At this point it’s almost difficult to recall what pre-Covid times were like, but I recently asked some women to jog their memories. They filled out a brief survey that asked them how their fashion habits had changed since the pandemic, particularly in regards to online shopping.

It’s a necessary disclaimer to note that I am well aware of the disparity in how the pandemic has affected different people. Some devastated lives would blink in disbelief that shopping habits are a worthy topic of conversation. But it’s a massive industry that employs millions, so it is in fact worth observing how it’s changed, and my small glimpse into the habits of the women driving the sales in this industry may give you some food for thought.

The first and foremost overwhelmingly common answer was that yes, of course the pandemic has affected how they dress and shop. Many articles and blog posts have been written worldwide about liberation from wearing bras, or how horrifyingly constricting actual pants feel after months of working from home in sweats. But for my particular Indian peers, that conversation does not resonate as much as another. Dressing well and adorning ourselves is second nature; it has always been a hallmark of Indian femininity regardless of the community. Tamil women can usually be found in a neatly tied saree with flowers in their hair. Rajasthani women stack their bangles on daily, and Muslim women line their eyes with kohl–all are signifiers that they take pride in their appearance and want to present themselves beautifully to the world. In the South I’ve noticed that lower and middle classes don their best and blingiest for travel, while in America it is not uncommon to see young people wear pajamas to the airport. As far as my demographic here in Chennai, there is no end to occasions to dress up for. And the best part? We get to wear both Western AND Indian clothes! There’s always going to be a cocktail party around the corner, as well as a puja or a wedding, and we always want to look our best.

So while many of us did enjoy the same braless and pants-less perks of pandemic life, we also mourned the absence of this ritual that frankly, as shallow as it sounds, meant a lot to us. Fashion is also the industry in which so many of our friends make their living; stylish women who made their passion their work, and are killing it while giving the rest of us more of what we want. Therefore I wanted to explore how the current circumstances are shaping this huge force in these women’s lives.

Enter online shopping. While it was picking up steam in recent years, there were still plenty of women who didn’t trust it or were intimidated by it. These ladies were happy to shop at the many exhibitions that come through our city, or on their travels, and of course at trusty old Zara and H&M. And in a city where there isn’t much to do in terms of cultural or outdoor activities, shopping is as good as an activity as any. But once lockdown hit and we were penned in, our time on social media increased tenfold. Another majority response from the survey was that spending more time on social media had them following more fashion influencers and purchasing from the brands they highlighted. Our own Chennai gal Pavitra Sagar, under Instagram handle stylemuze, brightened up those dreary lockdown days with her eclectic outfits and creative photos, while promoting several fantastic Indian brands that we may have never come across otherwise. At the same time, Instagram officially sold its soul as a photo sharing app to fulfil its ultimate capitalist goal of becoming a virtual mall, so even the most ardent in-store shopper couldn’t resist the urge to fill up her cart after being bombarded with ads in between every story she viewed.

Did it make sense to be shopping more when there was no option to go out? Nope, but we did it anyway (another majority response from the survey). The reason may be explained by the lipstick index, which was a term coined by the chairman of the board of Estee Lauder in the early 2000s. He theorised that during economic recessions, sales of lipstick went up because women were avoiding bigger purchases like clothes and shoes, and instead bought smaller items like lipstick for that little pick me up. Now think back on most of the impulsive online purchases you’ve made in the last year…a lot of earrings, necklaces, and baubles right? Buying accessories was a perfect coping mechanism for those dismal times; seeing a shiny trinket on your phone, tapping a few buttons and receiving it a few days later when you probably forgot that you ordered it was the new high! Not to mention, accessories always fit, and are easier to justify considering how little space they take up. Now that things have opened up, take notice when you go out. You’re bound to see lots of layered necklaces, hair clips, mini bags, maybe all worn at the same time! Because another survey response was that many women are stacking on the goods and dressing up more regardless of the occasion, as we were deprived for so long and live in anticipation of the next lockdown.

But what about those ladies that preferred exhibitions and malls to online? While they might have gotten more comfortable with the latter than before, their core preferences haven’t changed. Sixty percent of the women I surveyed said they miss in-store shopping, and getting to touch things and try them on. And while I consider myself more online-savvy than most, I stand proudly with these women! You don’t know what you got til it’s gone, that’s for sure, and with an ever changing body that oscillates between sizes depending on the day, the planetary alignment, who knows what (My eating? Of course not, begone with that logic!), I have grown tired of constantly returning and exchanging clothes, and being disappointed that it doesn’t look nearly as good on me as it does on the model. I want to hold up garments to my body and hem and haw. I want to face the dreadful fitting room lighting and curse my reflection. I want to try on multiple sizes at once and purchase with peace of mind!

So fear not, brick and mortar retailers, you have a demographic that will remain loyal. Take for instance the biggest story in recent fashion news, the Sabyasachi x H&M collaboration. Yes, it was the online drop that made for the record-breaking sellout, but the in-store shopping appointments filled up as well. What’s most interesting is that this was in spite of the strict rules, which barely allowed patrons to touch the items, much less try them on! You would think that this defeated the purpose of going in person, but I believe it is a strong indicator that people are craving the agency to lay their eyes on the clothes directly and feel more confident to buy.

Industry talk says that retail outlets are working hard to innovate ways to elevate the shopping experience so that customers spend more time in stores. We Chennaites have already shown that we are prime subjects for this, as we think nothing of rearranging a weekday schedule to attend a store opening or exhibition, where we can expect to meet many friends and acquaintances and maybe have a cheeky drink if we’re lucky. Maybe retailers should offer packages like children’s play places do for birthday parties; instead of a typical lunch, a woman could host a shopping party at Zara where she and her friends have the store to themselves for a couple hours, with lunch to follow. Or simply adding a kid’s corner with an attendant would make a big difference in how much longer a harried mom could spend shopping in peace. Or personal stylists could link up with the store to cultivate some clients from the regulars, message them to remind them of new collections and sales, and be that encouraging, non judgmental shopping buddy we all need outside our fitting room door.

The overall takeaway from the survey was that even in these dark times where health and finances are uncertain, shopping remains a balm and a distraction. Whether it’s for the promise of better days ahead, or a way of living in the present and doing what feels good in this moment, adorning ourselves is a practice that we Indian women will never relinquish.

– By Priyanka Acharya