The pandemic may have given women some reprieve from the endless pressure to groom themselves, but it has also led to the rise of a specific, expensive work-from-home aesthetic. The setting may have shifted — from our workplaces and social gatherings to our living rooms — but costly beauty standards remain.
At several moments during the past 18 months in and out of lockdown, my finger has hovered over the “Add to cart” button beneath a picture of a wildly overpriced matching tracksuit set. Although the fashion label in question has varied between these moments of temptation, the campaign aesthetic has typically remained the same: a homely setting draped in shades of beige in which a slim, beautiful model lounges before the camera in monochromatic athleisure; a picture of perfect, composed social distancing.
As it quickly became clear we would be spending much of our time at home last year, Australian fashion labels pivoted away from structured eventwear to more relaxed offerings. Camilla and Marc released a matching trackpant and sweatshirt set that retails for $700. Sir the Label sells a similar set for $360. Although this latter price may be slightly less eye-watering than the first, it is still a staggering amount of money to spend on sweats during a recession. This did not stall sales, however. While consumer demand for clothing and footwear declined overall last year, loungewear and sleepwear lines bucked the trend. Globally, the pyjama industry is expected to triple in value by 2027.
These garments perform the same function as the unbranded, spaghetti sauce-stained counterparts we already own, so why, when it comes to something I am unlikely to wear outside my own home, do I covet one grey sweatshirt over another? The answer cannot simply be my concerns about quality or ethical consumption, as many top-end brands have supply chains just as murky as their fast-fashion counterparts and similar proclivities for poly-cotton blends.
As well as high-end retailers, fast-fashion online retailers also seized on shoppers’ desires to curate a certain “at home” look. Boohoo, a mammoth fast-fashion purveyor which also owns Pretty Little Thing and Nasty Gal, reported earlier this year that its sales had risen by 41 per cent over the pandemic.
Why, in the absence of social events, have we rushed to spend our money on loungewear? The answer seems to be interwoven with the pressure women face on a daily basis to look presentable and conform to a complex set of social standards. The setting may have shifted — from our workplaces and social gatherings to our living rooms — but the game remains familiar.
It seems logical that demand for luxe loungewear has also been spurred on by the insistent creep of social media into every aspect of our lives, blurring the line between the private and public spheres. In her 2020 book How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right?, Pandora Sykes credits the arrival of digital-style documentation to the rise of the global frenzy to “get the look” of the current fashion moment.
Instagram exposes the minutiae of our lives, and the lives of those we admire, in real-time: our bedsheets, refrigerators, dinnerware and coffee cups. It’s bizarre that I know what strangers sleep in, eat on and sip from, but Instagram captures these details and sweeps them into the cultural consumerist zeitgeist. As a result, I find myself lusting after items I might never have otherwise known existed in strangers’ homes: a Smeg toaster one day, pure flax linen bed sheets the next.
At a time when no one is wearing anything but stretchy pants and pyjamas, it’s unsurprising that my Instagram feed has steadily been overrun by images of beautiful people wearing comfortable clothing. Whereas I may have previously had no clue what these people wore to lounge around their homes, in 2021, “get the look” refers more to cotton trackpants and linen pyjamas than cinched silk slips and oversized blazers. The relatively new phenomenon of shopping as an activity, rather than a necessity, coupled with the deliberate ease of shopping via Instagram, has exacerbated the demand for aesthetic loungewear during lockdowns.
Frustratingly, these are not standards that most men face. Although there are luxury loungewear options available for men, they often retail for less and do not generate the same level of demand as their counterparts marketed to women. Put simply, we care less what men wear. Men are not expected to maintain the same level of “put togetherness” as women in their own homes.
Although lockdowns have reduced some of the pressure for women to keep up with the level of personal maintenance enforced by societal expectations — women have spent less money on hair, makeup and beauty treatments over the course of the pandemic — they have not resulted in total freedom from the pressure to look a certain way. The kicker, of course, is that women continue to earn less than men (according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, women’s full-time average weekly earnings were 14 per cent lower than men’s in 2020), and are more likely to have experienced financial insecurity during the pandemic due to higher representation in hard-hit industries and additional caring responsibilities.
Undeniably, discussions around $700 tracksuits at a time when millions are sick, struggling to feed their families and isolated can only represent one privileged segment of our shared experience of this pandemic. But the rapid growth of the global middle class means discussions around the cost of female beauty standards do affect a significant number of women. From 2011 to 2019, the global middle class grew from 899 million to 1.34 billion.
Gender equality requires us to reckon with our expectations of how women present themselves, even in the throes of a pandemic, and the cost of meeting those expectations. Although online shopping is a tempting way to pass our lockdown days, and nice things can provide genuine comfort, our race to look a certain way has real consequences for the planet and women’s financial independence.
Sarah MacDonald is a Sydney-based journalism and law student, content editor and freelance food blogger. She loves slow Sunday night dinners, good books, early-morning Pilates classes and fresh flowers from the farmers’ market. Find her on Instagram @sarahsspoonful