Has The Internet Ruined Clothes Shopping?
Updated: Aug 1, 2018
It's been years since I had a major revamp of my wardrobe and it's well over due. In fact, if I am not destined to be a nudist, it has become critical. But I keep putting it off. Some of my favourite staples are seriously deteriorating forcing me to take the first step: to go through everything I have, work out what to keep, what to bin and what to take to the charity shop. That's the easy part. It's the next step I keep faltering on. A combination of the awkwardness of fashionable clothes and the increasingly frustrating and disappointing experience of clothes shopping itself means it’s getting harder for me to raise even a modicum of enthusiasm for it. With the increase in online shopping and the loss of mainstay high street stores, is this an experience in desperate need of a revamp? Or is part of modern life simply accepting that I'll never be able to easily buy clothes that are comfortable, somewhat practical, reasonably priced AND that look good?
I would like to think I dress moderately fashionably, but I'm certainly not an ardent fashionista. I make sure what I do buy fits me well, feels pleasant on my skin and has some measure of comfort; as well as being reasonably priced. In a nutshell, I like nice quality clothes with a twist of something interesting but not over-the-top. I also have a healthy cynicism for marketing, preferring style, fit and price beyond the name on the label.
My clothing strategy is simple: I maintain a range of staples which I mix and match with 'more fashionable' and eye-catching pieces which are somewhat timeless.
As a result I probably spend less per year on clothes then my Significant Other. Perhaps it's just that I never got into the whole fast fashion 'thing' or that what I want from clothes is diametrically opposed to the aims of a high turnover industry. Either way, my strategy for clothes shopping is increasingly failing me.
Let’s take a look at the process.....
Firstly I regard my time as utterly precious. Unless someone invents a time machine, I will never get those moments back. Do I really want to spend vast, exhausting swathes of time trudging around town or getting blurry-eyed on the internet to get a mere 4 or 5 items that I am only mildly satisfied with?
I can really see how people who follow fashion and keep up with the latest trends rightfully regard it as a hobby - because it now takes dedication and time. Shouldn’t something as basic and necessary as clothing ourselves be a bit easier? Why is it I can't easily find adequate replacements for simple basics? Here are 5 aspects of the clothes shopping experience I struggle with most:
The frustration of finding the clothes I want:
1. Fast fashion has taken over.
It seems that all of the clothes shops are now fast fashion. Places where you could once buy a bog-standard pair of cotton pants have either disappeared (BHS), moved towards lower quality fast fashion (M&S), or simply hold no stock anymore (Debenhams). With my favourite go-to shop GAP also gone, knowing where to buy a basic T-Shirt has become a real brain teaser.
The in-store experience of what is left is more mind-boggling and overwhelming then it ever has been. Trying to locate the jeans section? Forget it, the’ve been randomly sprinkled throughout the store in amongst hundreds of different styles of tops, jewellery, bags and other accessories in an attempt to get you to buy not just one item, but the whole ‘look’. Try going between four of five of these shops in a row without losing your mind.
In a race to keep coming out with something new, designs have become increasingly ‘ornate’. It's impossible to choose between one loud item or another. Kaleidoscope prints, shiny fabrics and strange cuts make me feel as though I have entered the mind of someone on acid instead of somewhere I can find items that will sensibly cover my body. As Christina H wrote in her Cracked article 'The 7 Most Baffling Things About Women's Clothes':
“Unfortunately, all the good styles have already been invented, which means that in order to come out with something that's never been done before, it has to be retarded and look bad on most women. Sometimes they can be lazy and bring back an old style, like with the recent '80s revival, but designers do put their own stamp on it to make it technically new, and usually more ugly and inconvenient (a fine feat with '80s wear).”
It feels as though a vast void has opened up leaving only the clothing on the extreme ends: uncomfortable and impractical, or bland and frumpy.
2. Sizing is all over the place.
How can it be that I’m a size 6-8 in one shop and a 10-12 in another? I highly doubt I'm expanding and shrinking as walk between shops - the odd stop-off for a Subway notwithstanding. What are these sizes even referring to? Men's clothing in measured in inches. For trousers it's the waist and inseam leg measurements and for shirts it's the circumference of the chest.
Whilst it's possible to take several sizes of the same style into a changing room with little hassle, it turns ordering online into a very drawn out process. Requiring customers to over-order and return 50% of the clothes seems like a very inefficient way to conduct business. Not to mention a drain on the earth’s resources with all shipping and packaging.
From previous experience, the only way to buy successfully online is the have bought from a particular brand before either in store or online and be already familiar with their sizing.
Which is fine if you are lucky enough to never lose or gain any weight.
3. Price is no longer an indicator of quality.
This may sound shocking, but there are some items of clothing I have proudly had for about 15 to 20 years since I was a teenager. More remarkably, they’re not high quality designer items but ones I either purchased from cheap market stalls as I travelled Asia, or from average high street chain stores in the early 2000s.
I still have them because they are perfectly intact, no holes or frayed hem lines, no faded colours or pilling, no loose threads and above all, they have miraculously kept their shape.
I marvel at how back then even 'cheap' clothes were better quality, thicker material and generally more suitable for purpose than their equivalents nowadays.
Go into any high street shop and it will be possible to see your hand through the material of many items – even if it isn't made of the ubiquitous pure polyester/polyester mix. Hold it up to the light and you’ll get an even better idea of the tracing paper we are clothing ourselves with. My response to this phenomenon has been to go more upmarket and shop in places deemed to be ‘higher quality’. However it seems many shops are embroiled in a race to the bottom and more expense does not necessarily mean higher quality.
My biggest lesson over the past few years is how price has little bearing on the actual quality of the clothes – it's as if all the shops buy their stock from the same factory in China spinning the Emperor’s new clothes, then re-brand it to sell at different prices.
The disappointment of wearing and washing clothes:
4. The material really is ghastly.
I frequently ask myself whether I’m over-thinking my purchases. Is it really worth taking so much time to think about what I need - how it fits, how it feels, and when it will all fall apart, pill, shrink, stretch or otherwise distort within a few wash cycles?
And just why are there are so many clothes made from polyester?
Is this some secret experiment to turn us all into walking plasma balls or to subtly power the world through static electricity?
It is likely its popularity is in part due to the washability and ease of drying, but as someone who finds the feel against my skin very unpleasant, there is a decided lack of choice. Let's also not mention how the material reacts to stress-sweat.
Internet shopping exacerbates the problem. It’s almost impossible to avoid buying something with awful material when all you have to go on is a heavily photoshopped postage-stamp sized thumbnail. Unless you are fully qualified in textiles and prepared to arduously study every description - all of which takes considerably longer then just running your fingers over it - you are bound to be disappointed.
There are entire internet memes on ‘expectation versus the reality fails’. This is why I prefer to make important purchases from real physical shops.
But even those aren’t always fail-safe.
I noticed myself feeling colder during recent winters. It lead me to wonder if was my age or just the fact that the M&S ‘thermal’ T-shirt I bought was actually so thin I could wear it over my head as a disguise and rob a bank, all with perfect visibility. It is made from polyester, viscose and elastane - materials with the magical quality of actually drawing the cold onto my skin with every icy gust of wind.
I have also been on the hunt for a snug but stylish winter jumper the past two years but all I could find were decorative ones - baggy, low cut and literally made out of mesh. What happened to jumpers that actually keep you warm?
Formal clothes are the worst culprits for feeling cold and uncomfortable in. It’s hardly surprising that women being cold at the office is a widespread workplace issue. Blogger Lucy Rycroft-Smith wrote in her article ‘I wore men’s clothes for a month – and it changed my life’ about her experience ditching women’s formal-wear in favour of men’s work attire:
"I want to know if it is possible to look formal and be comfortable at the same time. If I were to draw a graph showing ‘how formal I look’ and ‘how comfortable I feel’ for the preceding twenty years, it would be what we mathematicians call a negative correlation – as one increases, the other decreases proportionately....the more important the thing, the more uncomfortable I’ve been."
The same correlation could easily be applied to fashion: the more fashionable the item, the greater the discomfort.
5. The clothes and shoes are impractical and uncomfortable.
Looking fashionable or formal seems to entail wearing tighter clothing, showing more flesh (lower cut tops, skirts, three-quarter length sleeves, see-through fabrics) and squeezing into narrower, higher shoes. Let’s not forget about all the other frippery such as buckles, buttons, ruffles and other adornments that serve no other purpose than decoration, inconvenience and high maintenance.
Even shoes have become more about decoration than defending the soles of your feet from the punishment of uncomfortable surfaces. A £20 pair of ballet flats I bought from Next were so thin every piercing nubble and bump in the pavement could be painfully felt through them. Learning from that mistake, I stepped up in price to a pair of thicker-soled £40 Hush Puppies. Within a few weeks they had begun to epically disintegrate. I now trudge around in a £70 pair of Gabor flats which, touch wood, seem to be wearing well.
Does this mean we all have to pay 3.5x (or possibly more) the price of the average high street shop in order to buy something remotely fit for purpose?
And what’s the deal with UGG boots: pricey winter boots that cannot be worn in wet or snowy conditions - precisely the average British winter conditions?
As much as I like to look good, I’m also keenly aware of an item’s practicality. If it’s not convenient to wear or wash I just know it will be consigned to the back of my wardrobe - a waste of money and time finding and buying it. With this in mind I have successfully managed to steer clear of many womens clothes that are more like perdition than pleasure to wear.
Sprinkled generously across the internet are numerous bugbears about women’s fashion items and the lack of alternative options. Items that were designed by the devil himself were usefully curated by an unnamed guy who posted the article ‘8 Things Girls Wear That 99.9% Of Guys Hate’ on Galore. His dislike of certain fashion items were mainly driven by their lack of practicality and pointlessness, raising some very pertinent questions about the very existence of jumpsuits/rompers, high heels, jorts, bandeaus, strapless dresses and numerous other items.
Bloggers Lucy Rycroft-Smith and Christina H have directed their frustration at decorative pockets.
Lucy: "We need to talk about pockets. The clothes I’m wearing now [men’s formal wear] have bountiful, multifaceted, capacious pockets. I have nine of them today. I counted ’em. On a typical day of wearing womenswear, I have NONE…"
Christina: "Women's clothing manufacturers...seem to believe women can't be trusted with pockets. Something like 99 percent of dresses have no pockets at all, and the more formal you get, the more likely a women's coat or pants pocket is going to be a fake, decorative pocket."
One wonders if the lack of practicality and comfort of modern clothes is part of a devious plan to keep us continually cycling items through our wardrobe in a desperate bid to find something we can bare to wear regularly.
Where did it all go wrong?
One thing in favour of fashion is just how diverse it has become. There is no longer a definitive way for us all to be dressing that is quintessentially ‘now’ because rehashes and pastishes of vintage styles have all paved the way towards us developing our own individual styles. It’s pretty hard for anyone to look ‘square’ anymore - because even being square is a ‘look’ and others would be hard pressed to tell if you were wearing it ironically or not.
Take, for example, my 2 year old £16 Therapy T-shirt which I hardly wear and has already stretched beyond recognition. Despite a few developing holes and worn patches, it now marvelously recreates the retro 80's aerobics look when I wear it over a muscle vest top. In essence it has another life until it completely disentegrates in perhaps a few weeks time.
In our closely connected digital world a backlash of some kind is always around the corner. Don’t like high heels anymore? Join the hoards of women rejecting them. In her article for Fortune, Colleen Kane explains why more women are rebelling against heels:
"There’s plenty of physical reasons for the backlash. Wearing heels regularly appears to weaken ankle muscles in the long term, and can generally wreak havoc from the foot all the way up to the spine. Research shows that the amount of high heel-related injuries has doubled in a recent ten-year span."
Could this explain why Crocs are about to make an epic return and why the popularity of ballet flats and Birkenstocks has such longevity?
Ultimately though, a problem remains: High street shops sell a variety of similarly loud, low quality and impractical stuff. And unless you familiarize yourself with every niche online shop on the web; knowing where to get essential items is time consuming and paying for shipping from multiple outlets is expensive. Is it time for a fast fashion/internet shopping backlash?
Internet shopping does not yet work effectively enough to bridge the chasm between the potential shopping experience we could all enjoy and the actual reality.
As Christina H sums up: "I know some stores have always got to be providing the latest stupid fashions everybody wants. But how about we all don't jump on the bandwagon and some stores sit tight and keep offering the rest of us some normal clothes we can put in the washing machine? And put some damn pockets on them."
In the meantime I’ll resign myself to just wearing a hessian sack. Oh wait... where would I even be likely find one of those again?
This post is just my experience of clothes shopping. Have you had similar experiences, or do you have an excellent shopping stategy we could all benefit from? Let us know in the comments section below, we'd love to hear your thoughts.