I took a trip recently and packed a sweater, thinking it’d be good to have for chilly days. But then every day turned out chilly, and almost every photo I took — and posted online — featured the same look. I felt oddly defensive about this — it’s normal to wear the same style over and over, I’d justify to a phantom style critic inside my head. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that my vacation style wasn’t measuring up on social media.
There’s currently a rise in catalog-style look books of travel outfits, showcasing the easy-breezy intersection between opulent dressing and opulent living. This has been commonplace behavior for influencers (and in the creator economy, that’s almost everyone) for a while now, but the pressure is building for us internet civilians too. We’re going shopping ahead of our vacations to France or Japan or the Amalfi Coast. An outfit one might wear in Tokyo is not the same vibe as what one might wear in Paris, and both are totally different from what one wears in daily life. Trendy outfits have become yet another logistic to account for when planning a vacation.
Matt Chu, a former Bloomingdale’s ready-to-wear buyer, witnessed this shift firsthand. He saw the phenomenon as a mix between finally having actual places to go and a collective case of “revenge shopping.” “It’s this idea of ‘Oh, I’ve been into the confinements for so long. So, now I deserve to have a new wardrobe,’” he explains. “Or, ‘I’ve saved up so much money for the past year and a half. Now, I'm going to go full out and buy myself these occasion pieces, whether that be a New Year’s Eve dress or a vacation to Mexico in December.’”
Seemingly overnight, customers went from craving loungewear to treating themselves to statement pieces. According to Chu, social media — especially TikTok and its many microtrends — have created a vacuum where there is always a reason to buy something for a new occasion. Part of playing the game is experimenting with and categorizing your persona and content into a visual bucket, aka your aesthetic. “Every aesthetic becomes another catalyst for people to buy another wardrobe for a vacation to live up to the standard or the fantasy of what they think a happy vacation looks like from a very picturesque point of view.”
Still, Chu fully understood content creators’ desire to push through a finicky algorithm in an overcrowded digital space. Beyond his role at Bloomingdale’s, he used to be a fashion content creator who had spent years successfully growing an online presence for his avant-garde shoots. He’d plan outfits and scout locations for potential sets — until one day, he just burned out. Feeding an algorithm hungry for newness is at odds with dressing for a normal life. “With the algorithm, [tech companies] obviously want novelty. They want shock value, so [content creators] want to engage the consumer to spend more time on the apps,” he explains. “How that affects the content creators is that they feed into the algorithm and therefore feel like they always have to have novelty. If you're not conscious about it, you get fed into the cycle of, ‘How do I feed the algorithm? How do I always have new pieces, no repeats?’”
Social media has undeniably changed how the middle class moves through the world. A camera that could produce high-resolution images was once exclusive to celebrities and professional photographers; now, we all have one in our pockets. In that sense, the internet has brought a level of democracy to the question of who can vacation in style and photograph it, or at least an illusion of that. Clothing now costs so little that buying something trendy or extravagant to match celebs and influencers doesn’t really require the same kind of financial consideration it once did. Everyone has access, temporary or illusive as it may be, to living — and traveling — in luxury. Ten years ago, you could spot a tourist in a gaudy T-shirt, baseball hat, and dad sneakers, and today, it’s the person overdressed at the history museum.
Travel for leisure is a relatively new concept, as is the concept of shopping for the occasion. In 1919, Chanel released the first-ever resort collection for the extremely wealthy, high-society scene. Within the last hundred years, other luxury brands started following suit, releasing resort and cruise collections, sometimes as capsules or offshoots of their standard seasons’ collections, other times as “in-between” collections. Today, some resort and cruise runway shows literally present their clothes in a surreal, editorialized holiday fantasy (like Chanel’s turn in Monte Carlo this past spring).
All the while, social media has made each and every high-end aspiration feel so available to us. Once upon a time, the lives of celebrities and wealthy people were delivered to us with distance and in a limited scope, in the form of magazines and television; these days, Instagram gives us all that and more — with all the products and resorts conveniently linked out. Vacationing like the rich, or at least looking like it, suddenly has an instruction manual.
As the iconic belt scene from The Devil Wears Prada reminds us, consumer trends start at luxury, and that includes bad habits like overconsumption. But Alyssa Hardy, fashion editor and author of Worn Out: How Our Clothes Cover Up Fashion's Sins, notes that luxury’s misdeeds are quickly forgiven and forgotten. “The whole idea of needing new clothes for your vacation comes from luxury,” she says to TZR. “But if you're like, ‘I need to have this look for the Amalfi Coast and I don’t necessarily have another place to wear this, especially because it's already been on my Instagram page,’ that is the prime example of how social media has negatively impacted our consumption habits.”
And while there are no easy solutions for fashion’s vast carbon footprint, it would help if high-end houses did not encourage a wardrobe overhaul every time we visit a new place. “When luxury brands start playing into a space because they see an opportunity with the rich getting richer, it’s a business move,” Chu points out. “But then it becomes aspirational: It creates that demand where people are like, ‘Oh, if that's what rich people do, then that's what I should be doing.’ And then, they'll try to mimic that aesthetic or that consumer behavior.”
It’s almost trite at this point to bring up how frequently people today purchase clothing compared to any previous point in human history. One of the world’s most wasteful industries, fashion’s rapid fire production cycle is hurting the planet by contributing to pollution and waste. “Shopping sustainably” is fine, but the most sustainable thing you can do is to buy less, period. Everyone’s tired of hearing it. But for as long as it’s an issue, it bears repeating.
When I mentioned to my friend Claire that I was writing this story about vacation look books, she jokingly said, “Oh, you mean like how I posted my Paris outfits?” The two of us get into conversations about observations of our habits, and small things we’re hoping to accomplish. (“I tried to go a pay period without buying something I didn’t need. I failed yesterday.”) The point is, this is hard. We’ve all inherited consumer habits that fall squarely outside of a collective greater interest. But even when our efforts to be better fall flat, it’s important those efforts continue being made.
“I fully will admit when I am a walking contradiction where I'm like, ‘Yes, I love to repeat outfits.’ But then I have a special event and I'm like, ‘You know what? I wish I had new pants,’” Hardy said. “Is that coming from a desire to just consume something new so that you feel good in this moment? That idea of ‘I want something special’ is fair… but [ask yourself] why.”