Computer love

Fashion experts were wrong to sneer at online shopping.

Thirteen years ago, I wrote about the internet and how it would influence the world of fashion. Fashion people didn't take quickly or easily to the worldwide web, and fashion labels were late at establishing an online presence. What we take for granted now - being able to find out about the latest styles in seconds, watching catwalk shows at our desks, ordering clothes - seemed fantastical just over a decade ago. Any shop that wants to contend seriously also sells through a website (the exception being the big department stores, which have been slow to do this, aside from the super-canny John Lewis).

Catalogue shopping started in this country in 1866 when Peter Robinson launched a mail-order booklet called A Book of Styles. By the end of that century, as it became more permissible to buy ready-to-wear clothes, mail order had really taken off. But the clothing catalogue business wasn't overly glamorous until the internet: before then, with some exceptions, catalogues were either for the super-mainstream or for specialised items such as wide-fitting shoes. You could get those huge catalogues, like Kays and Freemans, which sold all manner of goods, but they were bland and uninspiring. (Although, as a child, I would find it tremendously exciting to be able to browse the thousands of different lines from the comfort of my bed, and would make endless "wish-lists", often involving giant fridges and ten types of bicycle.)

It was the advent of "drooly" catalogues such as Boden, Toast, Plümo and the White Company that made ordering by post, and then online, desirable because they were all shot in a way that offered us more than mere product, but also a lifestyle. Sometimes I hesitate over ordering something remotely, because I'd like to see the item, feel it, try it on. Then I think of the amount of money it will cost to get to the shops, the crushing and pushing, the way my shoulders hunch up and my neck shortens after a day out shopping, and the postage and packaging suddenly seems like a bargain.

Unless you're in a totally Zen-like mood, shopping can be more tiring than high-impact sports. And if you have children, it becomes like some sort of Krypton Factor game of cunning, patience and advance planning. There is no fun. But the internet! Who could have predicted that buying a swimsuit - one of the most horrendous of experiences - could be so much fun? (Bravissimo has some stunning styles in at the moment for the bigger-busted woman. Buy now.) Most companies offer free returns, too, so while your purchase isn't immediate, the compensation is that it's fairly painless.

When I first wrote that article, everyone said that ordering fashion online would never take off, because clothes shopping - especially high-end fashion - was about being seduced by impulse, and creating the right ambience. But we were brave, and they were wrong.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, China