Zoom Fashion

By Anneke Smelik

The cover of The New Yorker of 7 Dec. 2020 features a telling cartoon of our daily life during the lockdowns induced by the COVID-19 pandemic: a woman sits in front of her laptop wearing a smart top, her hair in a nice bun, with lipstick and earrings, but underneath she wears sportive shorts showing hairy legs in fluffy slippers. This strange separation between our well-dressed upper parts of our body and relaxed if not partly undressed lower bodies, is so typical of our online lives in front of the camera. Smart from the waist up; relaxed from the waist down. It brings into sharp relief the performative aspect of the way we dress. 

In the beginning of the pandemic, during the first lockdown, as teachers we shared slightly embarrassed exchanges about wearing sweatpants or pyjama bottoms that no one could see. Soon enough the internet was abounding with faux pas of people online wearing a suit, shirt and tie, but with their underpants showing when they got up. Teachers and students alike are quite conscious of their screen presence, which reveals only the top part of the body. Makeup and hair matter more, as do tops, while bottoms and shoes matter less and probably stay locked away in the cupboard. Staring at one’s own face among many others during the online meetings and classes requires new make-up and dressing routines. Combining nice tops that are in view with sweatpants for the part of the body that (hopefully) no one can see, reveals that dress is, after all, performative: we dress not only for ourselves but also for others (Smelik & Kaiser, 2020). We dress for the public gaze. 

This performative aspect of fashion reminds me of the metaphor of the stage that sociologist Erving Goffman (1959) used to characterize presentations of self as performances in everyday life.  As Efrat Tseëlon (2016) has shown, the theatrical metaphor of performance is particularly apt for the study of clothing and appearance. Goffman’s notion of a ‘front region’, the social role that people adopt in society, versus the ‘back region’, where people relax their looks and behaviour, is intimately connected with the ways we dress. The staged, edited and filtered selfies that we put on Instagram or Facebook are clearly intended for the ‘front region’, whereas we are usually reluctant to upload snapshots from the ‘back region’ when we lounge on our couch in a track suit without any make up on. Translating Goffman’s terms to the digital age of Zoom, Teams, virtual classrooms, and other digital meetings, perhaps we can better talk of an ‘upper region’ and a ‘lower region’! Now, the upper region of our body remains out there up front, while the lower part of the body can relax into the invisible back region. 

Clothes are an important part of ‘impression management’, as it has come to be known. In the presence of others, Goffman argues, individuals will try to influence the situation by presenting themselves in a favourable light. In this respect, Goffman makes a difference between the impression that people give intentionally and the impression that they give off unintentionally. We may dress very carefully to make an impression for a Zoom meeting by doing our hair and applying makeup, putting on a nice top and jewellery, but may give off quite a different impression by getting up in haste showing a pyjama bottom, or worse, underwear. Our online lives are still sustained by normative expectations and tacit rules of embodied presentation: the performance goes on, even if the camera reduces us to ‘talking heads’. 

I am probably not the only one who misses wearing (and showing off) beautiful shoes, and who is slightly fed up with wearing Uggs, however comfortable at home. It cannot be any coincidence that fashion designers have come up with ‘Zoom fashion’, focusing on the ‘waist-up’, with detailed necklines and relaxed trousers (Criddle, 2020). We may not be able to afford such expensive brands, but I have come across a fun solution for Zoom fashion: the work-at-home sweater that looks like a business suit. This certainly helps to create the right impression management. So, while the lockdown lasts, I will try to keep my desire for swirling skirts and smart trousers on hold, and have fun with Zoom fashion by mismatching business-like tops with totally relaxed bottoms. 


Criddle, Cristina, ‘Fashion brands design ‘waist-up’ clothing for video calls’. BBC News, 20 september 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-54327987

Goffman, Erving (1959), The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin.

Anneke Smelik and Susan Kaiser, ‘Performing fashion’. Editorial introduction to Critical Studies in Fashion & Beauty, vol 11 nr 2, 2020: 117-128. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1386/csfb_00012_2

Tseëlon, Efrat (2016),  ‘Erving Goffman: Social science as an art of cultural observation’. In Agnès Rocamora & Anneke Smelik (eds.) Thinking Through Fashion. A Guide to Key Theorists. London: Bloomsbury, 149-164.

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Cybercouture: emotional jeans or a twittering sweater

By Anneke Smelik 


Wouldn’t it be great if you could generate electricity with your jacket? Or load your mobile in the pocket of your jeans? Or wear a sweater that can send a tweet?

‘Wearable technology’ is the new trend in fashion. To create ‘wearables’ (as they are called), fashion designers and scientists wire complex systems of microprocessors, motors, sensors, solar panels, (O)LEDs or interactive interfaces into the fabric, textile or clothes. Designers experiment with these ‘smart materials’ to create thrilling examples such as a dress that connects you to twitter, a catsuit that visualises your emotions, jeans that change colour or measure your vital functions. This is what I call ‘cybercouture’. Interestingly, Dutch artists and designers like Pauline Van Dongen, Iris Van Herpen, Bart Hess, Daan Roosegaarde, Marina Toeters, and Anouk Wipprecht form the vanguard in the international field of cybercouture. It may all sound like the far future, but it is actually already happening – that is, in the lab or on the catwalk. But wearables hardly appear on the streets or in the shops. While the future of wearable technology has been announced time and again, the praxis lags behind.

The question then is how can we get beyond the stage of mere gadgets and gimmicks. At the Radboud University Nijmegen, together with the Technical University of Eindhoven, and the fashion academy ArtEZ in Arnhem, and six private partners, we have started an interdisciplinary research project, Crafting Wearables, to advance wearable technology to the next stage. The research project is funded by The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research and brings together people from fashion design, technology, industry, museums and universities. The goal is to develop ‘wearables’ that are robust, fashionable and commercially viable. A nerdy outfit may be technologically cool, but it should also make you look pretty, be easy to wash or comfortable to wear. Moreover, it should add something fundamental and functional to your full wardrobe and the many technological devices that you already own.

As the body of the wearer becomes some kind of interface, there are also some philosophical implications of cybercouture. We have now entered an age in which we use technology with the idea that we can control, improve and enhance both our lives and our own bodies. Technology is one of the major factors in affecting our identity and changing the relation to our own body, and wearable technology even more so because of its closeness to the body. By wearing it directly on our bodies we relate intimately to technical objects and materials, further blurring the boundaries between body and technology. Integrating technology into our clothes will therefore have an impact on how we experience our bodies and our selves. For example, will the t-shirt that monitors my blood pressure make me more aware – or even self-conscious – of my body? How will it affect my friendships if my dress reflects my emotions without me having to express them? It is certain that cybercouture offers an encounter between fashion and technology, opening up to a future world where garments are merged with human skin, body and identity. The research program Crafting Wearables allows the Department of Cultural Studies to explore how wearable technology creates a web of new, complex and dynamic relations between the human being and her body, technology, and society.

=> For information on the research programme, see: http://www.craftingwearables.com/

=> You can download Anneke Smelik’s chapter ‘Draagbare technologie: cybercouture en technomode’ from the book Ik cyborg (in Dutch): http://www.wearable.nl/e-fashion/gratis-download-hoofdstuk-over-wearable-technology-uit-ik-cyborg/

Image credits: Kate Perry CuteCircuit Catsuit for E.T. Live at the American Idol 2011 . Photos by katy-perry.net via: http://cutecircuit.com/media/