Culture

How The Sims Revolutionized Digital Fashion

The evolution of fashion in The Sims, from the designers and players who know the game best.

When people play The Sims for the first time, they immediately create themselves.

It’s not uncommon for users, also known as “Simmers,” to spend hours in Create mode, the de facto waiting room before gameplay begins, where they experience their first taste at playing God with a Sim, deciding the shape of their nose, if they’re going to have body hair and where, whether or not they need corrective lenses, and, most crucially, their outfit.

“I think my Sims look better than me most of the time,” says Christina Cormier, who runs the TikTok account @omgzephyr, where she posts things like her interpretations of Sims’ conversations or an appreciation of The Sims 2 makeover station. “You know those memes about people walking around like Adam Sandler? That’s me. I’m not super fashion conscious, but The Sims helped me understand fashion.”

For those who grew up in the 2000s, The Sims was the highlight of our digital lives, a virtual escape decades before the metaverse was a glint in Mark Zuckerberg’s beady eye. There was an intoxicating feeling that came from rushing home after school and powering on a locker-sized monitor, inputting a not-so-secret cheat code into the game (long live rosebud.525!) to buy your Sim a golden toilet — and escaping into the conifer-dotted Sim Lane to flirt with Bella Goth in her bodacious red strapless dress and make Bob Newbie cry in his grease-stained shirt. The Sims has come a long way since its inception: The Sims 4 launched in 2013, and on Oct. 18, will become free to play for its millions of players. The Sims has also found a new life on TikTok, with accounts dedicated to commemorating The Sims nostalgia, highlighting the bizarre and whimsical furniture (remember the heart-shaped bed?) storylines, and clothing in the game. The Sims has always been the virtual world eerily adjacent to our own; and while the world has changed a lot in the last two decades, the game has evolved with it, especially when it comes to fashion.

In the beginning, Sims’ clothes were largely functional. The Sims, let us not forget, started as an architecture game. But as the little 3D people took more prominence, the game’s creators had to figure out what they were going to look like. In The Sims, you could swap a head and a body, with a limited number of basic outfits, like vaguely ’90s basic T-shirts and jeans, with a crop top or two thrown in. The early expansion packs were simplistic, but already had inklings of the specificity and humor that defines the game: In the Hot Date pack, you could dress your Sim in an evening gown to go to a diner; in the House Party pack, your Sim could don a sequin boat tie with no shirt.

“What we found is that throughout 20-plus years of The Sims is so much of your character is a reflection of yourself, people that you know, people that you wish you could be or try on,” says Lyndsay Pearson, vice president of franchise creative for The Sims, who has worked at the company for 20 years. “There’s a little bit of exploring not only your own identity, but the rest of the world as well. Fashion started to play much more of an expressive role in ‘how does that punctuate these stories I want to tell?’ It isn’t just a matter of whether I’m swapping into my party body or my date body, but it really is just like in real life when I pick clothes that reflect who I am or how I feel that day.”

By The Sims 2, teenagers in particular had a noticeably expanded wardrobe, where they could wear Avril Lavigne-inspired tank tops with neckties, babydoll dresses, or lace-up bustier tops. In one of Cormier’s TikToks, a Sim tries on peak 2000s fashion from the game, like messenger boy caps, one-shoulder shirts, and camo pants. “Sometimes you just have to heal your inner child by dressing your Sims 2 sims like they just stepped out of 2005,” reads the caption.

“People like seeing things in the past. A lot of my followers don’t have access to the game, so I was showing outfits that were iconic and wacky and I think people enjoyed seeing that,” Cormier says. “It’s healing my inner child, I think. That’s the nostalgic portion of it: looking back on outfits I used all the time and showing them off again.”

Everything that happens in The Sims could only ever happen in The Sims. The game has a signature humor that comes through in everything from the Simlish, the gibberish they speak to each other (“sui sui” means “hello,” for example), to the way that you can leave your baby burning on the ground, how you can electrocute yourself if you try to fix a lamp without studying how to be an electrician, the fact that you can drown in the pool if you forget to buy a ladder, or the million other ways you can accidentally kill your Sim.

This ethos and humor is also present in the clothes, thanks in part to the Sims designers’ staunch devotion to universe adherence. There are tank tops emblazoned with logos for fictional companies that only exist in the game; there’s a Spice Girls outfit hidden in a costume chest; there’s a hula costume where the bra is made out of coconuts; there’s a llama mascot if you choose for your Sim to embark on the career path of being a professional athlete. In the Strangerville pack, your Sim can wear a colander hat with lights built into it. You can just as easily don a raccoon costume and stomp around town as you can a gorgeous gown for a date night.

As the game expanded from The Sims through The Sims 4, so did the clothing. The Sims first partnered with H&M in 2007 and has since had collaborations on clothing with Diesel, Moschino, and Stefan Cooke, who designed menswear for the game. The fashion packs have covered everything from the prairie dresses and work aprons of cottagecore in Cottage Living to ’90s grunge flannels and patched jeans in Werewolves to multicolored fruit patterns and sequined tops in Carnaval Streetwear to nose rings, henna tattoos, and asymmetrical vests in Mumbai’s Fashion Street pack, to the loose-sitting skirts and muted colors of Korean street style in Incheon Arrivals. There are even H&M stores in The Sims where your Sims can shop for basics, injecting a cheeky verisimilitude to the game. Most recently, The Sims partnered with Depop for High School Years, a high school-themed expansion pack where Sims wear Y2K-revival gear like spray-painted pink and black hoodies, peasant tops, and denim skirts.

They’ve managed to do all this in a way that Simmers say only elevates the game.

The Sims is a life simulation, and it adds a little bit of realism to the game,” Cormier says of the H&M partnership. “It doesn’t feel like it’s just there as a cash grab because they spent time on the pack and its enjoyable to explore. They did something similar with Ikea. They didn’t make a store, but they had Ikea stuff pack and it had really good items that I still use today.”

But along with adding an element of real-life to the game, offering designer clothes also allows Simmer to play a fantasy life, one where they have access to clothing they might not be able to access in the real world.

“I think there’s a little bit of fantasy, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I have this infinite closet. I can wear anything I want. I can try on any identity,’” Pearson says. “Every single one of them could be a different story. It could be a different version. It’s like daydreaming in real life, right? I’m sitting at my computer trying on all this stuff and imagining what it could be like. And I think it’s just really powerful.”

“I think it’s fun exploring outfits you wouldn’t necessarily try yourself or that your wallet wouldn’t necessarily want you to try,” Cormier says. “It’s a nice coping mechanism.”

The clothes in The Sims have loosely matched the eras in which the game was released, giving the earlier renditions of the game a deliciously nostalgic quality. More recently, its designers have been flirting with trying to mimic larger trends happening in the world, working with a trend forecast company to try to predict clothes it can include in its expansion packs — whether it’s colors, fits, or fabrics that are going to be in style. Of course, Sims’ fashion can just as quickly feel dated, particularly as fashion trends are now cycling faster than superhero franchise reboots. But what’s unique is that The Sims designers can actually update things faster than manufacturers can.

“We have to ride this line of being a little bit timeless and current, so that things don’t feel dated too fast, and it is always a struggle. A lot of our base game assets are now eight-plus years old,” Pearson says. “Trends move really fast. And we don't always have a pack theme that lines up with. But what’s awesome is that when we do, we can move faster than clothing manufacturers in terms of grabbing something and turning it around.”

And in the 20 years since the game started, technological advances have allowed designers to show more details on items of clothing, like more obvious patterns or textures, as well as piercings and tattoos.

For all the halter tops and Hawaiian shirts the game’s designers have made, there are also things they’ve missed. Simmers are famously creative, and at some point, started taking it upon themselves to make custom content they upload directly into the game, creating infinite, vast, fast-growing collections of custom clothing. The Sims reached out to Complex Derick, a Simmer who has been playing The Sims for 20 years and making custom content since 2016, to design a durag, bonnet, and silk robe for the game.

“They did not have items like that in the game initially, I had made my own durag and robes before previously just independently and it was something they had reached out for and I was really happy,” Complex says.

Complex makes luxury pieces inspired by designers they love, like Hermes and Gucci, and even made a replica of a Virgil Abloh Off-White robe. They recently released a collection on their website containing Y2K-inspired clothing like a cropped Degrassi shirt, a denim skirt inspired by Lil’ Kim, and matching father-and-son or mother-and-daughter outfits.

“The extension of fashion and clothes are such an expression of who I am as a human that I liked my Sim to be able to live out some of those things as well,” they say. “[Custom content] makes the game better for me because fashion just moves with the times. It makes me feel good that if something is trending that someone wants to see, I’m able to bring it to light. In some instances, people weren’t seeing fashion that relates to them. As a creator, I’m able to make it. I don’t have to wait.”

Throughout all their expansion packs, the goal for Sims designers, as with all fashion, is to keep pushing it forward: giving Simmers more ways in which they can express themselves — which is not only crucial to the game’s ethos, but where the world is moving.

“It is this lovely little circle,” Pearson says, “of The Sims trying to reflect the world and then hopefully the world reflecting some of the awesomeness of The Sims.”