Is this fashion or a feeding frenzy? The role internet plays in our consumption of clothes
The haul overhaul
Let's start with a little exercise. Worry not; this workout is not the kind that will cause the dripping of sweat. No, this jog we're doing is for your memory.
Picture your closet. Do you have it in your mind? Good. Now try to remember the oldest item in it. Once you do, try to remember the most expensive item in it. They don't have to be clothing, they can be an accessories i.e. a bag or a pair of shoes too. If you're home, allow me to suggest digging both of them up. I use the word "dig" because I imagine that's what I have to do to find the oldest and most expensive things I own — a red leather jacket from college I no longer fit into (I keep it for sentimental reasons) and a Céline bag I'm pretty sure nobody has seen me carry in the last 365 days.
I bought my Céline at a sale. I don't dislike it, but I don't love it. I don't remember loving it at the sales floor either. What I do recall is a sense of urgency, the heart palpitations triggered by the excitement induced by the sight of rows and rows of leather goods, available to me at a favourable price. I thought, "I'm a 25-year-old writer, and I can walk out of here with a Céline bag before noon today." Therein lies the crux of the problem. Almost every person I know has a similar story to tell. It may not be a Céline, it may not have involved a discount, but we all recognise the shopping symptom. The internal battle is real. Everyone is here, buying up a storm, licking up the deals. I know I don't need the bag. But something tells me that I just got to have it anyway.
Science can explain this. Buying triggers the pleasure centres of the brain, relating the experience to happiness. Chemistry. It's the reason why we have to clear out our closets so often. There is nobility in donating our clothes, giving them away to our closest and dearest or selling them at a tiny fraction of its price to those who need it. It's a practice that has existed since we commoditised clothing.
"The internal battle is real. Everyone is here, shopping up a storm, licking up the deals. You know you don't need the bag. But something tells you that you just got to have it anyway."
But the amount of clothes that we toss out, the many millions of tons of fabric that finds its final home in landfills is worrisome, mostly because the equation is so puzzling. Statistics show that the cost of production of clothing has increased over the decades, but the cost of clothing has not. On the contrary, clothes have become cheaper. All that shopping is good news for OOTDs on Instagram but bad news for the wallet. And real bad news for environment and the labourers buried in modern sweatshops.
If it's not on Instagram, did it happen?
I don't normally associate fashion with Silence of the Lambs, the 1991 classic thriller responsible for propelling Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins to international fame, but a haunting quote by Hannibal Lector is applicable in this instance. "How do we begin to covet?" he asked. "Do we seek out things to covet? No. We begin by coveting what we see every day."
It led me to think about what it is that we do we see every day. If you're a millennial like me, the answer is social media. I'm almost ashamed to say it's the first thing I do when I open my eyes every morning, but it's true. Upon turning off my alarm, before I even roll out of bed, I go on Facebook and I check Instagram. The same habit is replicated before sleep. Thanks to algorithm, I am, as we are, constantly exposed to the things I like — because our preferences are tracked by social media data — and for many of us fashionable folk in our 20s and 30s, what we like is clothes. The fresh-off-the-tissue-paper Vetements, the latest H&M collaboration. Essentially, beautiful new things.
It's a bit of a self-perpetuating cycle too, a question of chicken and egg if you will. Do we like something because we constantly see it — and see it worn by someone we look up to — or does algorithm guarantee that we constantly see it because we like it? We're no stranger to the experience of spotting the results of our Google search and the contents of our digital shopping bag magically pop up as ads on our feed. As such, do we buy something because we constantly see it (science strongly correlates repeated exposure with attribution of positive qualities) or do we see something and seek it out because we really want to buy it?
"How do we begin to covet? Do we seek out things to covet? No. We begin by coveting what we see every day."
One thing I know: The internet, specifically social media, has a tremendous effect on our relationship with clothes. Without even getting into the pit that is the immediacy and convenience of shopping online, exclusive web discounts (Cyber Monday anyone?) and low credit limits, it's not hard to imagine how the flurry of selfies and OOTDs by brands and social media influencers perpetuate desire and in turn, encourage shopping.
When hype turns style to stuff
Just last week, I was mindlessly tapping my iPhone screen, watching one Instagram story after another, when Chiara Ferragni's videos came on. In one of them, she moved her camera across a king sized bed, of which every inch of the bed sheet was covered in her fiance's shopping spree at Supreme. First thought: It felt like watching those YouTube hauls that garner millions of views, except this is condensed into 15 seconds and plays without warning. Second thought: All the power to them for being able to accrue the kind of wealth that allows this magnitude of luxury.
But it did lead to me ponder on the extravagances social media propel within fashion. Specifically, how little they have to do with actual appreciation of a product, of its style and process and story, and how much they have to do with the hedonism of shopping as an activity and pleasure that comes with ownership.
Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with wanting to share our lives and the things we enjoy and love with our audience big or small, but even the most trained minds and filtered eyes can't always deny the lure of consumerism. Simply, having nice things, is nice. How's this for a relatable narrative: She's wearing the new Kylie lippie. The new Kylie lippie looks good. I wonder how the Kylie lippie will look on me. OMG it's sold out online. I must get the Kylie lippie when it's available again.
To buy, or not to buy: that is the question
This New York magazine article hits the nail on the head. Coolness was but is no longer a subjective matter; it is now quantified in the number of likes on your Instagram picture, the number of times your Twitter and Facebook post is shared. With undisputable scores on popularity come certain performance pressures. For a fashion editor, the dilemma takes form in musings like these: Should I dress like how a fashion editor typically dresses? Do I buy those shoes that scream, "on trend" though I can't afford it? Am I going to be taken seriously by industry peers if I don't upload pictures of myself in my new clothes?
When in doubt, I return to the basics. Not so much in clothes, but in principles. I weigh if the fashion item I'm about to buy is a true expression of myself, an extrapolation of my style, or if it's a by-product of how I want to be perceived. I ask myself if I'm walking to the cashier because I love what I'm holding in my hand or the love I need is the one that can only be fulfilled with every red heart gained on Instagram. Before I surrender my credit card, I work out how wearable the item is on a daily basis, and whether it works with the rest of my wardrobe.
If it's a big-ticket item, I do the extra homework. I try it on in the fitting room and I try it on again. There are times when I take the plunge. Others, I bite the bullet and put the item back, no matter how much I love it
... and I go home to hunt for a better deal online. Hey, I'm only human.