You have probably seen it billowing in the train platform breeze. The wearer clutches a clear plastic tote bag, with Stan Smiths on her feet and a leather jacket draped around her shoulders. You see it at brunch; at rooftop bars nestled between knotted t-shirts and silky blouses; in railway arches converted into cafes. It’s a vision in monochrome, inoffensively patterned and cut loosely enough to be suitable for lots of body shapes. It is, obviously, That Zara Dress.
In cosmopolitan areas, it’s weird not to spot at least one person a day wearing it. A white maxi dress with black spots, The Dress is currently on sale at the high street retailer for £39.99, and seems to be multiplying at an alarming rate. It’s become such a phenomenon, in fact, that it’s got its own Instagram account with 10,000 followers, and the New York Times just ran an article about its ubiquity. It seems prescient to ask, then: how the fuck did a polka dot dress go IRL viral?
We can probably start with that Instagram account. @hot4thespot is run by stylist Faye Oakenfull, who started it in April when a stylist and make-up artist both showed up to a shoot she was working on wearing The Dress. After posting a photo of the two of them on her Instagram story as an “awkward fashion moment,” she was inundated with friends sending her their own Dress sightings.
“After a few weeks, it seemed to be so popular on my stories that I decided to start @hot4thespot to keep on top of the content,” Faye explains.
@hot4thespot is not the first Instagram dedicated to an item of clothing with its own legion of fans. There’s also @leopardmidiskirt, which posts sightings of the type of silky, leopard print midi skirt most commonly found in WeWorks, and @thatpuffa, an account dedicated to the green Urban Outfitters Puffa jacket that basically became the Goldsmiths University winter uniform a few seasons back.
The Dress, the skirt, and the jacket all transcend being simple items of clothing to become real life memes. Each of them expresses a kind of shorthand about the wearer (what her job is, what sort of place she lives in). Wearing one of these items also requires a certain level of self-awareness, at least for anyone who’s plugged into online trends. Of the people who submit photos to her account, Faye says that most are used to seeing other women wearing The Dress. “[They] felt like they were all already in on the joke – hence the bio being, ‘A safe space for *The Dress*’.”
Before @hot4thespot existed, Faye says that groups of friends would share photos of their glimpses of other women in The Dress via group chats. “Some girls even had a Dress rota to avoid wearing it on the same day,” she adds.
Rather than feeling self-conscious about wearing such a high-profile item that they’re likely to see others in too, it seems that Dress-wearers actually love belonging to a polka dot-themed club. “Instead of feeling awkward about it, they’re just owning it and literally high-fiving each other in the street,” Faye says.
This is certainly true for 29-year-old Roxanne, a happy Dress owner, who tells me: “I bumped into a lady at a barbecue last month who was wearing the exact same outfit. We now have a WhatsApp group devoted to The Dress!”
It may be hard to fathom how an uncomplicated summer dress became a fashion craze, but devotees of The Dress clearly see it as a must-have item. “It’s so comfortable, it’s modest – I sometimes have issues with things being too low cut – it’s a great length on me," 30-year-old Milly tells me. "It’s lightweight for the summer, feminine, goes with everything, and lastly but most importantly, it feels fashionable without being too tight or sexy, which is exactly what I love.”
Roxanne loves that The Dress can be worn for basically every occasion. “It’s flowy and really comfortable. I think it suits everyone and is so versatile. I get compliments every time I wear it; I think it’s the perfect summer dress,” she says, while Nikita, 29, tells me that she’s a fan of how The Dress “can be dressed up or down so I can go from work to dinner with hardly any change.”
Faye describes the culture around The Dress as a “sisterhood,” and the reason for this is probably related to the type of garment it is: it’s a real girl’s girl. Womenswear is a saturated market but The Dress is seen as good value for money because it can be put to lots of different uses; as suitable for a messy barbecue with friends as it is for days when the office is so hot you feel like a dog locked in a car. The oversized cut and ankle-grazing length also caters to a multitude of sizes and heights – although of course, not as many as it should (the Zara size range only extends to an XL, which eliminates choice for lots of plus size consumers.)
This multi-occasion, one-style-fits-many aspect is instrumental for the viral success of clothing.
“For an item to go viral, it needs to be versatile and flattering on everyone as well as being good quality at a good price,” says Nicki Tattersall, womenswear buying director at ASOS. She adds that it helps if a clothing item is “recognisable and stands out on that all-important social feed.” In Nikki’s experience, “when a style performs well, it works across all fits and customers globally.”
In many ways, The Dress and its similarly shaped counterparts are basically case studies in what shoppers who buy womenswear on British high streets want. The Dress has, as Harriet Brown writes for Drapers, a “modest cut that makes it extremely versatile: suitable for offices, events and weekends alike, able to be dressed up or down. The floaty shape and long sleeves also make it ideal for a temperamental British summer.”
A specific blend of internet notoriety and a silhouette that suits many bodies has undoubtedly contributed to the success of The Dress. And while it’s great that we're seeing the demands of women – rather than the demands of patriarchy on them – being met by the high street, it’s also important to acknowledge what The Dress tells us about fast fashion. Zara, after all, has a history of worrying labour practices, while Good On You, an app that rates brands by their ethics notes that “their business model is based on an unsustainably high turnover rate.” Zara might pride itself on giving consumers the latest fashion trends, but Good On You sees the promotion of such rapid consumption as “inherently harmful to both people and planet.”
Like any viral phenomenon, The Dress’ time will certainly come to an end. “I must admit, now that it's become super popular, I'm wearing it less,” Nikita tells me. Eventually, others will start to feel the same, and The Dress will go out of fashion, perhaps to be replaced by another viral dress. But the planet simply can’t handle this level of production. The more sustainable option, therefore, would be for retailers to make longer-lasting versions of popular garments, so that the patterns don’t get old they can be worn over and over.
For now, however, The Dress is a dress people want to wear repeatedly – and not because it’s ‘flattering.’ Milly is keen to let me know that she doesn’t care about that at all: “It’s not about looking thinner, it’s about being comfortable and wearing something that brings you joy.”
Faye – as the de facto world expert on The Dress – sums its popularity up best: “It’s just an easy statement piece. It’s comfortable and you can throw it on and it can be dressed up or down. I actually really rate that it’s just a huge spotty man-repeller – and everyone can’t get enough of it anyway.”
Let’s hope its viral success is a lesson to the fashion world about what we really want to see in stores, on racks, and in our wardrobes.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.