Why Fashion YouTubers Are Swapping Hauls for Minimalism

Woman sitting on armchair surrounded by clothes and flowers. Fashion YouTubers
Photo by Marlene Leppänen from Pexels

We’ve come a long way, baby. Within just a few short years, the very same Youtube channel hosting endless shopping sprees is now the home to content packed with environmentally-friendly messaging about curating a sustainable wardrobe. In her 2018 video “how to NOT destroy the planet while shopping,” influencer Arden Rose reflected for the first time on the fact that she has “promoted the means of fast fashion by being a YouTuber online.” Recently, content on her channel is geared towards decluttering and cleaning, in which she tries on and evaluates each piece in her closet with the goal of parsing down her massive collection. Arden Rose is far from alone: capsule wardrobes, declutters, and odes to minimalism are cropping up more and more on social media platforms, creating what seems to be a new standard for fashion content.

Is this trend really about environmentalism, or is it just a fresh way for young women to talk about clothes online and appease a need for new, updated social media content? Certainly, these YouTubers do raise awareness of the environmental impact of the fashion industry among their millions of followers. But at the same time, their topical anti-consumerism theme runs the risk of reproducing the class disparities that have contributed to the juggernaut of fast fashion in the first place. New trends such as “capsule” wardrobes and high-end investment pieces propel a more elite, aspirational ethos of shopping, in which a better fashion future can simply be purchased by consumers.

The History of the Haul

The spectacle of young women showing off their shopping and styling habits online has long been an economy in and of itself on YouTube, where “Influencers” can earn money through embedded ads and brand partnerships on their personalized channels. Barely on the internet radar a decade ago, many of these now boast subscription numbers in the millions.

But at one point, as the YouTuber mythology has it, these were just girls in their bedroom, thinking of nothing more than excitedly showing off their Primark and H&M bags full of new purchases to their camera, streaming the content out from their floor through YouTube’s easy sharing platform. The audience for these videos seemed to manifest itself: eager viewers who would tune in to watch young women talk about buying clothes, show off their new purchases, and advise viewers’ future consumption.

This phenomenon can be best encapsulated in one of the most popular types of fashion content on YouTube: the “Haul.” “Today I have a TopShop haul for you,” says YouTuber HelloOctober in her January 2019 video, “TOPSHOP UNBOXING HAUL + TRY ON.” She hoists up a large, overstuffed package, teasing the visual treat to come. Of course, “haul” connotes some sort of excess, a kind of guilty pleasure born from shopping with supposed abandonment resulting in a good pile of products. We are here to simply watch the gleeful declaration of a task well- completed: shopping.

But these videos are not just about basking vicariously in the pleasure of shopping. Arguably, the incredible popularity of this content has a lot to do with the way the YouTube platform encourages an intimate, ongoing connection between producer and audience. YouTubers and Influencers — not quite celebrities but still with an air of aspiration — cultivate what could be referred to as a parasocial relationship, in which followers are made to feel as though they are friends with the public figure. YouTubers can use that intimate connection to their advantage when advising viewers to, say, follow them down the declutter path or encourage investing in the same cashmere that got them through the winter. They can explore shifting trends and expectations as though discovering them alongside the audience, and urging them to learn from their mistakes. Arden Rose’s aforementioned move into minimalism was apparently prompted simply by her watching a documentary one weekend: an everygirl move with the air of a big sister passing along some advice — and #gifted brand recommendations.

Not surprisingly, this direct engagement with audiences shapes the content itself. For instance, despite the glamour and fun of showing off piles of new stuff to a growing audience, YouTubers have invited close surveillance and subsequent criticism (or praise) of their purchasing habits. In ICovetThee’s recent “UNBOXING + TRY ON HAUL,”she critiques her own reflection while wearing her purchases; then viewers engage with her musings in the comment section, advising which items to keep. Thus a relationship is formed in which the audience feels invested in surveilling the upkeep of the closet, setting the stage for future commentary.

The presentation and scrutiny of shopping doesn’t just stop with hauls; users have continued to make content out of not just buying clothes, but the styling and organizing of them. This often results in endless guides and lookbooks. A sampling of these offerings include, 5 OUTFITS FOR THE WEEK AHEAD; My Winter Wardrobe Staples; STYLING TRENDS YOU HATE; 20 ways to style a WHITE T SHIRT; Testing Basics | Cashmere Jumpers ; CASUAL SPRING OUTFIT IDEAS | Spring Fashion Lookbook; 5 OUTFITS IN A CARRY ON | Packing for a weekend away; 7 Workwear Outfit Ideas, to name a few.

With recognizable visual and discursive patterns, this library of varied content demonstrates young women creators’ propensity to follow fashion-oriented memes largely created by their peers. It creates a newly recognizable way of categorizing and cataloguing their consumerism. In that sense, these are not just a diary of a shopping trip or a style guide — they exist online as cultural reference points for understanding and visualizing young women’s clothing decisions.

Fashion and Identity Work

The online fashion world in spaces like YouTube reflects an ideal: that shopping and styling can be learned, and there are ways to do it correctly. The task, then, is to keep up-to-date with not just style trends but just what ‘right’ way of shopping and styling is.

In this sense, YouTube and its accompanying social media platforms have allowed young women to expand the concept of shopping and styling into an entire discursive online universe. Underpinning this universe is a key notion: that shopping itself, the curation of a wardrobe, and the way you handle the clothes (from how you wear them to how you eventually choose to discard them), is something to be learned, and something potentially precarious.

The YouTuber is ostensibly here to act as a guide through the wilds of self-styling; as both a friend and connoisseur, they can lead them through potential fashion and shopping pitfalls: wasting money on low value items, choosing something in an overly trendy colour, missing your chance at finding the ideal checkered pant. Essentially, they tap into the anxiety a girl shopper might feel at getting it wrong — and similarly, the empowerment of navigating it all successfully.

Importantly, these practices offer a window into how young women manage themselves through clothes. After all, when it comes to embodying ideal girlhood and social status, fluency in the language of style and clothes is monumental proof of competent self-awareness. It speaks to what feminist scholar Yael D. Sherman calls fashion’s command of “normative femininity,” one which isn’t necessarily “a physical ideal that everyone must fit into… but a set of individual ‘rules’… femininity is defined not as being a sex object, but as being a competent agent for the self.” The judgement and appraisal of young women’s fashion choices is rooted in a belief that self-sufficient girls should be capable of adhering to style rules and trends that speak to their individual needs.

In this world, collecting clothes becomes a strategy aimed toward having a definable personal “wardrobe,” a feat which seems suddenly fused with great importance. One might watch and wonder if all this is creating an excessive show out of something fundamentally mundane. But girls’ activity on YouTube is a prime example of girls’ subcultural practices, a show of what cultural studies scholars Jenny Garber and Angela McRobbie termed ‘bedroom culture,’ in which girls are recognized as actively producing cultural norms ways that have been hidden or deemed insignificant. With influencer and YouTube platforms, what might otherwise be seen as inconsequential frivolity (like shopping) becomes visible and consumable.

Enter Minimalism

As one might expect, as societal ideals and values shift over time, the online fashion world absorbs and reflects these changes. In fact, it is within subcultural realms such as YouTube channels that emerging social ideals manifest themselves and become even more visible. For example, recent movements toward sustainability and environmental awareness have rendered gleeful displays of over-consumption in danger of being off-trend — even outright tasteless. Fast fashion (Zara, Urban Outfitters, H&M, ASOS, etc.,) has been the driving force of many of these channels, only to now be branded a dirty word.

On haul and shopping videos, viewers continuously raise the issue; having been invited into the YouTuber’s world, they openly question why an obviously privileged influencer would need all they have. On a sunbeamsjess’ haul, the top comment reads: “I would love for you to address consumerism, capitalism and fast fashion on your channel. You have SO much stuff, it seems almost too much.” Of course, when YouTubers first turned on that camera and invited viewers into their enviable closets, they might not have foreseen the extent to which they would continue to be closely surveilled, wherein environmental sensibility has become a new kind of challenge,  rather than, for instance, a request to source an itch-free merino wool. Fashion YouTubers are surely feeling the backlash — content that was once widely acceptable is starting to be considered morally questionable.

So in response, YouTubers have taken these timely ideologies and run with them, moulding themselves to the changes and thereby further broadening the online fashion universe. One manifestation has been in the now-popular wardrobe decluttering videos, in which closets are emptied, organized, and clothes recycled.

Some YouTubers have gone a step beyond mere decluttering; rebranding themselves in order to sell a vision of fashion that can connect a sustainable sensibility with competence and organization. Enter the recent trend of  showcasing “capsule wardrobes.” Ultimately, the capsule wardrobe is a vision of quality over quantity: clothes have been streamlined down to indispensable and preferably higher value items. No longer is your closet overstuffed with easily disposable fast fashion; instead, you rely on a smaller collection that has been carefully selected as suitable to lifestyle, taste, and longevity. It’s a new kind of haul, one more closely managed, one that can claim conscious consumerism and intelligent, self-aware shopping.

Capsule wardrobe aficionados deftly appropriate an elite, pseudo-stylist language, leaning on phrases such as “stocking up on basics” and “investment pieces.” YouTubers have typically luxuriated in a world of compulsory purchases, but as wardrobes are parsed down, consumption is made to appear elevated, a more upscale way of accumulating clothes (or rather, ’pieces’).  To have the money to buy clothing and accessories that have longevity is articulated as investing and properly in oneself.  In her takedown of this burgeoning minimalist aesthetic, editor of The Financial Diet Chelsea Fagan writes that, “reducing a wardrobe down to a few painfully elegant cashmere-cotton blend tops is only really possible if you can put down at least $1,000 in one go.” Indeed, Fagan argues that trendy minimalism is simply “a way of aping the connotations of simplicity… without actually having to give up those sweet, sweet class signifiers.” In essence, this trend is just another status marker.

The Politics of “Editing”

One of the more prolific capsule wardrobe channels on YouTube is The Anna Edit (run by Brighton YouTuber Anna Newton). The channel boasts regular, seasonal capsule wardrobe updates, wherein Anna fills viewers in on new seasonal additions or evaluates the wisdom of past choices. Just a few years ago, ’The Anna Edit’ was like many beauty and lifestyle peers, with videos showing off new products and featured hauls. The move toward the capsule indicated a broader shift on her channel towards glamourized domestic productivity and efficiency, in which fashion can blend with meticulous regimes of other lifestyle realms, like food or home decor. Her channel includes content such as Pack With Me: Carry-On Top Tips; Weekly Meal Prep Recipe Ideas; The Flat Tour & Interior Improvement Ideas. Her closet that she regularly opens up to viewers is just one visual testament to a well-styled — or, as she terms it, “edited” — life and home. It follows that the exacting measures of styling can be extended beyond clothes.

This year, Newton capitalized on this branding and her online popularity by releasing her first book, “An Edited Life”. The description of the how-to manual of sorts reads: “Declutter every aspect of your life — from your wardrobe, exercise schedule and food budget to your phone, bookshelves and beauty regime….” On her blog, Newton went more in-depth about her intentions: “Well, yes, at its core it’s a life organisation manual. I’ve read a shitload of books on the topic and saw that there was a gap for those who want to declutter all aspects of their life; not just their belongings or their wardrobe… Ultimately I’m sharing the routines and habits that I incorporate into my life that save time and up my efficiency”.

In the world of “An Edited Life,” individual women evidently have the power to control the the potential failures of life through her recommended methods and tricks. Society itself need not redress poor work-life balance, time constraints, over-consumption, or chronic stress, but rather women can neatly “edit” the chaos around them, much like they might have decluttered the cheap H&M tees from their closet. Discomforts or inconveniences are merely an opportunity to attain more pleasing, visually appealing routines.

In the end, featured capsule collections and minimalist lifestyle videos are just another iteration of fashion YouTubers’ varied portfolio — an expansion of how clothes and shopping are talked about and shown off online. And the ability to offshoot into a lifestyle sensibility is indicative of what is really lurking beneath the style and shopping discourse online: that young women are eager to present themselves as friendly yet elite masters of the vast universe of consumption. Ultimately, peering into YouTube’s fashion content gives us insight into how young women are encouraged to manage and present themselves through exacting routines and codes, styling a life whose messiness and mistakes can apparently be curated and packed as efficiently as your holiday suitcase. This is a sharpened, more focused vision of consumerism — one that does little to truly challenge the affluent privilege driving YouTube’s fashion universe.

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