It is no secret that Instagram is one of the most influential social platforms among fashionable young women. A recent survey revealed “Instagram inspires [buying] decisions in at least one fashion category for 42 percent of women in the 18 to 29 age group” (Netbase). Additionally, apparel brands make up for 46 percent of those included in Nitrogram’s ranking of over 2,500 brands on Instagram (Nitorgram).
The symbiotic relationship between the fashion industry and the Facebook-owned social platform is in no small part due to Instagram’s visual and instantaneous nature, which not only allows users to upload photographs in just a few seconds, but also offers several “filters” designed to enhance the aesthetic quality of uploads. With a range of other features for adjusting focus, increasing sharpness and adding borders, it is evident that Instagram encourages users to post photos that are visually pleasing—something that has undeniably contributed to its wildfire growth among women who consider themselves “fashionistas” or “social shoppers” (Netbase).
As image-conscious, technology savvy users continue to use Instagram as tool for grooming their online identities and “connecting” with others, “selfies” have become one of the most popular types of uploads made to the platform. Many of these selfies showcase users’ outfit and grooming decisions in photos often taken through the mirror—a technique that allows a user to capture the entirety of her look without the help of an outside photographer. The “outfit selfies” that appear on Instagram have become key to the way users represent themselves on social media, a process that involves consciously crafting and consistently broadcasting an often-idealized version of themselves online. By uploading flattering photos of carefully styled looks accompanied by related captions and hashtags, some users a) create online selves that inaccurately reflect their real-life identities and b) perpetuate beauty norms that are unrealistic and unattainable without the help of digital enhancement.
Many young women on Instagram have adopted the practice of uploading outfit selfies from famed fashion bloggers who, most outwardly, use them to represent their personal style and promote the brand names they choose to wear. Because they have the most influence, as determined by the amount of followers and the level of engagement they command, top bloggers and celebrities have created and reinforced norms regarding not only what is fashionable to wear, but also how to showcase on the social platform. In turn, many women conform to these norms in order to garner the most likes and comments from their peers on their own selfies.
Before Instagram even existed, bloggers created posts featuring photos of the looks they styled for themselves several times a week. Although many of their photos were taken using a self-timer on a digital camera or by other photographers, they were still careful to adhere to poses and expressions that best showcased the clothing, their figures, and their surroundings—just as Instagram users do in their selfies. Fashion bloggers were also the first group of people to document their outfits online on a regular basis, establishing norms for which looks are “worthy” of being photographed.
Running a successful blog not only requires that someone have the financial means and personal taste to pick out appropriate outfits, but also demands an incredible amount of time between shopping for apparel, photographing looks, and attending fashion shows and events. In this way, bloggers are partaking in what Thornstein Veblen calls “conspicuous leisure.” In chapter three of his book, Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen explains this concept as a signifier of wealth and claims that “productive labor is a mark of poverty and subjection, and [is therefore] inconsistent with a reputable standing in the community” (Veblen 25). Although his language and examples are outmoded, Veblen’s theory is still relevant as it pertains to fashion blogging, which is arguably a “non-productive consumption of time” (28). The majority of bloggers, save the top talents, make little to no income from their blogs, especially when they are just starting out; yet, one would be hard pressed to find any mention of another profession on most fashion blogs. Outfit selfies, too, are non-productive in nature and are largely frivolous.
In her essay “Conspicuous and Authentic: Fashion Blogs, Style, and Consumption,” Dr. Alice Marwick offers a slightly differing opinion, claiming that “fashion blogging exemplifies a type of ‘conspicuous consumption’ which is less about signaling free time and more about signifying ‘style’ which is presumed authentic and personal” (Marwick 1). She argues that “most bloggers are not signaling wealth (or free time, although blogging is time-consuming), but creative expression and originality.” This theory may be partially true, but Marwick seems to overvalue the “ethos of social media, which [she asserts] emphasizes ‘authenticity’ above all” (3). Through her ethnography and survey of the fashion blogging industry, Marwick ultimately finds that bloggers with the most “cultural capital” are those who are the most successful both financially and popularly. Although authenticity may be the ideal for which many bloggers strive, social media has many layers, not the least significant of which is its rapid commoditization by fashion brands. The lack of originality and authenticity in fashion blogging becomes painfully apparent when several bloggers band around one particular product, all at the same time, as was the case with Armani’s social media push surrounding the launch of the fragrance Si by Armani (Nitrogram).
Furthermore, the very nature of staged outfit selfies challenges Marwick’s theory of authenticity since the updates we see from top bloggers and celebrities are usually those in which they are carefully groomed and fashionably dressed. Kim Kardashian, the most popular female user on the platform with 14 million followers, is known for mirror selfies that showcase her daily looks accompanied by captions noting the designer brands she wears in the form of hyperlinked tags called hashtags (Figures 1, 2, and 3). While the content of the caption suggests that Kardashian’s outward intention is to showcase her outfit, it is clear that she is also trying to communicate other qualities about herself, including her taste, wealth, and beauty. She takes care to pose her body at a flattering angle for the clothing she wears. A performance of online identity, these images are an example of how users discipline themselves to take selfies that communicate more than just outward appearances, often exaggerating personal attributes they may or may not posses in real-life. Note Kardashian posing on the tips of her toes, as if she were wearing heels, in order to model her figure and outfit in an idealized way (Figure 1).
Also in her study, Marwick asserts that “it is impossible to know what a celebrity’s motivation is for wearing a particular outfit without candid interview data” (4), a valid point, but then she claims that fashion bloggers differ from celebrities in the way that they “are available to an audience and interact with their readers” (5), presumably allowing, even encouraging, them to be more authentic. As fashion blogging has grown into something of a bubble, many of the more relevant bloggers have developed personas that more closely match those of celebrities than they do those of their readers. In fact, they can be seen sitting front row at fashion week and posing with top designers alongside some of these celebrities and canoodling with them at after parties (Figures 4-6).
Another component of the outfit selfie is the accompanying caption, which often indicates brand names via mentions (@) or hashtags (#). Kardashian always includes the names of the designers she is wearing, while bloggers, like Chiara Ferragni of The Blonde Salad, for instance, do so more sparingly. Ferragni, who has the largest online following of any fashion blogger, seems to only mention brands she has partnered with or has taken a person interest in, though as Marwick points out, intentions and motivations are rarely clear.
How conspicuously a user indicates or incorporates brand names into their outfit selfies is a key theme. In the article “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence,” authors Young Jee Han, Joseph C. Nunes, and Xavier Drèze categorize consumers based on research that “assigns consumers to one of four groups according to their wealth and need for status, and they demonstrate how each group’s preference for conspicuously or inconspicuously branded luxury goods corresponds predictably with their desire to associate or dissociate with members of their own and other groups” (Han 15).
While the three researchers define “brand prominence” a “a construct reflecting the conspicuousness of a brand’s mark or logo on a product” (15), this same criteria can be applied to how obvious brand names are made either in the content of the photo or the caption. If one were to view the photos posted by Kardashian and Ferragni (Figures 7-9)—strictly in the context of what appears on screen, disregarding preexisting knowledge about each figure—and rank them according to the team’s system of the “four Ps of luxury,” the former might fall into the “parvenu” category while the latter is decidedly more “patrician” in her practices (Figure 10). Because Kardashian explicitly lists the designer items she wears in the captions, but only wears looks from the most exclusive designers, one might consider her the digital version or someone who only wears logoed pieces. Of course, this is a hypothetical exercise, but one can garner from Ferragni’s more subtle or sparing use of designer mentions that she favors “quieter signals”—one must already know that the handbag the blogger wears (Figure 8) is from 3.1 Philip Lim’s latest collection because there is no evident “logo” (hashtag) to indicate that information.
With some of Instagram’s most popular and influential users recycling the same stereotypes for how female selfies should look, they are also reflecting the already prevalent and limited qualities society deems “beautiful” or “desirable” for women.
Furthermore, the consistency of the uploads perpetuate this unrealistic notion that one must always look put together and “selfie ready.” Neither Kardashian, Instagram’s most prominent female celebrity, nor Ferragni, the most prominent fashion blogger, post photos in which they look disheveled, undesirable, or otherwise unpresentable to their millions of followers. Longtime followers of these accounts and similar ones have been taught, perhaps subconsciously, to appreciate and replicate the same practices exhibited in such staged selfies through the process of viewing and liking these photos. Because the very act of crafting selfies like these are aspirational or unattainable for many, the Instagram environment is arguably more conducive to encouraging competition than it is to forging a community. Somewhat counterintuitvely, the platform becomes a place that encourages individuality, but only in the context of conformist practices.
Han, Young Jee, Joseph C. Nunes, and Xavier Drèze. “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence.” Journal of Marketing 74.4 (2010): 15-30. Print.
Marwick, Alice. (2011). “Conspicuous and Authentic: Fashion Blogs, Style, and Consumption.” International Communication Association annual conference, Boston, MA.
Veblen, Thorstein, and Stuart Chase. The Theory of the Leisure Class; an Economic Study of Institutions. New York: Modern Library, 1934. Print.