A peculiar phenomenon plagues the corridors of our digital lives; reminiscent of satin dresses that make a person look like a delicious mousse more than a real human being. Even the coordinated tie-dye pattern with the typical white sneakers. An off-the-shoulder cropped top, bralette, or polka dot dress that fits comfortably on a model going to brunch, apparently, are all ubiquitous. What unites all of these looks is not just their ubiquity, but how these dresses have morphed into the aspirational aesthetic of a generation.
The brand that came first, spawning all the mini-brands in its wake, is Shein. Last week, the fast fashion megalith was valued at $ 100 billion. Despite the company’s ban in India, Shein is almost alone responsible for popularizing this Instagram aesthetic. That, despite claims of anti-sustainability and art theft by independent designers, it continues to be a major player and even exporting homogeneous ideas of beauty and fashion globally is a worrying prospect.
Right now, much like the multi-billion dollar brand’s supply chains, the aesthetic it sculpt is both rootless and global. Instagram, as a homogenizing force, plays a role in exporting beauty and fashion ideas to more people than ever. As a result, everyone from India to Uzbekistan now has access to an ambitious fashion sensibility that grants someone’s socio-cultural capital. The “going out” dresses are now predominantly modeled on a vaguely white but not white, bronze-colored skin tone; a smooth, toned body, “thick” in the right places. This look is accompanied by Instagram poses, Instagram face makeup, and friends advertising each other “lewk”. Importantly, these need to be worn in the right places: at parties, at clubs, on brightly colored walls, in front of interesting doors, in a posh restaurant with the sun shining as if it were just for the person in the frame.
But this phenomenon, like all major changes in the culture of beauty, is predominantly aimed at women. The pressure to optimize every aspect of your being visible for the perfect Instagram photo created for the perfect vacuum that has welcomed companies like Shein offering everything any aspiring young social media savvy woman could need at affordable prices. As a fast fashion brand, Shein has not only provided a steady stream of clothing for the Instagram generation, but has also rewritten beauty and fashion norms that were exclusive at first, in the name of accessibility.
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Another hallmark of the aesthetic Shein rushes to provide, for example, is the sweeping aesthetic that accentuates thinness and a mid-toned riff. Fast fashion has never been friendly to all body types; but the current iteration operates under a cloud of faux inclusiveness: it addresses thinness and insists it’s for everyone.
But when this particular look becomes the global aspiration, Shein becomes the sole distributor of dreams, not just of fashion, but of body types as well. If the company is worth more than Zara and H&M combined today, it is because it sells and profits from the desired body type that is unattainable by most people. In other words, the combination of algorithmic Instagram hijacking and late capitalist fashion is a blitzkrieg over young women who are constantly subject to changing expectations about beauty.
All this requires a devastating cycle of exploitation of man and the Earth. “By implementing automation to optimize production efficiency and our supply chain, we … provide customers with an affordable range of hyper-trendy styles,” Shein’s founder once said. As a brand that emerged to keep up with Instagram’s endless scrolling and shrinking attention span, Shein represents the worst excesses of capitalist manufacturing, streamlining ever-changing lifestyle trends. The company produces up to 2,000 products per day, far exceeding the usual suspects in fast fashion.
We don’t need Shein in India to feel the effects. Many other online-only retailers have sprung up in his absence, promising the same look. Shein herself found a foray into India via e-commerce sites. But the costs are far more destructive than they appear – they change the way we perceive ourselves and the way we live our lives – all for one perfect shot on the “gram”.