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Of Fashion and Sociology: The Psychology of Second Life

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We have reserved Saturdays to invite people outside of 'the industry' to share their thoughts on our industry and aspects we may not have considered. For the next two weeks, SL Virtuatect and RL designer, Avril Korman, will continue sharing her thoughts on Second Life and human behavior in virtual worlds (read her first installment, "Virtuatecture in Second Life: What Makes a House a House?"). Enjoy.

At some point, someone is going to get a Ph.D. based on research into the psychology of Second Life. Today is not that day, at least not for me.

To understand why SL fashion remains a multimillion dollar industry in SL (that's U.S. dollars, not lindens) and why it's such a peculiar insight into how people think, you also have to look into how it works in the first place, and how it's different than the fashion industry in the real world in terms of both product and marketing. The SL fashion industry really can be divided into three areas, like ingredients in a cocktail.

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A Perfect Fit

First, I think everyone has heard (or said) at one time or another that they find it impossible to find clothing that fits properly. Sizing is always screwed up and that designers don't create things with "real people" in mind. Selection is poor when you get to larger sizes, and quality can be poor no matter what size the clothing.

But what would happen if 85 percent of all your clothes, no matter what they were, fit perfectly, all the time, every time. This is the truth in Second Life.

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Any piece of clothing that is part of a texture, that is to say not a physical object created by use of a primitive, will always fit perfectly. It has to -- it's painted on your skin. The other 15 percent can usually be adjusted (though not always easily or without frustration, particularly if you aren't "SL normal") to fit you, and once you get them right, they stay that way, assuming you don't change your shape.

Furthermore, all your parts always stay where they are meant to be. You can't "fall out" of a swimsuit, your plunging gown never shifts the wrong way, you can't split your pants, your underwear never bunches up uncomfortably, and your clothes will always look just as new as the day you purchased them.

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We're limited in the real world. We're limited by our physical selves, which take up volume in space. That volume shifts and changes daily. We are also limited by our capacity for storage. There's only so much closet space anyone really has.

However, in Second Life, this problem is eliminated. There is no need for closet space, as your inventory is essentially a Bag of Holding, capable of holding an unlimited variety of objects. It has no weight or volume.

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Want to change clothes? Even the most complex outfit can be donned with a couple of clicks of the mouse.

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Perhaps, though, the most limiting thing about clothing in the real world is its expense. Many people put it off as long as they can, because clothes can be excessively costly.

But what if you could buy just about any outfit, no matter how high on the couture ladder, for under $10? That is the true secret of fashion in SL -- you can go absolutely crazy and buy everything you ever wanted, with minimal real world financial impact.

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Folks who can't easily afford a new outfit in real life, can easily afford 10 in SL. Micropayment after micropayment, these purchases add up to create an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Due to the way the SL economy works, those designers can cash out those lindens into real world money and spend it just the same.

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No Physical Consequences

The second part of the fashion cocktail has to do with the designers themselves. Just like with designing and creating any other thing in SL, your limitations, while still extant, are different than those of the real world.

Clothing carries no weight, other than the gravity you assign it. Beads don't fall off as you walk, textiles don't wear, rip, or age. You can create spectacular, outrageous things and because there aren't any physical consequences to wearing them, there's nothing stopping you from designing them, either.

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I'm going to repeat that, because right there is the single most important factor in all of SL fashion, whether it's design, marketing or purchase, and the third part of the cocktail: There are no physical consequences.

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Here's where the entire thing gets interesting. When there are no consequences to what you can wear, it's interesting to see what people want to buy and wear.

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Clothing in SL tends to be significantly more sexualized than in real life. Again, there are no consequences to this. Not only does your clothing stay where it is, but harassment for whatever it is you may or may not be wearing is virtually unheard of. If it does happen, all you have to do is mute that person and go about your day.

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No one can drag you off , and do horrible things to you based on anything, much less what you're wearing. Any roleplay in SL by definition must be consensual at its most basic level. Again, if it isn't you can always mute and do something else.

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The bottom line is that nothing can physically harm you -- and with that, it becomes fascinating to watch what people would rather buy once those restrictions are removed.

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Of course, it's not just about removing the fear of verbal abuse, assault, or rape. It's also about less dramatic but no less real physical consequences.

Some things in the real world may look good, but they don't necessarily feel good.

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For example, shoes. Women's shoes in SL take on what in the real world would be foot breaking heights. They can be made to balance on the tiniest of stilettos. And yet, you can walk around for hours in them and feel absolutely no discomfort.

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Latex is such a huge seller in SL that, more than once, I've said that I really need to make real life T-shirts that say "SL Latex: Because latex in real life SUCKS." You can dance for hours in the tightest corset and not have to sit down to breathe.

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All these things, not possible in the real world, are taken for granted once you make the transition into SL, not to mention that most people in SL (self not included here) don't look anything like their physical persona and they enjoy wearing things that would not necessarily be available to them in the real world.

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Some Things Don't Really Change, Though

Women outshop men 10:1. Men in SL often won't buy any clothes. I've personally heard quite a few SL men brag about how they never change their clothes. Fortunately, we don't have to smell them in SL like the real world, either.

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Because clothes don't wear out or age, men are far more likely to simply put together a freebie outfit and keep it. Every so often there's complaints about the lack of "good" (again, with something so subjective this term is almost meaningless) men's clothing on the grid.

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But the truth is that the numbers don't lie -- there are far more female avatars than male (even if many of the girls have guys behind the keyboard), and men spend 10 percent what women do on fashion related purchases. It takes no less time to create a guy's outfit than it does a girl's, so why bother creating clothing for men when the men don't support it?

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Marketing clothing in SL is also a tricky business, and Second Life's utterly abysmal excuse for a search engine system doesn't help that at all. Far more word gets spread by people asking other people where they got whatever it is they have on than the inworld search function could ever hope to achieve.

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I don't design clothes, but I'm the spokesmodel for one of the largest goth clothing designers on the grid. The marketing and promotion is truly endless, and a lot of product is continually given away for free in order to get people to spend actual money on other product -- way more than a real world business.

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A lot more goes into the design of a SL retail clothing space than most people would think as well. The principles involved aren't that different from the way real life retail design works, because even though inworld people can fly and teleport, they're still people, and their shopping behaviors are often deeply ingrained.

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People shop more comfortably in a space they feel comfortable navigating. Fortunately that part I can help with. The fashion part, not so much, as I'm far more comfortable being the clothes hanger than the one designing the clothes.

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That's probably for the best, as I'm part of the small minority of avatars that looks closely like my RL self, and whenever possible I can be seen wandering around in a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers like I would anywhere else. So much for fashionable.


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