“The dress of the summer” is a common trope. In 2017, a blog documented sightings of the off-the-shoulder chambray mini dress from Zara. Two years later, a $50 polka dot dress (also from Zara) had its own Instagram and New York Times feature. What these dresses had in common was an accessible price tag and an inoffensive design that was distinctive enough to be identified just as “The Dress.” If not for its ubiquity, neither would raise an eyebrow. It seemed like 2020 wouldn’t have “The Dress,” given that everyone is indoors, stocking up on masks, sweatpants, and Birkenstocks. But nevertheless, there’s “The Strawberry Dress,” a $490 tea dress by Lirika Matoshi that’s taken over Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. It’s made of pink tulle, with a deep v neckline, ruffles along the calf-length hem, a cinched waisted, and red sequin strawberry embellishments. It’s a dress that Cinderella, a toddler, and a A-list celebrity would all happily wear. There are memes about the dress, viral tweets about the dress, videos documenting people making knockoffs of the dress. So how did something relatively expensive become so popular during a global pandemic?
Despite everything, fashion trends haven’t come to a complete halt in 2020. First it was matching sweatpant sets, then it was “the nap dress” (love it or hate it). Matoshi first designed her dress in July, 2019. As soon as she posted it to Instagram, it was popular. Model Tess Holliday wore a custom version of it to the Grammys in January, she referred to the look as “If Strawberry Shortcake & Lana Del Rey had a baby.” (“That picture went so viral,” Matoshi said.) When coronavirus hit, Matoshi was prepared for a decrease in sales for her frothy, fabulous fashion. And yet against all the odds, sales went up as the dress gained popularity. Admittedly, Matoshi has gifted the dress to influencers and celebs, but this fervor seems greater than the average PR-generated buzz. Google searches for “strawberry dress” have spiked in July and early August. It’s currently the best selling item from Matoshi’s collection, along with the coordinating mask. “Most of the people who buy the dress right now, they don’t know where they’re going to wear it but like to wear it at home,” Matoshi said, before admitting, “I wouldn’t know where to wear it. I haven’t worn a dress since the beginning of the pandemic.”
The obvious reason the dress is popular is because people think it’s universally pretty, and it’s also available up to a size 20, which is pretty rare for a fancy dress from an indie brand. When I posted a meme of the dress to my Instagram story, dozens of people DM’d me to tell me that they loved the dress and had been obsessed with it for a while. As Nishat Anjum, a 24-year-old software engineer from San Francisco who bought the dress in May, told me over email, “I immediately wanted to buy it, it looked so much like a Disney princess dress.” It’s eye catching, a fashion investment that’ll turn heads and stop scrolling thumbs. “It was a treat for myself,” says Sophia Mortensen, 19, who bought the dress with funds she’s been saving for a trip to Korea that was canceled. For the Danish teenager, it also presents an escape from her daily life as an essential worker. “It makes me feel like a pretty princess,” says Mortsensen, who works part-time packing medical supplies. “It makes me feel good.”
The dress also falls neatly in line with the rise of “cottagecore,” an aesthetic defined by rural bliss—picture a world in which you make your own jam and read Jane Austen on repeat. There’s a popular song on cottagecore TikTok called “Look at you strawberry blonde,” which pairs nicely with the dress. “Cottagecore is having a pretty big moment during the pandemic,” Anjum said. “Folks are romanticizing about nature and crafting. The full skirt and fluffy sleeves completely fit in with the aesthetic.” In that way, it’s kind of similar to the nap dress. Both represent a kind of carefree, detached-from-civilization vibe, even though one is more formal than the other.
Even though people are buying the dress, the quantities hardly register as mass. It’s more ubiquitous on social media than it is on the street. Unlike Zara’s chambray or polkadots, you’re probably not going to see it seven times on a walk. On TikTok, though, you’ll often see the dress under #cottagecore. Scroll through twitter and you’ll also find anime and k-pop fan art and collages. People will photoshop their favorite stars into the dress including Zendaya and Harry Styles, or draw anime characters in the strawberry dress. Those are so prevalent that the memes have refracted, and now you’ll see parodies of Hannibal Lecter or Gollum from Lord of the Rings in the dress.
Without the means to buy the dress, Avery Mayeur, a 20-year-old content creator and student in Canada who creates her own anime, decided to draw one of her characters in the strawberry dress instead. Her followers responded positively. “A lot of anime fans and people who are integrated in fandoms tend to have alt styles anyways,” she said “Fandoms are attracted to things that are unique, different, and fun. This embodies all of that.”
Mayeur mentioned in a video that she was saving up for the dress, and her fans started donating to her Kofi site (“it’s like a lower level of Patreon, where people can pay small amounts to support my content”) with notes saying she should use their donation to get the dress. Before long, she had more than enough to buy the dress, which was close to $700 in Canadian dollars including shipping and tax. (The extra she donated to a Black Lives Matter fund that helps Trans people). Her unboxing video of the dress has almost 5 million views on TikTok, which she posted on July 20, the same day she got the dress. She wears it “all the time at home,” for videos and outside for photoshoots. As a cosplayer, she’s used to getting attention for her outfits, but admits “it is a kind of dress you need a reason to wear.”
The reasons why the strawberry dress is a success story run counter to everything we know about pandemic-era shopping habits: The fact is, the dress is popular precisely because it is not practical. It’s over the top and fanciful. It speaks to the glamour of black-tie events—the Oscars, the Met Gala—special occasions that appear like a distant memory. But more than that, that sweet strawberry print is deeply nostalgic, harkening back to a time long before COVID, to a childhood innocence that feels especially soothing right now. And although Matoshi created it in a pre-pandemic era, that wistfulness served as the inspiration. “Most of my designs are inspired by my childhood,” Matoshi said. “I feel like the things that make me feel better are the strawberries, the dress, the gowns, nature in general.” The nostalgia factor is undeniable, even though the matching mask places the strawberry dress firmly in the present.