Following on from last week’s look at the changing face of the supermarket shopping experience during Covid-19, in this week’s thought-piece we explore how shopping has become a reinforced act of self-care during the pandemic…
Despite having nowhere to go, young people are purchasing more clothes online than ever, with 2/5 18-34 year olds purchasing fashion products during quarantine. Since lockdown began in March online spend on apparel, footwear, and accessories has increased 18% among Gen Z and 13% amongst millennials.
In a ‘normal’ world, motivations for clothes purchasing centre around activities or social identities i.e. work clothes, going out clothes, birthdays, weddings etc. However, under lockdown this simply is not the case. So why are young people continuing to purchase clothes?
Traditionally clothes shopping has helped us perform social roles
Culturally, clothes are used to signify an individual’s particular social, gender, class or age identity. The clothes we wear also help us perform different social roles – i.e. the efficient office worker, the gym bunny, the doting mother – as well as switch between them. Therefore, clothes are an incredibly important part of determining how well we perform our identity in different social situations.
This theory of identity as a social performance is called Dramaturgy. Dramaturgy posits that each individual has a frontstage (where they perform certain social roles to an audience) and a backstage (where the frontstage performance is constructed, with no audience present) much like an actor.
Historically clothes help us perform our frontstage roles, influencing how other people see us. However, this has changed under Covid, as we are mostly confined to our backstage, only entering into frontstage spaces when absolutely necessary. These frontstage spaces are mostly fleeting experiences: Dressing for work, now means putting on your top half for Zoom meetings (something fashion brands have capitalised on) while our interactions outside of the home are now characterised by avoidance, rather than social performance.
Clothes shopping is now more about self-care than social performance
In lockdown the phrase ‘Retail Therapy’ has taken on a new meaning.
Increasingly confined to backstage spaces, with no one to perform to, consumers are using clothes to nurture their backstage selves. Instead of purchasing based on the messages clothes communicate to others, consumers are purchasing based on how clothes make them feel.
In a time of extreme uncertainty and stress, people want clothes to make them feel safe and relaxed – or as Vogue suggests to ‘be comforted’. Psychologists have termed this phenomenon ‘enclothed cognition’ – with clothes having a significant effect on the wearer’s mood and mindset. Increasingly the act of buying clothes is becoming an act of reflexive self-care and mood management– with consumers investing in clothes that they believe will boost their mood and wellness.
‘I’ve literally just started shopping due to my mood, like new comfy stuff to make me feel better and some fun summer stuff just to make me feel good about everything that’s going on!’– Female, 22
So, what are consumers buying to manage their mood during Covid? Primarily, clothes that are comfortable – both in terms of the materials used and how they feel on the body.
According to a Cotton Inc. study, 84% of shoppers are looking for comfortable clothes like activewear, sleepwear, and lounge apparel, with two fifths recently purchasing these items in lockdown. In April, tracking firm, Edit, found that sales of sweat pants were up 36% compared to that time last year, with the likes of Anna Wintour donning them for the first time ever in lockdown.
‘I bought some new active wear as I’ve started doing more yoga at home (although I wear it far too often as it’s so comfy!)’– Female, 25
This trend for comfort and flexibility has been bubbling up for a while, with fashionistas proclaiming that comfort was one of the leading trends heading into of 2020.
Pre-Covid, commentators tagged this trend for comfort down to the emotionally-fuelled current political climate (climate change, Trumpism, Brexit and #metoo) and the fact that Gen Z were staying home more than their older counterparts.
Trend forecasters believe that ‘the pandemic has simply put this trend on steroids’, accelerating the demand for clothes that coddle consumers – making them feel good, rather than just making them look good.
Online fashion brands have capitalised on this newfound focus on the backstage self and the need for comfort. Both ASOS’s staying in-in and Models at Home collections have highlighted loungewear, pyjamas and tracksuits. Fast fashion retailer PLT’s ‘staying home’ edit is filled with over-sized, elasticated clothing, designed to help customers feel ‘pampered’ and ‘chilled out’.
Online retailer BooHoo has gone a step further with their #boohoointhehouse campaign, telling customers ‘We’re bringing you the stay-at-home looks that will make everything a little easier right now…the #boohoointhehouse collection was made for staying in, chilling out and taking some much needed ‘you time babe.’ This directly positions their clothes as a source of wellness and relaxation.
Will We Ever Return to Frontstage Performative Dressing?
The motivations behind clothes purchasing are highly dependent on what happens after lockdown.
If the UK is rapidly opened up, with social events being allowed to take place, then hyper-performative dressing may increase.
There is historical precedent for more performative, frontstage dressing after periods of isolation and trauma: fashion historians highlight the hyper-feminine performativity of 1950’s fashion as a response to the make-do-and-mend attitude of WWII.
However, if a second wave of Covid occurs and forms of social isolation last long into 2021, it is likely that the trend of clothes purchasing and dressing as self-care/mood management is here to stay. Fashion retailers will need to be mindful that as people increasingly occupy the backstage part of their identity, the role of clothing in self-care and wellbeing will continue to be more important than the social performance of clothing.
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