In late September, as I scrolled through my YouTube subscriptions, I stumbled across a video by Safiya Nygaard titled “I Wore Digital Clothes For A Week.” I immediately thought Hey, wait a minute, I know nothing about this! And I researched, did a little more research and then decided this would be a perfect topic to force my analysis of upon the internet. Digital clothing has become a massive and complex industry in the short time that it has existed, but there are four primary points that beg the question: Is this the most intriguing, and perhaps dichotomous, product of the pandemic?
Virtual fashion materialized in 2018, when clothing brand Carlings released an entirely virtual clothing line. The virtual clothing industry, however, didn’t experience a boom in business until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like everyone else, the fashion industry was forced to stay inside for a year and a half, so designers adapted. Fashion shows went virtual and everyday clothing went digital as websites like DRESSX and The Fabricant followed in the footsteps of Carlings.
Virtual clothing businesses follow similar models: The customer purchases a piece of “clothing” — say on DRESSX — ranging from $21 to $1,400. The buyer then sends a picture of themselves to the retailer “in order for them to custom fit the digital garments” to the image. The image of the customer in the piece of virtual clothing is returned to them, and they can do whatever they want with the image — they’re made to be shared, liked, then lost in the social media void. That is just one of the threads that has made the virtual fashion industry lucrative during the pandemic. If people couldn’t safely bring their style to the streets, then Instagram would have to do.
The digital clothing industry boasts itself as a champion of waste reduction. DRESSX’s own “Sustainability” page claims that “Production of a digital garment emits 97% less of CO2 than production of a physical garment.” The rest of the virtual fashion industry follows similar rhetoric, especially since fast fashion is a known contributor to pollution and climate change. Digital fashion offers a solution to fast fashion: Be trendy without contributing to climate change.
It is also important to note that some digital fashion can be sold as NFTs. Non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, are unique digital assets that can be sold using crypto-currency like Bitcoin. A year’s worth of mining Bitcoin consumes a similar amount of electricity to a small country. Emissions associated with NFTs are typically blamed on the currency used to buy them; not all digital clothing pieces are NFTs, but some brands produce them. In 2019, The Fabricant auctioned off an NFT of a dress for almost $10,000, and this summer DRESSX partnered with Crypto.com to release a range of exclusive NFTs, which opposes the brand’s sustainability claims.
Social media is no stranger to photo editing and retouching. With the launch of Facetune in 2013 and the release of Instagram filters in the preceding years, the proliferation and ease of editing apps began changing social media beauty standards. Now, in 2021, as digital fashion becomes more accessible and popular, the goal posts have once again moved.
While digital clothes don’t play into the usual fantasy of perfect skin, hair and curves, it does play into the fantasy of wealth and, well, fantasy so often exacerbated by social media. Digital fashion allows social media users to always be on trend and pay less for more extravagant clothing pieces. Never again will the average instagram user re-wear outfits. Never again will a piece of clothing fit poorly. And not a single Instagram follower will have to know. This feels eerily similar to the retouching rabbit hole we fell down in the early days of social media, and it may make it even more difficult to escape the same feeling that photo editing gives us — a desire to achieve photographic perfection.
Even in the midst of a pandemic, designers and brands found a way to create, and digital clothing changed the face of how the fashion industry will move forward in a digital world. It is likely that shopping trends and the way we consume fashion will change rapidly. These trends may move towards faster service as a result of the immediacy of virtual fashion or toward “the idea of being more consumer-centric” in how brands follow consumer needs.
There is also room for a movement towards changing how clothing is produced. Virtual fashion will never overtake real fashion, but if we have the technology to sell, create and edit fake clothes onto people’s bodies, how much longer will it take to develop technologies that produce better and more sustainable materials, fits and styles? For too long the fashion industry has not kept up with modern technology’s rapid pace, and digital clothing could be the kick it needs to begin enacting change.
It can be said with certainty that, of all of the products of our time inside, the virtual fashion industry will be one of the most exciting to watch and explore, and may be the one that causes the most change to one of the longest standing industries in existence as clothes move to keep up with the digital landscape we live in. Virtual clothing feels both exciting and strange in a number of ways. During its growth period, this industry has allowed designers and consumers to show off their work and style from home. Digital fashion is also inclusive of varying shapes, gender identities and disabilities, and provides a unique avenue for clothing to fit both a body and a style perfectly. It is a form of art “not limited by silly things like gravity and physics” that hands designers the capabilities to create things not possible in the real world and allows consumers to display their unique tastes in fashion.
These benefits must contend with the weight of their detriments. When digital clothing becomes NFTs, how sustainable is the production of that good? If digital clothing becomes culturally similar to retouching on social media, does that negative connotation counteract its artistry? This industry is still in its infancy, so these answers are difficult to come by, but these questions create the dichotomy that makes digital fashion so inherently interesting.
We don’t know everything there is to know about virtual clothing yet, and that’s okay. That’s why I call it the industry to watch. Digital fashion poses a number of positives and negatives that we have yet to deal with at their fullest potential, and nobody knows where it will go from here. For now, though, we’ll sit back and enjoy the fashion show.
Daily Arts Contributor Maddie Agne can be reached at email@example.com.