The Treatwave: why our spending habits don't match up to the cost of living crisis

Written by Naomi May

Despite soaring inflation and cost of living, sales of clothing are reaching record highs. Why is it that our spending habits aren’t aligning with the cost-of-living crisis? 

During the pandemic, Aerin Gold made a pact with herself. She vowed to purge her wardrobe of pieces that didn’t align with the personal style she’d been curating for herself during lockdown. Her new palette was minimal, meaning her wardrobe of sentimental florals and 00s low-rise waistbands was scaled back, piece by piece, until there was “nothing left.”

“It was a feeling of unlimited potential, as if, if I purged everything that was in my wardrobe, I’d feel cleansed almost,” she tells Stylist from her home in North London.

The result was that her wardrobe was indeed minimalised, but once the world opened up again, this also meant she didn’t feel that any of her clothes suited post-pandemic life. “It went from 0 to 100,” she adds. “I felt so good about having cleansed everything that I didn’t wear anymore, to realising that life was sort of back and I had nothing to wear.”

A voracious spending spree ensued, with Gold replenishing the inner sanctum of her wardrobe. Dresses, sandals, cosmetics and jackets were bought both virtually and in-person as she endeavoured to build back her wardrobe to its former glory. According to recent research, released by Kantar, she isn’t alone: shoppers are spending almost a fifth more on clothing than they did last year, with footwear found to be the fastest growing non-food category last month.

How is it that spending can be soaring so unabashedly though when the annual rate of inflation was the highest it has been since 1982 in June 2022? According to the Office for National Statistics, 91% of adults in the Great Britain reported an increase in their cost of living between June and July 2022.  

“Despite the economic uncertainty we’re all navigating, and the hardcore increases in the cost of living, the current excitement at being able to socialise again coupled with the post-pandemic availability of product after long delivery delays is driving demand for clothing and footwear which should continue into the autumn,” explains retail expert Helen Ashton, the CEO of Shape Beyond.

Stylist’s own Amy Beecham has similarly experienced the rise of the treatwave. “Spurred on by the endless minimalism and capsule wardrobe videos I’d scrolled through on TikTok, I decided that the ‘less is more’ mantra would be the key to finally discovering my personal style. The logic seemed simple: with less to choose from, I’d never be stuck for what to wear again,” she says.

After a sartorial purge, similar to Gold’s, which at first “felt freeing”, Beecham soon realised that her “wardrobe was lacking the flirty, fun pieces I’d dismissed as frivolous”. 

“In lockdown, when clothes were truly just about comfort and utility, I forgot that I love how I look in a slick midi dress or how great yellow looks with a tan,” she says.

What followed was what Beecham refers to as the “great re-buy”; a chance to re-purchase pieces in a considered way, while still trying to retain the core of the adage that had inspired the clothing cleanse in the first place.

It’s not just the purchasing of more clothes and footwear that’s a problem, though – according to Ofcom’s annual study in national online behaviour, UK online shopping sales rose by 48% to nearly £113 billion in 2020, up from £76.1 billion in 2019 – it’s also the price of them. 

Figures have shown that womenswear prices in the UK have increased almost twice as fast as wages over the past five years, a rate that far surpassed the increase in men’s clothing and wages. Increased demand of womenswear clothing has manipulated the sharp increase in the cost, meaning we’re now buying more and paying more.

Ashton is clear that the current spike in spending will most likely continue until the autumn, at which point, she notes, the pattern may be reversed. “People are also spending more time back in the office and attending work events, further supporting the need to upgrade from our comfy gear of the past couple of years,” she notes. “What will be interesting though will be to note whether this is reversed by the predicted further increase in household utilities in winter.”

For Gold, her spending spree has been curbed slightly by the cost-of-living, but not even soaring inflation has stopped her from investing in several Rixo dresses, a Balenciaga bag and a pair of Christian Louboutins. “If all goes peak tong, I’ll just have to sell it all to make money,” she quips. 

Images: Getty

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