When artist and writer Leanne Shapton gave her talk on the seduction of amateur fashion photography in the Fashion Interpretations Symposium in early December, I felt as though she had exposed to me the secrets of my online shopping habits. From this point on, I became fascinated (and a bit obsessed) with investigating what actually goes into my experience of buying second-hand clothes online.
Shapton happened upon the subjects of her 2020 painted series when scrolling through eBay and Craigslist. Through magical means, she transforms the one-dimensional amateur photography into whimsical painted expressions. Her talk and her work highlighted the absurdity of second-hand fashion online. The nuanced way in which we are seduced by amateur photography into buying something online that once belonged to someone else transcends the here and now to consider the imagined arena of what could be.
Depop is my queen. It has provided me with an escape – not only in this past year but since the day I first created my ‘shop’ – and a space in which to carve out my very own, very ‘authentic’ style. I sit for hours, ‘liking’ clothes listed as ‘authentic vintage’, ‘deadstock’ or ‘y2k’. I sort each item into ‘collections’ that I’ve labelled ‘vintagey’, ‘jewels’, ‘lingeree’, ‘hat’, ‘topz’, ‘dressup’. I hope that no one will see my collections, so that the dress (that I’ll forget about as soon as I close the app) is mine, in perpetuity.
I sometimes search for months and even years for the right version of the garment I want. In the past year and a half, I’ve spent an unfortunate amount of time trying to find the perfect cowboy boots at the perfect price point. When I finally found them, I felt as though my hard work had paid off. The caption read: ‘Blue embroidered cowboy boots. UK7. #cowboy #western #bohovibes #boots.’ Simple, effective and they only cost £30 (including postage and packaging)! The seller (@portlevenmermaid) put up four images of the pale blue boots with white embroidery, against a diamond-patterned carpet in similar colours. She photographed them on their side, then from the perspective of the toe, then from the heel. She even modelled them herself, sat on the floor with legs outstretched. However, this wasn’t enough for me to be sure that my £30 would be well spent. I wanted to see them standing up; I asked, and she made me a video.
To help me weigh up the pros and cons of investing, I imagined myself walking around in the shoes I hadn’t yet purchased. I put together outfits that I thought would go with them. I imagined events that I would wear them to. In essence, those cowboy boots spent a lot of time in my head before I would ever see them on my feet. The last push was the recognition that if I saw that ‘SOLD’ stamp appear, I would feel a guilty sickness for the time wasted as well as a size-seven-cowboy-boot-shaped hole in my heart. I confirmed with the seller and bam! £30 left my account.
I waited two weeks for our postman to hand me a shoe-sized package. As soon as they arrived, I excitedly ripped open the flimsy plastic purple packaging. They were exactly as @portlevenmermaid had shown them! The embroidery was delicate and yet pronounced against the pale blue faux-leather material. The wooden heel was a lot sturdier than I had expected. They looked in great shape. I rushed to put them on, unzipping the leather and sliding my foot inside. Oh… a bit tight. Not to worry – I was wearing thick bed socks and I would never wear them with these! I jumped into a pair of tights and slid the boots on again. Still a bit of a pinch… It was fine, I wouldn’t be walking long distances in them anyway.
Our Christmas Day walk was the first outing for me and my boots. We walked about 6,000 steps according to Apple Health. The pointed toe squeezed my thinly covered feet and, with every step, created a friction that became unbearable. Taking off the boots at the end of the walk felt like taking off the favourite bra that you won’t admit you’ve grown out of, despite the red-raw indents it leaves on your chest. I was disappointed to say the least, but I also felt a real sense of guilt. I thought of my grandma and the hours we had waited for my number to be called out in Clarks, to have my feet precisely measured for shoes that would last me years. This was clearly a lesson I did not bring with me into my adult life.
Outlining my Depop experience in words has been a bit bizarre. I’ve come to realise that this is not a standalone experience: it has happened to me multiple times, with shoes, suits, tops and jeans, and I’m sure it has happened to everyone who has ever bought something online. This imaginary incorporation of this digital thing into my real life is beautifully represented by Shapton in her latest series of images. She highlights the strangeness of making judgements (and handing over money to strangers online) based on a one-dimensional image that you have worked to make real in your mind’s eye.
The entire experience of buying clothes forces us to think of a life not yet lived. This imagined potential is greatly intensified online, even more so now that it allows us to hope for a future. With that in mind, I think I’ll try to cling on to the pleasure felt at the imagined version of me, wearing my cowboy boots.
By Bethan Eleri Carrick
Kathryn Reed, Fashion Interpretations Symposium Part II, https://sites.courtauld.ac.uk/documentingfashion/2020/12/03/fashion-interpretations-symposium-part-iii/