Instagram has taught a generation of amateur photographers how to take stylish photos that represent, but are largely devoid of, actual human experiences. And as the insatiable quest for the Holy Grid continues, it has also pushed the platform’s users to become their own amateur set designers. For the average Instagram user, there are plenty of standard props to fill the world’s many Instagram playgrounds. It might be a shiny, Simpsons-esque pink doughnut at the center of your aerial brunch photo, or a sunset-drenched infinity pool on your trip to Los Angeles. Among the elite Instagram set, a new, somewhat confounding accessory is making the rounds: the classic, white bath towel.
As a characteristically befuddled Daily Mail noted Saturday, this prop is part of a “bizarre new” trend in which “models, bloggers, and influencers have all been sharing glamorous selfies with their wet hair wrapped up in towels.” Technically this aesthetic is not groundbreaking. Mariah Carey has been doing a version of this look ever since she staged a steamy bath interlude on her episode of MTV Cribs. And in 2014, Mario Testino Instagrammed a few supermodels in spa wear with the hashtag #towelseries. But the more immediate origins of this DIY Insta-trend stretch back to this fall. It all began when South Korean singer CL Instagrammed herself in a robe-like ball gown at the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund awards in early November, alongside a caption that read “Robes, Issa Lifestyle.” Soon after, Rita Ora appeared at the MTV Europe Music Awards in a designer robe and head towel, accessorized with glittering necklaces and earrings. When Rihanna appeared on the cover of Vogue Paris with her hair wrapped in a towel from the Emilio Pucci SS18 line, The Cut coined a term for the trend: “bath-leisure,” or the act of wearing a towel.
That was all it took to unleash a never-ending sea of fuzzy white cotton into our feeds. The average entry is simple: a selfie of a woman lounging in full makeup while her hair is wrapped in a towel. Maybe she’s by a pool in some enviable tropical climate. Maybe she’s in a luxe marble-swathed spa. But above all else, this much is clear: She is definitely not working. A search for the hashtag #towelseries on Instagram currently yields 19,450 posts; #towelselfie brings up 13,223. Actress Dove Cameron and 2012 Miss Universe winner Olivia Culpo are among the many Instagram personalities who have offered their own spin on the trend. Earlier this month, Man Repeller’s Leandra Medine posted a bathleisure styling tutorial, in which she accessorized a handful of Turkish bath towels from Amazon with jewelry and sunglasses from high-end designers like Céline and Roxanne Assoulin. She was sure to differentiate the look from that of a head wrap or scarf. “I am aiming for that right-out-the-shower (mid-day) bath towel twist, which makes me look so much more like a lady of leisure than I actually am,” she wrote.
Picking apart bathleisure’s proliferation is an instructive way to understand how the Instagram-industrial complex churns, and more generally, the motivations of its users. On the surface level, it’s a fashionable throwback, a modern hat tip to Sophia Loren’s bubblegum pink towelry in Arabesque or Herb Ritts’s 1991 photo shoot of Elizabeth Taylor. It also serves a practical purpose: A giant mound of fabric atop one’s head can conceal a bad hair day and elongate the face. It’s also a way to hint that you’re almost naked — a tried-and-trusted way to rack up likes on a social media post.
But Medine’s “lady of leisure” reference gets at something a little deeper. Place this very weird trend in the context of the larger, Goop-powered “self-care” movement, and it’s also an effective way to illustrate our own capitalistic indulgences. The global “wellness industry,” an umbrella term for everything from candlelit yoga, to chic face lotions, to spa treatments, is worth an estimated $3.4 trillion, according to evaluations by the Global Wellness Institute. And it’s rapidly growing. Because so much of Instagram’s driving force is status — the ability to eat gourmet food, travel to remote islands, or wear exclusive labels — it only makes sense that influencers would find a way to perform this new area of commerce as well. Take the caption of one post by fashion blogger Sam Riggi, who runs the Instagram account @soshewore: “midweek self-spa getting ready to test out my new hydrating face masks from @patchology.” You can’t see the expensive skincare products, but the getup implies they’re there. The fresh bath-towel selfie becomes shorthand for disposable spa income, and encapsulates all the expensive serums, bodywork, and botanicals that might not be as easily photographed.
As Drake once argued, “fresh sheets and towels, man she gotta love it.” The ability to keep your bathroom accessories white and pristine is a point of distinction. A freshly laundered linens closet communicates dimensions of wealth that a pair of Louboutins cannot: that you have the wherewithal to invest in the least important elements of your wardrobe — the stuff that no one ever sees.
Most important, however, the bath towel as accessory indicates just how casual the whole operation is. It’s a prop that creates the illusion of spontaneity — “Oh, hello, thousands of followers, I just popped out of the shower, steam room, or pool!” — while also circumventing the idea that every beautiful photo on an influencer’s account is the result of careful framing, set design, styling, and makeup artistry. (Despite the fact that most every bathleisure selfie is styled with a full face of makeup and, quite frequently, elaborate sunglasses and jewelry.) Bathleisure is having a moment because it depicts one of the purest distillations of wealth: Not the ability to afford a Céline tote, or a dinner at Eleven Madison Park, but the unattainable goal of unlimited free time. Thanks to the Instagram towel trend, there’s an easy way to fake that human experience, too.