This £39 Zara dress is absolutely everywhere - and this is the psychology making you want it

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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Your best mate, your mum, your deskmate - everyone owns The Dress and you still crave it. Moya Lothian-McLean investigates the making of an ‘It’ item.

A spectre is haunting Europe, and me. It is 100% viscose, ankle-length and has a ruffled hem that flutters pleasingly when you walk. It costs £39.99 in Zara. It is a polka dot dress with a round-neck. It will categorically not leave me alone.

Almost certainly, you know the dress I’m speaking of. It’s a printed lightweight number, with elbow-length sleeves and a keyhole button fastening. Black and white spots. Everyone in the Western hemisphere owns it. It’s permeated every level of my existence. ‘The Dress’ – as my friends and I now refer to it – is everywhere: dotted all over Instagram, sitting on a tube seat reading Sally Rooney, standing outside the pub on Friday with a French Spritz in hand. 

“I have a folder on my phone of well over 100 pictures of [The Dress],” stylist Faye Oakenfull tells me. She runs Instagram account @hot4thespot, which is dedicated to posting wild sightings of the dress. The idea was born from an early encounter with The Dress’ universal appeal.

“Back in April, I was working on a shoot and both the Art Director and make-up artist turned up on set wearing The Dress,” Oakenfull recounts.

“I posted it on my Insta story as an awkward fashion moment and it just escalated over the Easter weekend. Suddenly everyone was spotting The Dress and sending it to me. I started posting the submissions and it became a bit of a game.”

Once you take the dotted pill, Oakenfull warns, you can’t go back.

“It’s actually hard to keep on top of,” she says, of maintaining @hot4thespot. “The other weekend I counted and I got sent 37 submissions. The best part is how excited people are to finally spot it. Once you pop your dress cherry you just can’t stop! I see the dress everywhere, sometimes in my nightmares.”

Same. And yet… I still crave this dress. It is only the angry red figures of my bank balance that prevent me going out and adding to the hordes who have already been seduced by its flattering cut and comfortable fit. But lots of dresses can lay claim to those attributes. So what’s the particular alchemy of this S/S 2019 Zara number that has made it so ubiquitous that even my straight male colleague turned to me and commented on its constant presence?

Obviously, it’s of-the-moment. If a dress could be algorithm-generated, this would be the result. Earlier this year, the gods of fashion decided floaty midi dresses would be the trend we all went gaga for. And who could put up much resistance? They’re so wonderfully versatile: loose-cut, flared sleeves, able to be dressed up or down with the addition of just one accessory.

The Dress is no exception; pair with Stan Smiths and scraped back hair when you’re racing to the office in the morning and you’ll still look somewhat put together. Swap in heels and a red lip and voila! Straight to evening drinks, do not pass go.   

It is, says fashion psychologist Shakaila Forbes-Bell, a prime example of how current trends for women’s fashion revolve around comfort and practicality.

“We’ve moved away from the height of the bodycon era,” Forbes-Bell explains to me. “As a community, we’re realising that comfort and relaxed fit dressing key – it’s got such a large part to play in how we navigate our lives and how well we complete our daily tasks.

There was a 2015 study that found wearing more comfortable clothing impacts your cognitive performance in a positive way but uncomfortable clothing is associated with distraction and cognitive load.”

But comfort alone does not a cultural phenomenon make. That’s where the print and cut come into play.

“The black and white polka dots suit a variety of skin tones,” says Forbes-Bell. “And the cut is very flattering for a wide range of body types. If you see someone similar to you wearing something, it’s easier to envision yourself in it. So if it suits so many people, you’re far more likely to see someone else like you wearing it – and that starts off a cycle of what we call ‘social proof’.”

Social proof, Forbes-Bell explains, is when over-saturation actually works to promote an item, rather than put anyone off buying it.

“When particular styles gain traction it has a lot to do with heuristics – the mental shortcuts humans operate on that help us think and act faster,” she tells me.

“One of those mental shortcuts is social proof. Social proof is essentially the idea that if everyone is doing it, it must be good. Before we might have seen social proof in the case of everyone joining a line for like a particular band, and we’re thinking, ‘Oh, this was good, everyone’s doing it, let’s join this line’. Now we have social media. If we see an image of a dress, it’s got 2000 likes and someone else is wearing it, that’s social proof. It makes us believe that everyone is buying this dress, so it must be popular and fashionable.”

Which in turn makes it popular and fashionable. Algorithms also have a big part to play in serving up The Dress to those most likely to buy it.

“The way social media is curated now, if we like something, we’re going to see more of it,” Forbes-Bell remarks.

“If you like this dress in this particular style, you’re more likely to follow the kind of people who’d wear it or [be served] similar items on the timeline as well. That’s just how social media works. It creates a consensus and general agreement that ‘Oh, everyone’s wearing this, I’m going to join in because it must be good.’ People operate on a ‘majority rules’ principle.”

What of those who own the dress, I wonder? How do they feel about their statement garment becoming a declaration of homogeneity?

“This dress is a curse because since buying it I have seen it every day,” 23-year-old Elise bluntly tells me. She bought the dress while holidaying in Warsaw in March, unaware of its burgeoning cult status.

“Two of my friends have since bought this dress, I went to the same event as one of them in the same dress. We now have to coordinate re: The Dress. I see it on the tube, I see it when I walk to work. I can almost guarantee it’s almost always paired with a leather jacket and Converse and out of pride I refuse to now wear either a leather jacket or Converse.”

At first, Elise found it amusing. But she’s beginning to tire of the admin required to avoid other devotees of The Dress.

“Initially it was funny,” she confesses.

“I’d post photos of other people wearing it on my Instagram story and it was very light hearted – a kind of kindred spirit type thing. However now that it is literally everywhere, I realise people who don’t own the dress are probably laughing at me. But I can’t seem to stop myself from wearing this dress, despite the fact it is the fashion equivalent of a mass virus outbreak.”

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In contrast, fellow dress owner Roisin is shrugging off the ubiquity of her new go-to garment.

“I see other people wearing it but it’s like: do I give a fuck?” says the 27-year-old, who bought The Dress after spotting it everywhere from her social feeds to Peckham High Street.

“These things happen every year. In 2017 it was that blue [Zara] off-the-shoulder dress, and in 2018 that Realisation Par Naomi skirt that was copied to death. They’re all so popular because they’re nice items of clothing so I don’t really care if a lot of people have them.”

There also might be another factor driving the unbelievable popularity of 2019’s must-have high street item: crappy British weather.

As a fail-safe option, even on a day that veers wildly from morning sunshine to downpours by dusk, The Dress pretty much nails it. Airy and brightly patterned enough to pass as a classic ‘summer’ dress, it also very easily transitions into ‘rainy day cover up’, thanks to its full-length, modest neckline and three-quarter length sleeves.

And if there’s anything more powerfully appealing to consumers than mass exposure, a cut suits every body shape and a price point below £50, surely it’s the ability to weather the British excuse for summer?

Screw it, I’m getting it. 

Images: Zara/Instagram


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Moya Lothian-McLean

Moya Lothian-McLean is a freelance writer with an excessive amount of opinions. She tweets @moya_lm.

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