along with the rest of France.
Three days later, the U.S. closed its borders to foreigners. The world was shutting down. As a U.S. citizen, I could have flown back to the States, but I was advised by doctors in both countries that the virus was too dangerous and travel was too high-risk. And after a sobering conversation with all of my children, we agreed that it was safer for me to stay in France. It was a weighty decision but seemed the wisest course. So I stayed, assuming it would last a month at most. I was in solitary lockdown for 77 days, a hell of a long time to be isolated. I walked a mile around my apartment every day and got a tan on a tiny balcony. I was determined to be a good sport and constructive for the duration - I wrote diligently. I also tried to wear something fun and happy every day and posted it on Instagram. I did public service announcements in French and English, encouraging people to follow the rules and keep their spirits up.
I dressed and wore makeup every day, and at the end of the first confinement, I sent 90 sweaters, sweatshirts, jeans, and leggings to the dry cleaner. Travel remained dangerous, though France seemed safer than the U.S., and I wound up back in lockdown again from the end of October until the beginning of December. By then, dressing every day seemed like too much work, so I made a deal with myself: I stayed in my nightgown with my hair a mess and dressed in "real" clothes every other day. Sometimes I cheated and stayed in my nightgown for two days. A terrifying spike in the number of new cases and deaths made it impossible to go home for Christmas, and I was entirely alone, with all of my eight children spread out around the States. It was an unimaginable situation for us, but we lived through it.
The third lockdown for all of March and April  sank everyone's spirits. COVID was proving to be tenacious, variants were even more contagious, and there was no end in sight. The vaccines had arrived by then but weren't rolling out fast enough to change the numbers in Europe. I stayed in my "writing clothes" almost every day (old cashmere nightgowns with holes worn with sweaters over them). A faithful friend continued to visit me regularly for lunch all year, and I made the effort to dress for him, in Chanel jackets and pretty sweaters. It cheered me up, and I felt like myself again and still connected to the world when I got dressed.
I tried not to wear black, although I often do; it looked too depressing, and "fun" masks weren't fun anymore. The lockdowns and curfews (at 6 p.m.) obliterated human contact and social life. With restaurants closed and entertaining at home risky and discouraged, a long, cold gray winter had set in, and a few weeks became a year. There is no point in dressing up if there is nowhere to go. With people working remotely, no parties, no gatherings, and few or no visits, comfort clothes were de rigueur. Addicted to fashion, I shopped by phone or online occasionally, but the excitement had gone out of it. I believe that when the situation improves, and people can meet and socialize again, they will dress for work and play. We need to feel festive again, to get out, get back in the world and see family and friends, and go to work - not just on Zoom in pajama bottoms and a chic jacket. Fashion isn't dead; it's just lying dormant after a year and will be back with energy and excitement.
I left Paris the day the third confinement ended and headed back to the States to see my children at last. I was dressed in all black for the trip, as I always do. It felt strange and unprotected to be out in the world again, like leaving the womb, or a convent. I was sad to leave Paris and my friends there but thrilled to be seeing my children. I felt like a ghost as I walked into my home in California after a 16-hour trip. What I wore was irrelevant. Just being there was enough. My world had moved on without me, but as a result, we had all grown up.
Fourteen months without my family was an enormous challenge. It taught us endurance, patience, and strength, and made us find, identify, and develop our own inner resources. Each of us had to face the pandemic in our own way. We have been tested and blessed in many ways. Some good things resulted from the pandemic. Relationships began and grew stronger than they might have otherwise. Some long-troubled marriages foundered and ended. Babies were conceived and born. New talents were discovered, friendships were deepened, books were written, and endless numbers of people got puppies. Loved ones were lost, and in some cases, hope was kept alive.
When it is truly over and the world is right side up, we will have discovered who we really are and what matters most to us. And I think that fashion will be back, stronger than ever. People will want to look great again and to celebrate. Joy will be back in our lives, and fashion will be fun again and a celebration. We're almost there now! I can hardly wait.
Steel is a New York Times bestselling author who has written 190 books. Her latest novel, Nine Lives, is out on July 6.
For more stories like this, pick up the July 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download June 18th.