Many years ago a friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her treatment regime was tough but her prognosis was good; she had hesitated before deciding whether to embark on chemotherapy but she told me the talk of cure not management had been the deciding factor. Adding years to her life would not come at the cost of life to her years she told me. And moreover, she planned to spend her way out of cancer. I totally got it.
Many of us shopped our way through Covid. The stress of tracking packages through the postal system or attempting to synchronise what limited movements were permitted us with the assorted courier services (whose time management was enough to confound Emmett Brown) was a welcome distraction from the stress that lay beyond the threshold. One week into sweatpants and WFH wear and I was already lusting after a life of pencil skirts and evening gowns. I filled and emptied and refilled assorted carts endlessly – from sequins to swimwear and boots to bras there was no limit to the life that awaited me just around the corner and for which, obviously, I needed to be sartorially prepared.
Fast forward 15 months and the country was vaccinated. Significant parts of the world were putting their proverbial toes back in the water, things were opening up and whilst we still had to wear masks in Zara we were at least IN Zara. Life was looking good. Or at least it was heading to good until the perfect storm of last weeks events brought to a head the latest set of tensions between Israel and Gaza and we found ourselves once again in the midst of serious conflict. And so, not for the first time, I began shopping my way through war and speculating on the wonderous, restorative quality that is filling your virtual cart with clothes you cant really afford, don’t really need and in all honesty may never wear. In fact, you may never even bother to checkout. But those hours (yes, hours and hours) spent strolling virtually through stores preparing yourself for a life in which no 3-year-old child dares venture within 50 metres of your white trouser suit and door to door Ubers mean you never again need walk more than 10 paces in your Manolo Blahniks, are transportive.
What is it about online shopping that is so therapeutic, addictive, curative? Of course there are the obvious explanations – it is for example frowned upon to be in a store with no bra, sweatpants and a glass of wine and most stores won’t accommodate your latest bout of insomnia by welcoming you into their physical space at 2.00am. But these are the practicalities – they tell part of the story but not all.
Shopping from home isn’t new. More than a century ago Richard Sears used a printed mailer to advertise watches and jewelry in what was to become the famous Sears Catalogue. Over the years the catalogue developed to offer, albeit in perhaps cruder terms than we are used to, everything that we enjoy today – discounts on orders, free postage and returns, loyalty credits and customer testimonials – in short the early 20th Century equivalent of today’s customer reviews, sponsored Instagram posts and influencers. Seen in the rear view mirror of life the Sears catalogue is an echo of the times. We look back and see, through its pages, the desires, habits, customs and way of living of the generations that preceded us.
Today technology has revolutionized not only the way consumers purchase products but also the way brands interact with their customers. As companies get to know us better they also get to offer a more customized and holistic - although not necessarily always welcome - kind of service. Make the mistake for example of stopping momentarily on a recipe for Birds Nest soup (I know, why would you?) and you are likely to end your days bombarded by recipes for, and restaurants serving, the worlds weirdest foods as they endlessly crawl across your social media accounts and website searches, aided and abetted by best match algorithms designed to ensure that endless suggestions for related items follow hot on their heels.
There is no doubt that the ability to shop 24/7 is a solution to people’s busy lives as well as offering customers the chance to compare prices between sellers. Items online come with photos, multimedia files, descriptions of the item, how it will fit, available sizes and colours, applicable payment methods. Retailers get to tell you about their brand, the people behind the company, the company’s mission and vision, what they had for breakfast and where they walk their dog; it is possible to know more about the company you are about to buy a cardigan from than your own mother.
And then there are the customer reviews, real people telling you and showing you how something looks when it is NOT being modelled by a 178cm tall, size 0, prepubescent androgyne. Whilst these pictures can on occasions be the stuff of nightmares – pedicures, people, pedicures! before you post pictures of your latest Birkenstocks – they can be very helpful in bringing us back into the real world. But that I think is the whole point, the real appeal of the online shopping experience. You see for a while, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do. It doesn’t matter that your upper arms have befriended your naval and last Christmas’ turkey had less of a gobble neck than you; for a while when it’s just you and your screen you can be anyone, you can have any life and you can virtually shop for it to your hearts content. You can load your cart and empty it and no one need be the wiser, you can buy and try and return and nothing is lost. It is the promise of a different life that makes online shopping so appealing and so cathartic at life’s most difficult moments.
If I was a responsible person I would include a link to Shopaholics Anonymous at the bottom of this article and encourage you to get some help (OK, I have now guilted myself into this so there WILL be a link to......etc etc). But to the rest of you, for whom the sentiment of what I am describing resonates but who remain in control I say this; creating a closet full of clothes that you love and that love you back, a wardrobe that works for the life you live is something every woman can and should do for herself. Allowing yourself some fantasy shopping to help you through the night – well, in my book, that’s OK and your secret’s safe with me.