You’re Either In or You’re #OOTD: Community or Competition?

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).

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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).

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Figure 4. Instagram’s most popular fashion blogger Chiara Ferragni of The Blonde Salad poses with celebrity photographer (and professional pervert) Terry Richardson, cementing her status as an influential figure.

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Figure 5. Leandra Medine of fashion blog The Man Repeller sits front row at Diane von Furstenberg at New York Fashion Week alongside Paris and Nicky Hilton.

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Figure 6. Rumi Neely of Fashion Toast with celebrity favorite Alexander Wang at his NYFW after party.

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

Figure 14. Ferragni claims to "blur the lines between the real in the fake" in this series of selfies, but because she has taken and uploaded them herself, she still exercises a great deal of control over the image she is putting out.

Figure 14. Ferragni claims to be “blurrin’ the lines between the real and the fake” in this series of selfies, but because she has taken and uploaded them herself, she still exercises a great deal of control over the image she is putting out.

Works Cited

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.

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The Fashion Industry: Exploitative or Progressive?

Introduction:

In Week 10 of the course, we further analyzed the world of fashion by looking into the industry’s practices. We focused on the working conditions of employees, both factory workers and fashion models alike, and the influences of “ecofashion” or social responsibilities on fashion brands. This week’s readings, “The Fashion Industry” by Elizabeth Wilson, “Modeling Consumption: Fashion Modeling Work in Contemporary Society” by Elizabeth Wissinger, “The Branding of Ethical Fashion and the Consumer: A Luxury Niche or Mass-Market Reality?” by Nathaniel Dafydd Beard, and the documentary “Stitching To Survive” from the New York Times, gave us an account of the development and evolution of manufactured clothing with a heavy emphasis on mass produced fashion. This insight allowed us to better understand how the industry has been represented throughout history and how the people who work in fashion and the brands themselves craft their identities within the business.

“The Fashion Industry”, Elizabeth Wilson:

With the onset of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century, many European countries established stable textile and clothing manufacturing industries. At first, many factories worked only with the natural fibers available from the land (wool, cotton, silk, etc.), but these textiles proved expensive and labor intensive to produce. The development of synthetic fabrics not only eased the burden of the industry’s workforce, but also diversified the economy and promoted technological advancement globally. Of course, synthetic fabrics, coupled with mass production capabilities, would eventually lead to questionable work conditions and practices. While many women now look to fashion as a source of empowerment, the industry has historically exploited a workforce predominantly made up of women. It was not until women’s rights were achieved that the landscape began to shift. As they entered the professional environment via positions as clerks at department stores, secretaries at offices, and more, garments suitable to their new lifestyle became widely available.

An illustration of an early rendition of the skirt suit we know today, Wilson describe this looks as such: “The American Gibson Girl [‘Separates’] epitomized the ‘New Woman’ with free and easy ways, whose almost masculine attire only enhanced her femininity.” Source: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/494903446523925905/

Coco Chanel revolutionized the way women dressed with her tweed suit, which did away with the heavy fabrics and piping of corseted dresses. “Elegance in clothes means being able to move freely, to do anything with ease … Now women go in for simpler lives.” Source: http://ana-lee.livejournal.com/241408.html

We talk about fast fashion today in regards to retail giants like Zara and Forever21, but there was a similar shift in production from 1890 to 1910 when mass production of clothing was established to help the war effort and drive the economy. Tailors and other specialized positions were no longer as necessary now that many garments were bring produced in factories, small workshops, and sweatshops. The 1920s and 20s saw a break down of these inhumane working conditions and gradually regulations were implemented—at the urge of trade unions—to protect vulnerable workers (particularly women and children) from long hours and backbreaking labor.

“Modeling Consumption: Fashion Modeling Work in Contemporary Society”, Elizabeth Wissinger:

One of the most controversial aspects of the fashion industry is modeling, specifically how models are treated and asked to perform on behalf of brands. It seems like every other week there’s a story about pervy photographer Terry Richardson sexually harassing models on set. Wissinger’s article explores another facet of this unique industry: modeling consumption. She argues that a model’s work does not end after the shoot wraps and the campaign debuts: “practices of compulsory image management and socializing glamorize the model ‘life’ and so play into processes used to brand and sell urban space.” Thus, a model must put in a lot of effort behind the scenes; activities like shopping, getting a manicure, and going to the gym–which are usually coded as “leisure pursuits”–become part of the job and can have a significant impact on the model’s success. Wissinger calls this “aesthetic labor” and while these tasks are less tangible than say, compiling a financial report for your boss, they are quite time consuming and costly. One young model says that she maintains an active presence on the nightlife scene and at fashion parties because there are many influential photographers, designers, and other figures that could book her next big job.

“[M]odels produce their image not only in the pictures in which they appear, or how they appear in the street, going shopping, or en route to a photo shoot or fashion show, but also via the energy generated in the various social networks that are a key element of production in the industry” (283). Source: http://instagram.com/joansmalls

“[M]odels produce their image not only in the pictures in which they appear, or how they appear in the street, going shopping, or en route to a photo shoot or fashion show, but also via the energy generated in the various social networks that are a key element of production in the industry” (283). Source: http://instagram.com/joansmalls

Part of the job is going out and being seen. Models, photographers, and editors run in the same circles, so if they can hire someone who they know and like, they likely will. The chance to be photographed with the ‘right people’ is also enticing to a model who is just starting out. “A young model backstage at a New York fashion show was explicit about it: ‘fashion parties are about meeting people, not about having fun.’ Another model at the same show explained ‘I get jobs when I go out into the nightlife. It’s unbelievable who you can meet’ “ (286). Source: http://nymag.com/thecut/2009/02/parties.html

We thought a lot of Wissinger had to say was extremely relevant, particularly within the context of social media. Many models will tell you that gaining a high number of followers can be the determining factor in booking a job. If that means posting a vampy selfie every other day, that’s what they will do. Personally, when I worked for a small fashion label, I would always research a potential model’s social media outlets to get a better idea of her look and personality. It was always a bonus if she had a significant following because if she Tweeted at us or tagged us in an Instagram, it would boost our own following and contribute to our branding. This “give and take” is essential to the industry, particularly now that social media is a factor.

“The Branding of Ethical Fashion and the Consumer: A Luxury Niche or Mass-Market Reality?”, Nathaniel Dafydd Beard:

“The Mark’s & Spencer’s Look behind the label marketing campaign highlighting its use of Fair Trade cotton and food products, has proved extremely beneficial, becoming its most successful consumer campaign ever” (Beard, 452). Source: Marketing Society (https://www.marketingsociety.co.uk/the-library/2010-marks-spencer-marketing-sustainable-consumption-case-study)

“The Branding of Ethical Fashion and the Consumer: A Luxury Niche or Mass-Market Reality?” by Nathaniel Dafydd Beard showcases the concepts that lie behind branding and marketing ethical fashion. Beard analyzes the continuously growing ethical fashion market and its impact on the globalized fashion industry and the product of the industry that is created as a result. He believes that consumers and companies are both confused in terms of understanding exactly what ecofashion is and what the term stands for. He claims that the “use of phraseology in the debates surrounding ecofashion” is what confuses both sides, those supplying and others demanding for “ethical fashion” (Beard 450).  Indeed, it is a hard to find the perfect balance between sustaining a healthy business, highly expected of these fashion companies by their consumers who really care for the issue, and making sure to avoid alienating their potential customers, those who are offended by the “politicized” ethical message and those who do not “like to feel they must make a decision purely because it appears to be the ‘right’ action to take” (452).

Laura Bailey, an American actress, joined London College of Fashion with their week-long project called ‘Is Green The New Black.’ Source: British Vogue (http://www.vogue.co.uk/news/2007/04/30/is-green-the-new-black)

The root of the incentives and initiatives for ecofashion lies in the fact that we are living in a “liquid society,” a term borrowed by Sociologist Zygmunt Baumann, today. The term “liquid” was used to reflect the prevailing “fluidity and uncertainty” in our society. Beard comments that people are constantly in a state of flux when making significant decisions about a career path or even to the “more mundane decisions, such as the brand of shampoo we should choose” (454).  In a world consisted of high consumerism and intensifying competition to achieve social status enhancements, discovering a way to better contribute on society at a larger scale becomes the next popularly-shared obsession. As a result, consumers consider themselves to be contributing to improving society when they make “responsible” fashion purchases through vendors or brands that produce ecofashion products. The article also discusses the impact of this trendy phenomenon appearing in businesses. Businesses participating in the ecofashion development have been experiencing “an upward trajectory in terms of sales” (452). Beard concludes his article by suggesting that mainstream firms avoid simply attaching their brand name to the ecofashion trend for publicity purposes and work towards help solving “genuine ethical concerns” (463). He also has high hopes for the future generations of the fashion professionals that will help improve the ecofashion industry and deems necessary to educate these people in order to achieve the long-term goal.

Class Discussion:

Our class discussion focused around the idea of ethical fashion and what exactly qualifies as such. We agreed that production and consumption of fashion with a moral dimension will always consider the resources and people affected by the industry. Many consumers want eco-friendly or socially conscious products because it highlights their sense of ethics and could translate into cultural capital, which opposes Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism.

Kim Kardashian in real fur and Khloe Kardashian in faux fur. Hypocritical? Source: http://hollywoodlife.com/2014/02/24/khloe-kardashian-fur-coat-fxck-yo-fur-kim-kardashian-fur-scarf-nyc/

Many students in the class has various ideas about what could be considered ethical. For some a vintage fur coat was acceptable, while a new one was not. For others, it was simply reinforcing the appeal of fur by putting it back in fashion. A few people even discredited faux fur as an alternative because they felt it still perpetuates the commoditization of real fur. Although the debate got heated, with many strong opinions, we agreed that perhaps our individual stances on controversial topics like these are affected by how closely exposed you are to the immoral practices in question. In that case, is ignorance bliss for an animal lover that loves the look of fur? This argument could be applied to many facets of an industry that sometimes employs exploitative practices in order to promote a certain look or benefit financially. Luckily, several new companies (like Toms and Warby Parker) have a sense of social responsibility and an ethical code that is synonymous their business model, a trend we don’t foresee ending soon. By Abby Kron and Lauren Lee

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