Spinning Our Own Cocoons. Essay by Bradley Quinn

Spinning Our Own Cocoons

At times when insects need a protective shell, some of them spin silky fibres around themselves to form soft, armour-like habitats. When humans feel a need for protection, something similar sometimes occurs. We instinctively retreat into our living spaces, where we can feel shielded from the perceived dangers outside.

By Bradley Quinn

As if spinning our own cocoon, we find refuge inside, and feel soothed by the soft textures surrounding us. We find comfort in tactile textiles, and in challenging times, our choice of fashion items is likely to include oversized knits, soft cowl-neck jerseys, hooded tops and supersized styles that appear to swallow the wearer whole.

The phenomenon I’m describing was originally known as ‘cocooning’, a term introduced in the 1970s during a time of political uncertainty and economic crisis. As sociologists noticed that Westerners were starting to stay home more, they woke up to the fact that unprecedented shifts were unfolding. Rather than eating at restaurants or going to the cinema, people were more likely to sit at home watching HBO, munching microwave popcorn and wallowing in the comfort of lounge sofas and recliner armchairs. Creature comforts were on the rise, alleviating anxiety with the familiarity and safety of home.

Today, more than four decades after cocooning was first documented, a similar movement is taking shape. Once again, political turmoil and financial uncertainty are expressing themselves in ways that transform mainstream politics and the leaders we elect. In wider society, men and women are questioning career satisfaction and personal goals, with many opting for simpler living. Sometimes millennials turn their backs on technology altogether, cultivating gardens, prioritising family time and transforming the home into a flexible, multifunctional space for work and play.

Cocooning 2.0

The shifts we’re witnessing today could be described as ‘Cocooning 2.0’. They impact on the workplace as much as they do on the home. More individuals are working from home today than ever before, creating communities of entrepreneurs who operate within residential neighbourhoods. Contemporary offices increasingly resemble cocoons: workers are made to feel comfortable, secure and self-reliant. Workstations are being redesigned to provide relaxing seats and form enclosures that designate individual space. Innovators in the creative industries actively encourage workers to gain insight and inspiration by daydreaming during the working day. Some companies even provide spaces where employees can pause for power-naps. Diffusing the stress that builds up at the workplace helps mitigate the anxieties we confront in the outside world.

While stress can be managed, the factors shaping the culture of doubt and uncertainty are harder to control. Intrusive identity theft tactics like phishing make us feel more vulnerable, while the threat of cyberbullying is a source of tension and even fear. Emerging technologies, such as self-driving cars, facial-recognition systems and 5G surveillance networks are designed to make life easier, but for many, they threaten to create dystopias that disrupt the status quo. Concerns like these are spurning the need to be in places that feel safe, and often that space is home.

Although cocooning may seem like a young, urban phenomenon, it affects consumers at all levels, even those indulging in high-end luxuries. In the face of uncertainty, high-net worth individuals seek new ways to pamper themselves and find new projects to distract them. Their cocooning instincts are often extreme, isolating themselves in luxurious bunkers manned by private security personnel, and medical staff may even be available on call. They’ll take steps to filter the air and water, maintain a highly encrypted digital network and ensure that they have ample supplies of gourmet survival rations stored away. Their home cinema playlist will rival those of local cinemas, providing a ready escape when apocalyptic times come knocking.

Fashion Makes a Response

Fashion mirrors society, so in its own way, it is making a sartorial response to the safety and security we seek. Oversized jumpers, garments with long, wide sleeves, big, floppy collars and ruched fabrics that envelope the wearer in swathes of drapery are already trending today. They provide cocooners with a sense of psychological protection as they foster a feeling of hiding safely within the fabric. They are likely to be coloured in neutral palettes of earth tones, soft pastels, pale monochrome and shades of grey. In some ways, the tones mimic military camouflage, providing colours that the wearer can hide behind without standing out.

In times of uncertainty, the authenticity of classic denim and the nostalgia associated with jeans holds strong appeal. Some mainstream denim brands are trying to buck the cocooning trend, while others are hedging their bets. Lee Jeans Asia invited Chinese consumers to join sewing workshops, setting the scene for urban customers to interact, acquire new skills and socialise outside the home. Down-to-earth denim brand Wrangler framed its sustainability promise as ‘We Care’, sending a powerful message to consumers who are concerned about the environment. The message also addresses the social fears and uncertainties many consumers are faced with today. Brands such as Wrangler and Lee Jeans have understood that today’s consumers ultimately want to be reassured in real time, and not subjected to meaningless advertising clichés.

Yet, as we find reassurance in traditional forms, tech is taking us into worlds where our sense of vulnerability isn’t real. Our homes enable us to hide from the outside world, while gaming consoles, personal avatars and Augmented Reality enable us to switch off for a while. Virtual Reality headsets provide the ultimate escape, taking users into the fantasy adventure landscape of their choice. As they provide individuals with a temporary refuge, they also provide them with environments that inspire them to dream about tomorrow, and imagine that it will be a better place.

All trends morph and find new expressions over time. Cocooning is not a means of rediscovering our spiritual roots, or a mandate to usher in a new era. As cocooning illuminates human behaviour and marketplace shifts, it helps us understand how to prepare for the future. The trend highlights the need to become self-sufficient, a drive that is already beginning to change the way urban homes and offices are designed. Likewise, our sartorial choices may help us become more self-reliant in the future. One day, they may even pave the way for us to retreat from the stresses of urban life and into the cosy world of home.

Author, academic and fashion industry strategist, Bradley Quinn is an expert on wearable technology and emerging trends. He has written several books, including Techno FashionUltraMaterials, Textile Futures, Design Futures, FashionFutures and Textile Visionaries.