Instagram turns 11 this October. I started using it back in 2012, when I was 16 years old and, like most, could never have predicted the vicelike grip the photo-sharing platform would come to have on our wardrobes and beyond. Back then it was simple: post an outfit, tag it #OOTD and keep scrolling. That hashtag, now used 377 million times on the app, provided playful exploration and offered people an opportunity to flex their creativity away from the humdrum of the nine-to-five.
Something changed over time, though. I didn’t notice it at first but I subconsciously stopped posting pictures of myself rewearing the same outfit on Instagram. As time went on this became an intentional decision. Not only were my favourite influencers always wearing something new, my peers — whose paid jobs weren’t to promote fashion brands or showcase new collections — were doing it too. Having something new to wear became not just the norm but an expectation.
"Human beings feel safer when they're following the crowd; it's something called the herd instinct," psychologist Tara Quinn-Cirillo tells me. "So whenever we're feeling a bit anxious we feel safe to do what other people do. We'll follow the masses in the crowd, in terms of a certain behaviour." Herd instinct sees individuals follow a group, acting collectively without reflection — in many ways, this is what I saw myself doing on Instagram. I wasn’t alone: a study conducted by the environmental organisation Wrap found that one in three women consider a garment "old" after one or two wears.
Throwaway culture hasn’t always been the norm. For any generation that didn’t grow up online, rewearing the clothes they already own isn’t questioned — and why would it be? With the rise in fast fashion came a decline in seeing our clothes as things of value: low prices, poor quality and easy access to the new (same-day delivery has a lot to answer for) altered our perspective on clothes from items to be cared for to a revolving carousel of #OOTDs. Now, though, people are beginning to resist this social media-created, toxic mindset of 'wear once and done'.
In a bid to disrupt my own cycle, at the start of the year I read Lauren Bravo’s book How To Break Up With Fast Fashion. As I learned more about the industry’s detrimental impact on our planet – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has calculated that the fashion industry produces 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions every year – and on our mental health – exposure to imagery on Instagram correlates with anxiety, depressive symptoms, self-esteem and body dissatisfaction, according to the American Psychological Association – I began trying to rewear the clothes I already own. I’ve already noticed a difference in how I see my wardrobe. Instead of seeing pieces as 'old', playing around with what I already own has fuelled my creativity. I've made a concerted effort to forge my own style rather than looking to the ‘gram’s expectations of what I should wear. As Bravo says in her book: "Think of it like a Ready Steady Cook bag of clothes. When we’re forced to limit ourselves to the same outfits, we get more imaginative – and that creativity is satisfying, which in turn helps dampen the urge to keep shopping."
Change is in the virtual air, too: rather than encouraging novelty and newness, influencers are purposefully rewearing the same pieces on their feed. Chloe Helen Miles, 24, a fashion influencer from Brighton, quit fast fashion around two years ago and now uses her page to encourage her audience to embrace sustainability. While rewearing clothes isn’t new to her — Chloe says that growing up in a family that wasn’t able to afford new clothing regularly meant she’s never really felt self-conscious wearing the same outfit on multiple occasions — when it came to Instagram, she felt the need to. "On Instagram, I used to think I needed new things every week to stay relevant or interesting," Chloe tells Refinery29. "I don’t feel that pressure since quitting fast fashion but I had to make a conscious effort to pull away from that mindset and showcase the same items and outfits on repeat."
Chloe now believes it’s unrealistic to have new things all the time and her audience loves getting inspiration on how to wear something multiple ways. She's also found that it’s improved her relationship with her wardrobe. "I can’t remember the last time I had that ‘nothing to wear’ feeling. I sold clothes I wasn’t getting enough wear out of and only kept the ones I love that fit me well and are comfortable, so my wardrobe is full of pieces I love. I have a newfound respect for my clothes — I don’t treat them as disposable items anymore." Like many, since quitting fast fashion Chloe has seen just how harmful overconsumption can be to our mental health. "I think it’s really important that we realise how it ties to our self-worth; it’s an endless cycle of feeling like you’re not good enough unless you have the latest things. Breaking out of that cycle is the best thing I did for my mental health and self-confidence."
For fashion influencer Jade Olugbemi, 23, from London, it’s not just the pressure from social media but the insidious marketing tools used on Instagram that fuel the fire. Despite being out of work, she felt compelled to use Klarna during lockdown. "I realised I’d worn every single thing that I own," she tells Refinery29. "I thought I should buy some new bits and wanted to use Klarna. Then I came back to reality and realised that it didn’t make sense as I wasn’t working. Where would I get the money to pay that back?" What makes buy now, pay later services like Klarna so dangerous is the way they target young women on social media through ads and partnerships. Just this month, people took to social media to say that they were receiving marketing emails from Klarna, despite never having used or signed up for the service. If you’re someone who is already in a cycle of buying new clothes, these services, which use Gen Z and millennial-friendly messaging to convince you to add to basket, can exacerbate addiction and further the already harmful notion that we need more and more.
Now, though, Jade sees how rewearing clothes helps you develop your own personal style. "When you're rewearing stuff, there's more thought behind it — my room turns into a tip when I’m planning outfits. When you take everything out of your wardrobe you find items you haven’t worn in like a year."
DJ, radio presenter and influencer from Dublin, Tara Stewart, says her journey into sustainability began around two years ago. Though she’s been vintage shopping all her life, as her influence — and her 22k Instagram audience — grew, she started getting approached by fast fashion brands to advertise clothes. Similarly to Chloe, Tara told me that when she was collaborating with these brands she felt the pressure to continuously wear new things. "I definitely did feel pressure to wear new pieces all the time when I was doing the fast fashion stuff because these brands were paying me to post different outfits," Tara says. "I normally wouldn't really shop at those kinds of brands as they were never on my radar. As I’m a size 16, I found that many of these brands weren’t size-inclusive, either. I was obviously delighted to be approached by them but then I saw a lot of people sharing information about sustainability."
For Tara, reading up about the environmental impact of fast fashion – that three-fifths of all clothing produced ends up in incinerators or landfill within years of being made is one of many sobering facts — kickstarted the change in her shopping habits. "One day I remember digesting all this information and thinking, What am I doing? I felt really guilty for influencing people to buy fast fashion products. So after my last collaboration, I decided to stop working with fast fashion brands."
Now, Tara hosts a sustainable and slow fashion podcast called Dirty Laundry and uses TikTok to post secondhand clothing buys and charity shop outfit ideas. The hashtag #sustainability currently has 79.5 million views on the app, with TikTok users such as @iamnotsammy, @layersofchic and @hellosilhouette showing how fun it can be to create different outfits with the same pieces, whether it’s colour pop skirts or an oversized band tee. "The creativity of the TikTok community is having a huge impact on the fashion trends we are seeing, as creators are inspiring each other to rewear and reimagine existing pieces in their wardrobe," Cassandra Russell, fashion brand partnerships at TikTok, tells Refinery29. "From upcycling oversized shirts into a two-piece to recreating a character from a novel or an iconic TV show, to knitting a garment entirely from scratch; the fashion rules are constantly being redefined by our creator community." It’s not just TikTok though; Instagram’s new Reels function has been facilitating playful videos made by users such as Sophie Slater, founder of ethical and sustainable brand Birdsong, who show how they’re styling one item five ways.
We’re all coping differently with the pandemic — for some, impulse shopping is an understandable tonic in an anxious time; for others, it’s been a catalyst for change and breaking harmful cycles of spending. Unlearning toxic behaviours when it comes to fashion isn’t easy, especially when buying new clothes is not only normalised but encouraged. By seeking out those championing repeat wear and filling your timeline with styling tips and tricks, you’ll breathe new life into your existing wardrobe — and help the planet, and your health, as you go.