Dirt: The year mail became entertainment

Informed delivery for the uninformed.

Dirt is a daily email about entertainment.

Daisy Alioto on the evolving aesthetics of snail mail and the fashion of infrastructural blue-collar jobs.

Every morning I wake up and check my Gmail inbox for a picture of my mail.

USPS Informed Delivery has been around since 2014 and was rolled out to most Zip Codes in 2017, but I didn’t sign up for it until I clicked a box while boomeranging between two apartments during early lockdown. 

If you aren’t familiar with Informed Delivery, it’s a flat scan of mail that is supposed to be arriving soon followed by a coded description of any incoming packages. I have always enjoyed receiving mail, but the ability to preview my mail in advance has inserted it into my daily internet routine. In other words, Informed Delivery turned my mail into entertainment. 

My father-in-law is a prolific postcard sender, and it is possible to read these in their entirety before I hold them in my hand. Envelopes are more mysterious, but usually the return address hints at the sender and their intention. And so much of mail’s value is intention — a signifier of the effort it takes to write. That someone has written at all is often more revealing than the contents of the card. 

I had the following exchange with a friend in January:

Through Informed Delivery, I have finally experienced the middle step between wondering if I will get any mail and getting it. The postal service has a “sort of” now, a vague intermediary step, and I don’t think I will ever stop being entertained by it. 

And yet, for the first time in my adult life I am acutely aware of how fragile it all is. Mail is a public service subject to the whims of America’s gerontocracy. It makes me want to tear my hair out that there are people who think that USPS and Amazon should compete on the same market. (If Amazon workers can successfully unionize, that might at least even the playing field.)

A FedEx delivery man nicknamed SANDO has gone viral with videos of FedEx, UPS, USPS and Amazon delivery workers dancing together or pretending to bully the DHL guy. As a completionist, I enjoy the sight of their uniforms all together, even knowing they each denote a different relationship to work and precarity.

In 2019, I was pitching a story called “liminal fashion” about the aesthetics of the gig economy after reading a story in the New York Times about how the blue and yellow equivalent of “UPS’s brown shorts or FedEx’s purple-striped jackets” from freight company Worldnet are coveted among non-delivery workers. 

I also saw liminal fashion in puffy, blue coats that looked like they belong on an airplane tarmac. (The same blue of tent cities and construction tarps.) And in Off-White wallets the exact garish neon as crossing guard vests. Looks that are either dressed up for another day of biometric surveillance and inadequate bathroom breaks or dressed down to hustle from one’s couch.

Like the overpriced denim “work” shirts that came before them, high-fashion pieces that denote blue-collar jobs nibble at my sense of ethics. Especially given the fashion industry’s reliance on contract work. It isn’t clear where the industry begins and ends, as these pieces indicate.

Historically, labor is not the object of aesthetic desire but the thing that props up our desires. Like a trendy tote bag from an art storage facility staffed by freelance art handlers, fashion from the margins of the workforce is both coveted and expendable.

Call me paranoid, but I could feel the slow tilt into “DoorDash chic” and Uber bucket hats and freelancer jeans instead of boyfriend jeans. None of that happened — not because the inequalities were erased, but because everyone working from home started dressing like gig workers... for now. — By Daisy Alioto

The Dirt: D.C. sleeps alone tonight.