The Dress needs no introduction.
Everybody knows about The Dress. Your gran probably has it, most of your friends have worn it at least once, the local dog walker was wearing it the other day and the waitress at the restaurant you went to last night had it on.
Everyone has The bloody Dress, and we all eventually have that “oh for fuck’s sake” moment. Mine came for me wandering round my hometown of Margate one sunny weekend. Dressed in The Dress I visited a friend’s shop, only to be greeted by her... wearing The Dress.
Afterwards, I made my way through the Old Town and spotted another two people wearing The Dress. I walked to the Turner Contemporary; and as I scaled the steps at the front of the gallery I caught sight of The Dress heading towards me. We gave each other a sympathetic nod – an “I feel you” look – and went about our days, likely thinking about how this would be The Dress’s last outing.
I don’t think of myself as being particularly easily influenced, but when I saw Zoe Sugg aka Zoella meandering around a garden centre on Instagram wearing what can only be described as the most perfect dress ever made, I became a slave to the #ad machine.
In the same Instagram story viewing session, I spotted (pun intended) a friend wearing The Dress. I messaged her asking where she got it and within two days I was prancing around my living room wearing it. It was love at first try.
The appeal of The Dress, firstly, was not that it was pretty, light and flattering – but that it fit perfectly. I’m 5′8″ and a size 16 – I’ve never been able to wear Zara before. But God loves a trier, and I have tried Zara, and tried and tried again. Previous trips have resulted in me having a friend forcibly remove an XL leopard print dress from my clammy body; arms over my head, the skirt clinging on to every inch of my outstretched torso, whaling “just get it bloody off me”.
Other visits to the Zara changing rooms have ended with me splitting the stitches of an armhole and crying in front of the mirror, the hospital-style lighting emphasising every scar and stretch mark on my mottled, milk bottle white body.
So when The Dress was popped through my letterbox, I had already googled the online returns policy. I didn’t have high hopes.
Oh, how wrong I was.
The fabric somehow lends itself to chilly summer evenings and scorching hot summer days; the fit covers all the bits of myself that I don’t love while not looking sack-like at all, and the black-and-white polka dot print is pretty without being twee.
While I like to think of myself as an early adopter, I only had a couple of outings in The Dress before I started to notice other people wearing it; and more unnervingly, people taking photos of me wearing it.
It was perfect for every occasion, so for every occasion I wore it, until I caught someone taking a photo of me from behind while I was standing at a bar. I had my back to the room as I ordered drinks for a friend and I. When I turned to take the drinks back to the table, my friend told me that the couple on the table next to us had been taking photos of me and laughing. Stunned, I was unable to say anything, but it tainted the whole evening – I felt like I was walking around naked. I was exposed and open for opportunity, like an animal attempting to exist along a safari trail.
It brings about a strange feeling – knowing that someone you don’t know has photos of you in which you have no agency. It takes away your entitlement to control how you’re perceived in a social media world, which is important for a variety of reasons. The fact that I was photographed ordering a bottle of wine and two Jägerbombs on a Tuesday night, for instance, could’ve landed me in a whole lot of trouble in certain lines of work.
The closest I’ve ever got before to people taking photos of me without my consent is when I adopted a toy poodle puppy, Pablo, in 2016. All of a sudden there was a flurry of inadvertent flashes and little lenses pointing at me ‘discreetly’ from behind handbags on the tube whenever I had Pablo with me. I lived in fear of one of these photos showing up online somewhere, like the Women Who Eat on Tubes Facebook page that exploded in 2014.
Wearing The Dress became an anxiety-inducing experience. It made me feel like there was only a matter of time before I ended up on Hot 4 The Spot, an Instagram account claiming to be a “safe space for the dress”. It’s anything but a safe space – it’s a grid packed with photos of people wearing The Dress from behind or with their faces cut off, which does little to protect the wearer’s identity.
Taking a photo of someone without their consent takes away their agency – it puts you in charge of how that person is viewed not just by you, but by thousands of other people online. Wearing The Dress became a big red flag.
I am a firm believer that we, The Nation of Great Britain, can’t have anything nice. Everything pure and simple is quickly twisted and warped by Twitter and Instagram; causing a big viral storm. Look what happened to Fiat 500s, for instance (for the record, I drive a Fiat 500). One minute the dress was cute, the next it was a meme. A symbol of fast fashion and crowd followers. Wearing The Dress was no just wearing a dress, it was now cause to be shamed. It meant that you were the same as all those other people wearing The Dress.
Now, every time I pick it up to put it on – comforted by the lightness of the fabric and the perfect fit and the easy-to-wear pattern – I hang it back up. I don’t want to have photos taken of me in the street, or be sniggered at or viewed as someone with no style. I shouldn’t care, but I do.
For me, The Dress wasn’t just a symbol of consumerism and viral hysteria but a polkadot beacon of hope for plus-size women, petite women, tall women and everybody else who’s ever been made to feel like the high street isn’t for them. The Dress was a uniform for misfits, doesn’t-fits and I-wish-that-came-in-my-sizes.
It’s a glaringly obvious sign that the high street need to do better. Zara have made a dress that fits almost every body, and that’s something to be celebrated; not mocked.
So before you pull out your phone and snap another piece of top quality ‘Hot 4 the Spot’ content for your Insta story; please remember that a) taking photos of people without their consent is harassment, and b) the popularity of The Dress is not because everyone else has it, but because it makes people who wear it feel good – and that’s nothing to be sniggered at.
Sophie Brown is a freelance writer
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