Master’s student, Graduate School of Science and Technology Policy, KAIST
Digital Clothes: Consumer Society in the Age of Metaverse
The roots of digital clothes can be traced back to “skins,” outfits and accessories for decorating in-game characters. Virtual outfits, prices of which depend on rarity, are later resold online. Understanding the extreme profitability of the gaming industry, clothing brands adapted their garments in computer games. Louis Vuitton collaborated with the League of Legends[i], Gucci with the Sims, Marc Jacobs, and Valentino with Animal Crossing[ii]. Inspired by video games Scandinavian retailer Carlings launched its first digital-only collection “Neo-Ex”, of which 3D pieces can be overlaid with the customer’s picture, in 2018[iii]. Although the collection was successful, especially due to its outcry over fast fashion issues and call for sustainability[iv], digital clothing remained among niche products featured by digital Instagram influencers like the CGI (computer-generated imagery) character – Lil Miquela[v]. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, however, the relevance of digital technologies to the fashion industry skyrocketed due to the impossibility of physical seasonal runway shows. In 2020, Helsinki Fashion Week became the first virtual fashion week held in cyberspace named Digital Village (Figure 1)[vi].
<Figure 1> Digital Village x Patrick McDowell Fashion Show, from Helsinki Fashion Week, http://helsinkifashionweeklive.com/
Now, fashion houses are working on making digital clothing a product of mass consumption. With Metaverse, an all-encompassing (including entertainment, work, travel, and market) virtual environment[vii], on the way, the fashion industry is maximizing the potential profitability of digital garments through intense marketing campaigns. These campaigns promote the idea that digital fashion consumption has a positive impact on consumers, industry, and the environment. The media, too, perpetuates a positive image of digital fashion; the media communicates an idea that digital fashion brings about no less than a revolutionary transformation of the industry, alongside a health and wellness forming transformation of consumers’ relationship with fashion, and themselves[viii][ix]. Nevertheless, there is a reason to doubt that such largely unquestioned praise is well-deserved.
This article offers a commentary on and critically examines digital clothes as the product of the contemporary market, heavily relying on Jean Baudrillard’s theory of postmodern consumption, which explains peoples’ relation to objects as a discursive system, rather than a demand to fulfill essential needs or even experience pleasure[x]. Among others, the work utilizes Baudrillard’s concepts of hyperreality of simulations (a system of images that substitutes the real) and simulacrum (a counterfeit, which replaces the real with its representation but lacks substance)[xi]. The article adapts Baudrillard’s interpretation of fashion as a “universalisable sign system” as introduced in Symbolic Exchange and Death[xii]and applies it to the industry of digital fashion. The article scrutinizes digital clothing items as examples of consumer objects/commodities/gadgets, parts of the system of signification, as theorized in Baudrillard’s broader scope of literature. The work views digital clothes as an epitome of the present-day culture of digital consumption. Thus, one can interpret this paper as a case study representing more general trends and patterns within the current consumer society. Ultimately, the article aims to deconstruct the global or meta-narrative of digital utopia, which rests on myths of uniqueness, liberation, exclusivity, and sustainability.
There is nothing unique about digital clothes. They are sewn with second-hand fabrics using threads of familiarity, nostalgia, retro, phantoms, and dreams of the past. Like any other industry in the attention economy, fashion appropriates representations from the mainstream pop culture of older days[xiii]. Contemporary (postmodern) fashion’s “instantaneous perfection” stems from the “combinatory freedom” to cobble together “inequivalent signs and incompatible styles” evoking the bittersweet yearning for the past[xiv]. Contemporary fashion is self-recyclable and self-referential; it is an amalgamation of various periods and subcultures, none of which maintain any of their inherent meaning or purpose. Fashion marks the end of signification because its signs are essentially hollow[xv] [xvi]. The postmodern fashion is a departure from the modern order of production, characterized by functionality and utility, to the order of seduction – a passion for games and ritual, which negates meaning, morality, reality, and truth. The seduction, power of attraction, drives pleasure from abundance and excess, operates at the surface level as an aesthetic. Therefore, contemporary fashion is inherently performative; it is a theatrical spectacle, a game of pretend[xvii] [xviii]. Digital fashion specifically capitalizes on the motives of cyberpunk and science fiction[xix]. The industry completely removes didactic aspects of the genre, stripping it from any meaningful substance, leaving vain aesthetics: neon, plastic, spandex, futurism, the 60s, space… (Figure 2)
<Figure 2> – Digital dress by LUCCI, https://www.instagram.com/p/CW37Gt1tlIw/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link
“The Matrix is everywhere. Are you ready to get unplugged?” – inquires DRESSX, the largest digital clothing store, offering to purchase “the sci-fi Matrix inspired merch” launched in anticipation of the sequel of the legendary Matrix franchise – the Matrix Resurrections[xx], which is a convenient example of cinema plagiarizing itself, and science fiction evolving from the discovery of the future into “current conception of the universe”[xxi] (Figure 3). Despite the ironic contradictions of this marketing narrative, the use of digital clothing requires being “plugged,” the campaign is successful in duplicating and rendering the system of recognizable images. The technological advancements had amplified the recycling power of fashion, and frankly any industry, which has to do with performance and entertainment. In the times when predictive analytics determine taste, the culture is repeatedly and recursively communicated[xxii]. All the artistic performances resemble each other; refer to each other, leaving endless Easter eggs. Streaming services show reiterations and variations of the same movie one had once liked without ever allowing for experiencing something unexpected or creating anew. Crossovers, sequels, spin-offs, and remakes are the recycled products that sell familiarity and thus comfort, which cannot be offered otherwise.
<Figure 3> “Corrupted file dress” from the DRESSX THE MTRX digital collection, https://dressx.com/collections/vendors?q=DRESSX%20THE%20MTRX
<Figure 4> Mark Zuckerberg’s digital avatar wearing the digital dress by BlancdeBlanc.co, https://www.instagram.com/p/CWQmRLnKAnR/
Comfort is one of many ‘spiritual products’ that the market offers. Virtual products enabled by digital technologies inherit the legacy of big tech, similarly offering digital utopia – an idea that digitization is key to sewing up the holes of the social fabric. Capitalism instills the digital fantasy based on an impossible promise that any social issue can be solved by digital technologies[xxiii]. Digital clothes, too, proliferate this myth. Digital fashion designers offer inclusivity, justice, diversity, self-expression, and equality. “We have dressed @zuck in our digital clothes to show you, that metaverse looks will have no gender, size, or age” – claims Blanc de Blanc digital fashion atelier, featuring Mark Zuckerberg – slim, early middle-aged, white, extremely wealthy, heterosexual male – wearing digital clothing pieces, including “Badge Kimono,” “Coat of many colors,” and “Grey Crop Furcoat”[xxiv] (Figure 4). For Metaverse, any digital fashion piece is another virtual commodity to be sold at the Metaverse’s marketplace. In postmodern society, overabundance, excess of purchasable goods, is equalized to well-being and success; affluenza is redefined as “the accumulation of the signs of happiness” [xxv]. Digital clothes are marketed as such. The virtual platform allows the market to keep feeding on the real-world insecurities, offering escapism, playing grownups’ dress up for their virtual alter egos, further nurturing universal infantilism and debility. Digital utopia is induced as a sedative to calm down the distressed, fragmented and exhausted society. Digital fashion promises change but self-recyclable and self-referential postmodern fashion does not allow for revolutions. The ones who wish to rebel against the mainstream fashion join another (indie, underground) crowd but crowd nonetheless; the refusal of fashion becomes a fashion feature[xxvi]. Fashion’s omnivorous and all-consuming nature as well as the individual’s conflicting needs to differentiate themselves from the crowd and to conform to it result in the smallest marginal differences (SMD): an individual seeks little qualitative differences to signal identity and status through style[xxvii].
Living in a collective simulation, we suspense the disbelief that despite standardized sizing and mass-production of goods, mass-market clothing still somehow allows for personally tailored fits that capture our individuality[xxviii]. The market caters to the homogenous mass offering reiterations of the same product simultaneously appealing to one’s aspiration of individual choice: “Be different!”, “Find your own style!”, “Be yourself!” In premodern societies, clothing indeed signaled one’s social status; fashion represented social order. In modernity, although mass production, enabled by technological advancements, had already started the processes of homogenization and standardization, there was a pretense of the social order[xxix]. In postmodernity, social order as visualized through commodities is irrelevant. Thus, communication of “identity” through objects is no longer a critical and/or viable concept; the sign signifies nothing[xxx]. Using the often-quoted Andy Warhol’s passage, “the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. …the President drinks Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca-Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca-Cola, too.” Such equalization of consumption serves as a vehicle for egalitarian myth, which is based on an idea of formal equality measurable in terms of objects and signs[xxxi]. Consequently, engaging in the consumption of goods is a signifying social act of simulated liberation and self-establishment; everyone in developed countries has an equal right to self-realize in such a way. Digital fashion houses are thus offering a new level of simulated experiences of practicing one’s individuality and freedom through shopping. Viewing online persona as the extension of oneself, consumers indulge in consumerist experiences in the digital realm.
Because the online domain perpetuates the need for personal expression and immediate gratification, and any virtual influencer is capable of dictating fast fashion trends, clothing companies tend to overproduce; filling warehouses with stock makes the company economically unsustainable[xxxii]. The creation of digital goods reduces risks of inadequate assets management and resource use, equaling costs of digital production to nearly zero. Now, copying and plagiarizing costs nothing whilst the consumer pays for an idea: the market fabricates the need for yet another hyperreal commodity (hyperobject), which value is reduced to symbolic[xxxiii]. To increase the price of the product produced cheaply, however, one still must somehow make it appear special. Due to culture’s recyclability and circularity, there is no objective difference between elite and common products, between ‘avant-garde’ and ‘mass culture’ items in terms of their substance; either combine recognizable cultural themes[xxxiv]. Nevertheless, when it comes to physical clothing pieces, one could argue that elite and haute couture garments are handmade using quality fabrics, and are one of a kind[xxxv]. In the case of digital garments, the production is essentially the same and requires minimal resource input, no matter the brand; the brand is all that is left. Thus, the digital market attempts to solidify the myth of exclusivity of digital products via NFT (non-fungible token) – a unique unit of data, recorded using blockchain technology, verifying ownership of the item. E-commerce platform Basic Space held an auction to sell an NFT Baby Birkin bag (Figure 5), a riff on Hermes’s most famous exclusive accessory, the Birkin handbag. To purchase the physical Birkin, some customers have to be put on the years-long waitlist; some have to undergo an interview, during which they might be offered a model they cannot choose themselves: “Take it or leave it!” Hermes limits the number of “holy grail of handbags” manipulating demand and making Birkin a luxury shopping experience, an incarnation of social and financial status, and an investment for future reselling. Digital Baby Birkin, featuring an embryo of a human baby inside the transparent bag, made more money than many of its physical counterparts. The NFT artwork was sold for $23,500.[xxxvi] Although the virtual project was surrounded by controversy due to the unauthorized creation and commercialization of counterfeit, and profiting off original brand[xxxvii], the case illustrates perfectly further departure from the traditional exchange and material commodity fetishism towards the symbolic transaction. Digital garments are perfect simulacra. To re-establish our status and legitimacy we can now pay for an actual piece of code. Although you might have screenshotted the virtual image, it is we, who signaled our ownership of the gadget. Not only are we ready to overpay for a luxury bag due to its high sign value, but we are willing to pay for an exclusive label or an idea of exclusivity solely, without having anything tangible at all.
<Figure >5 NFT Baby Birkin
Timothy Morton framed global warming as a hyperobject (not to be confused with the previously mentioned Baudrillard’s hyperobjects) as a viscous, nonlocal, phased, and inter-objective phenomenon. An issue of such a grand scope and complexity is nearly incomprehensible for society. Due to the transcendental gap between what global warming is according to scientific evidence and how it appears to the public, a complete comprehension of the issue requires increased ecological awareness[xxxviii]. Perhaps because society has not reached that level of awareness yet, it is easily fooled into believing that certain practices are environmentally safe when, in actuality, they are not. Anders Hansen and David Machin studied how climate change is visualized in images offered by a commercial image bank – Getty Images – one of the most widely used stock photography providers for marketing. Getty’s images decontextualize and depoliticize the climate issue, making its visual discourse convenient for commercialization. When decontextualizing, one acknowledges the issue but frames it in a way that detaches actual reasons of the phenomenon’s occurrence and deterioration from the given phenomenon; the empirical truth is removed from the discourse[xxxix]. Pictures, utilized to foster further consumption, capture the beauty of the environment, making the process of consumption “a kind of spiritual journey, and certainly a feel-good one.” [xl] Put simply, the mere idea of the environment-friendly lifestyle is used for brand-making of goods and services, production of which more often than not damages the environment detrimentally. The trend of having poor environmental performance and positive communication about it is otherwise known as “green-washing”[xli].
<Figure 6> Ai-Da, the world’s first ultra-realistic humanoid AI robot artist, wearing a physical version of a garment by the Auroboros fashion house, https://www.auroboros.co.uk/press
Apart from an unhealthy encouragement of affluenza in society, the market also instills a false idea that digital clothing does not have any environmental footprint. Its impact on the environment is not nil and is not positive, the branding, unfortunately, claims otherwise. According to the report by Carbon Trust, carbon emission from the energy required to create a digital men’s white t-shit is 0.312kg CO2 compared to 6.5kg CO2 using traditional manufacturing methods[xlii]. A digital t-shirt, however, is not a replacement for a physical one. The argument digital fashion proponents are trying to make rests on the idea that modern consumers buy more clothes than they need. That is valid but instead of discouraging overproduction and overconsumption, they are creating an alternative product, which falsely signals a green and sustainable lifestyle. It is silly to assume that consumers willing to engage in digital fashion shopping are going to give up overbuying physical goods. It is a logical fallacy to claim that the issue of overconsumption can be solved by more consumption, even if of the digital kind. Furthermore, digital fashion sophists frame digital clothing items as immaterial, whereas they are a part of a highly energy- and resource-demanding technology infrastructure. The creation of 3D models and the use of the aforementioned NFTs for purchasing goods are already quite energy-consuming[xliii]. A single Ethereum, a blockchain-based platform, NFT transaction is equivalent to 4.38 days of power consumption by an average US household[xliv]. On top of that, manipulating virtual merchandise in Metaverse, as advertised by the company itself, will require constant technological upgrades: 5G internet, stronger computers, and Extended Reality (XR) technologies, such as Virtual Reality (VR) headsets and Augmented Reality (AR) glasses[xlv]. Auroboros’s, a fashion house that combines digital and physical couture, Biomimicry Digital Ready-To-Wear Collection is an exemplary case of using ideas of sustainability and being nature-like for branding (Figure 6)[xlvi]. The company claims to be inspired by the ‘nature-tech’ ethos, which encompasses the application of technology to tackle climate change[xlvii]. The fashion house claims to be creating “ecological and immersive” designs, all the while using NFTs and AR for digital items, alongside the production of physical goods. On top of claiming to be zero waste, Digital Mimicry Collection sells the afore-mentioned ideas of uniqueness and inclusivity. The product information of every single digital item in the collection, such as a £780.00 “Biomimicry Full Look”, consisting of the Biomimicry Suit and the Shishigami Dark Heels in Dark[xlviii], has “Unreal materials/ All body inclusive/ Digitally delivered/ Zero waste [xlix] [l]” (Figure 7). Because everything digital is equalized to green, we are made to believe that purchasing digital clothing items is for the better. At the core of this discourse lies metaconsumption; consumers are being convinced that they choose how and what to consume differently from and better than the unawakened crowd[li]. There is no need to decrease consumption, which brings you so much reassurance, comfort, and joy when it does not hurt anybody: “DON’T SHOP LESS, SHOP DIGITAL FASHION!”[lii]
<Figure 7> “Biomimicry Full Look” from Auroboros’s Biomimicry Digital collection, https://www.auroboros.co.uk/product-page/biomimicry-look
The change of medium does not always translate into a change in thinking and doing. One of the feature characteristics of the current market is the absence of meaning (purpose) in produced goods and a strive to simulate its presence. In an economy characterized by an abundance of goods, simulated meanings (communicated through brand images and tags) are the features differentiating one product from the other. Consumers, too, are attracted to the products that speak to them through familiar and understandable signs that communicate said meanings. The discursive system of digital fashion is constituted by the signs, which resemble values desirable yet unattainable to many. Unique and exclusive objects assure a special place and worth to whoever possesses them. Goods that capitalize on ideas of liberation from certain, very often societal, restraints offer to relieve suffering and provide shelter. Finally, products that utilize the idea of sustainability, which is both a common societal good and an admirable personal lifestyle, promise positive prospects of the quality of life’s betterment. Nevertheless, the mere proclamation of these values does not mean the implementation of such. Therefore, understanding that at the origin of digital fashion’s marketing stands digital utopia is crucial to avoid being deceived and falling victim to psychologically, socially, environmentally, and financially detrimental consumerist practices.
Recommendation for readings “읽을거리”
[i] Ball, T. (2021), “Why Digital Clothing is 2021’s Most Exciting Tech Trend”, UX Planet, https://uxplanet.org/why-digital-clothing-is-2021s-most-exciting-tech-trend-64717db6856b
[ii] Benson, S. (2021), “Is digital fashion really the industry’s eco-friendly saviour?”, Dazed, https://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/53877/1/digital-fashion-clothing-industry-saviour-climate-sustainability-the-sims-avatar
[iii] Semic S. (2021), “Virtual Fashion: The Digitally Generated Clothes Appearing On Your IG Influencer Feeds”, ELLE, https://www.elle.com/uk/fashion/a28166986/digital-fashion-dressing-virtually/
[iv] Buro Jantrendman (n.d.), “Carlings Digital Collection”, https://www.jantrendman.com/en/trends/carlings-digital-collection
[vii] Snider M. & Molina B. (2022), “Everyone wants to own the metaverse including Facebook and Microsoft. But what exactly is it?”, USA TODAY, https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2021/11/10/metaverse-what-is-it-explained-facebook-microsoft-meta-vr/6337635001/
[viii] No.3, (n.d.), “Digital Fashion: the Manufucture of New Dreams”, No.3, https://www.number3mag.com/articles/digital-fashion-the-manufacture-of-new-dreams
[ix] KolbrenerC. (2021), “Virtual Rags and the Burgeoning World of Digital Fashion”, One37pm, https://www.one37pm.com/nft/fashion/virtual-rags-digital-fashion-profile
[x] Tseëlon, E. (2015), “Jean Baudrillard: Post-modern fashion as the end of meaning.”, Thinking through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists, London: Tauris.
[xiii] Tanner, G. (2020), “No More Futures: Pre-Recession Nostalgia in the West”, The Circle of the Snake: Nostalgia and Utopia in the Age of Big Tech, John Hunt Publishing.
[xv] Tseëlon, E. (2015), “Jean Baudrillard: Post-modern fashion as the end of meaning.”, Thinking through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists, London: Tauris.
[xviii] Tseëlon, E. (2015), “Jean Baudrillard: Post-modern fashion as the end of meaning.”, Thinking through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists, London: Tauris.
[xix] Sheringham, M. (2000), “Fashion, Theory, and the Everyday: Barthes, Baudrillard, Lipovetsy, Maffesoli.” Dalhousie French Studies, p. 151.
[xxi] Baudrillard, J. (1994), “Simulacra and Science Fiction.” Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser, University of Michigan Press.
[xxii] Tanner, G. (2020), “In the Mirror Maze: Regression, Recursion, and Canonization”, The Circle of the Snake: Nostalgia and Utopia in the Age of Big Tech, John Hunt Publishing.
[xxiii] Tanner, G. (2020), “Introduction: The Myth of Digital Utopia”, The Circle of the Snake: Nostalgia and Utopia in the Age of Big Tech, John Hunt Publishing.
[xxiv] Blanc de Blanc [@blacdeblac.co]. (2021). [An image of Mark Zuckerberg’s virtual avatar wearing digital clothes], https://www.instagram.com/p/CWQmRLnKAnR/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link
[xxv] Baudrillard, J. (1998), “The Miraculous Status of Consumption.”, Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
[xxvii] Baudrillard, J. (1998), “Personalization or the smallest marginal difference.”, Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
[xxix] Tseëlon, E. (2015), “Jean Baudrillard: Post-modern fashion as the end of meaning.”, Thinking through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists, London: Tauris.
[xxxi] Baudrillard, J. (1998), “The Social Logic of Consumption.”, Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
[xxxiii] Baudrillard, J. (1994), “The Beaubourg-effect: Implosion and deterrence.” Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser, University of Michigan Press.
[xxxiv] Baudrillard, J. (1998), “Mass-Media Culture.”, Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
[xxxv] Baudrillard, J. (1998), “Personalization or the smallest marginal difference.”, Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
[xxxvi] McDowell, M. (2021), “The ‘Baby Birkin’ NFT and the legal scrutiny on digital fashion.”, Vogue Business, https://www.voguebusiness.com/technology/the-baby-birkin-nft-and-the-legal-scrutiny-on-digital-fashion
[xxxvii] The Fashion Law. (2021), “From Baby Birkins to MetaBirkins, Brands Are Facing Issues in the Metaverse”, The Fashion Law, https://www.thefashionlaw.com/from-baby-birkins-to-metabirkins-brands-are-being-plagued-in-the-metaverse/
[xxxviii] Morton, T. (2015), “Introducing the idea of ‘hyperobjects’”, High Country News,
[xxxix] Hansen, A. & Machin, D. (2008), “Visually branding the environment: Climate change as a marketing opportunity.”, Discourse Studies, Vol. 10, No. 6, pp. 778-792.
[xl] Ibid, p. 792.
[xli] Delmas, M. A. & Burbano, V. C. (2011), “The drivers of greenwashing.”, California management review, Vol. 54, No. 1, pp. 64-87.
[xlii] Kim, M. C. (2021), “Green is the New Black: The Effects of COVID-19 on the Fashion Industry’s Need for Sustainability.”, Joseph Wharton Scholars, p. 20.
[xliii] Barber G. (2021), “NFTs Are Hot. So is Their Effect on the Earth’s Climate”, Wired, https://www.wired.com/story/nfts-hot-effect-earth-climate/
[xliv] Benson, S. (2021), “Is digital fashion really the industry’s eco-friendly saviour?”, Dazed, https://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/53877/1/digital-fashion-clothing-industry-saviour-climate-sustainability-the-sims-avatar
[xlvii] Almond, L. (2021), “Five reasons why you should listen out for ‘nature tech’ this year“, Nature4Climate, https://nature4climate.org/articles/five-reasons-why-you-should-listen-out-for-nature-tech-this-year/
[xlviii] The Shishigami shoes are inspired by the Ghibli’s forest spirit (シシガミ) , who is known as a god of life and death, in the Princess Mononoke animation, overlying theme of which is the environment, and man’s relation with nature.
[xlix]「Shishigami Shoes Dark by Auroboros: Biomimicry Collection」, https://www.auroboros.co.uk/product-page/shishigami-shoes-dark
[l] 「Biomimicry Full Look by Auroboros: Biomimicry Collection」, https://www.auroboros.co.uk/product-page/biomimicry-look
[li] Baudrillard, J. (1998), “Metaconsumption.”, Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
[lii] 「An Instagram post by Danyl [@danyllovesdanyl] featuring an image of a man wearing digital clothes」, https://www.instagram.com/p/CYW-XglonpI/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link