While the form, function, and meanings of blogs vary widely, most operate through horizontal communication or what is sometimes called “distributed conversation” between bloggers and readers. Indeed, these categories are mutually constitutive rather than dialectic. Bloggers read other blogs and readers typically have their own blogs or are inspired to begin them in short time. Reader commentary, linkages, blogrolls, and cross-posts maintain the open, participatory, and dialogic nature of blogging that, for many, exemplify the internet’s democratization of knowledge and communication. In our other world of academia, we have seen and benefited from the collaborative capacity of blogs as virtual research centers hosting renowned scholars via podcast and webcast as well as digital and public research journals where colleagues can share and discuss new research while sitting in offices, living rooms, airports, and cafes hundreds of miles apart from each other. Such online scholarly communications can sometimes be much easier to maintain and more constructive than the “real” and often frenzied meetings and interactions we have within our departments, our classrooms, or at our annual association conferences.
In fashion, democratization has emerged in unstable fits and bursts since its inception. In 1675, the invention and popularization of the “manteau” or “mantua” (a loose-fitting housedress) inaugurated the sartorial trend of “dressing down” which allowed women to break with sumptuary laws that had for centuries maintained and secured class distinctions by dictating who could wear what. As Joan DeJean explains in her book, The Essence of Style, “The mantua meant that for the first time a woman’s outfit did not function as an absolute class marker: from then on, it was far less easy to know at a glance who belonged where on the social spectrum.” Other democratizing moments in fashion include the invention of the mechanical sewing machine and standardized dress patterns that facilitated the production of clothes for middle class women’s mass consumption; the introduction of pret-a-porter fashion or ready-to-wear clothing by Charles Fredrick Worth, the “father of haute couture” and — following him — prestigious designers such as Jeanne Paquin, Paul Poiret, Madeleine Vionnet, and Coco Chanel; Mary Quant’s invention of the miniskirt in the 1960s that incorporated the “low” aesthetic sensitibilities of go-go dancers into high fashion designs produced for mass consumption; as well as the “anti-fashion” ethos of hippies, punks, neo-punks, and cyber punks in the 1970s and 1980s that leaked into fashion’s mainstream through designers like Yves Saint Laurent. So-called masstige partnerships (in which a celebrity or celebrity designer teams up with a mass market retailer to create a designer collection) like Jaclyn Smith for Kmart (1985), Martha Stewart for Kmart (1997), Randolph Duke for the Home Shopping Network (1998), and Mossimo for Target (2000) are also recognized as significant moments in the democratization of fashion and design. Michelle Obama’s preference for emergent designers and mass-market fashion has helped to institutionalize the narrative of fashion’s democratization most recently.
Too often, though, the democratization narrative is an overly celebratory and uncritical explanation of the social and economic configurations and effects of new media forms. The tendency to invest new technologies with revolutionary potential and to articulate them in the language of democracy obscures and sometimes entirely misses the ways in which these technologies are integrated into existing capitalist and cultural structures for the profit of giant corporations and elite classes and as such, can continue or even strengthen racial, gender, and classed hierarchies of aesthetics, tastes, and knowledge. For example, when the radio became a common American household good (in the 1930s), people celebrated radio’s democratization of communication yet much of what was being communicated through the radio to a now much wider audience were sexist and patriarchal views of women and racist and xenophobic ideas about ethnic and racial minorities. (Consider, for instance, the puns, insults, and wordplay in popular radio programs like The Burns and Allen Show. For more on the history of radio, see Susan J. Douglas’ book, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination.)
Similarly, what is left out in the celebration of fashion/style blogging as a democratizing phenomenon are the processes of what political scientist Jodi Dean describes as “communicative capitalism” and its related “animating fantasies of abundance, participation, and wholeness.” Such fantasies — all fundamental to the discourses that articulate and validate claims of democratization with regard to blogging in particular and the internet in general — occlude or cover up the anti-democratic processes are inherent to internet network structures. For example, the fantasy of abundance is the idea that “everything you want to know is out there on the internet.” But the way the internet works is that only the most popular websites and weblogs (the ones that get the most hits) are likely to show up in web searches. The problem with this structuring of the internet, as Dean explains on the NPR radio program Against the Grain, is “[w]hatever view is the most extreme o rte newest at one time among the abundance–that will be what seems to matter. That’s a logic of capitalism, not democracy.” She goes on, “Each little specific voice is drowned in the massive flow [of commercialized data]” so that “the underside of massive expression is the devaluation of any specific view.” One of the consequences, then, of democratization by popularity rather than by equitability is the concentration of the same websites and blogs in the top 3-5 results of every web search. “Rather than a rhizomatic structure where any one point is likely to be reached as any other,” Dean asserts, “what we have on the web are situations of massive inequality, massive differentials of scales where some nodes get tons of hits and the vast majority get almost none . . . The very structure of communication networks goes against [democracy].”
An article posted on the website, The Business of Fashion, expresses just this concern about the homogeneous content and message of so many blogs. “Are these bloggers really offering any unique expertise or vantage point that adds to the fashion dialogue? Some (though not all) of these bloggers appear to be more focused on themselves and on the celebrities in the front row than on the fashions on the runway. Unique opinions are few and far between.” In this way, blogs are not entirely the independent space of knowledge production and equal access imagined by the term “democratization.” Instead, they exemplify the integration and saturation of dominant culture into the private spaces of home offices, bedrooms, and neighborhood cafes from whence bloggers post and read. Another anti-democratic reality of fashion blogging and to a lesser degree, style blogging, is the fact that a large majority of bloggers post about major fashion events and prominent designers without receiving any compensation or professional recognition from the multi-billion dollar global fashion industry whose material and cultural power it helps to secure. Bloggers produce free labor for the fashion industry without any material benefit and often at a personally-absorbed cost of time and energy to themselves.
But fashion and blogging (and blogging about fashion) remain popular activities because they both contain and promise the allure of transformation through the care and management of one’s body and one’s image. It is in this way that fashion and fashion blogging are “technologies of the self,” a term Foucault uses to describe the everyday processes and practices that individuals engage in to constitute themselves as particular kinds of subjects–here, fashionable, cosmopolitan, modern, innovative, and attractive subjects. Fashion and blogging are especially appealing technologies of the self because of their democratizing promise that anyone (but especially women, in the context of fashion) can be “someone,” that a fashion outsider can be a fashion insider, and that prestige and privilege are available to and accessible by everyone. We see this discourse operating in the now all-too familiar narrative of the awkward but eccentrically dressed geek turned star blogger. These technologies, Foucault tells us, are interlinked with the control and governmentalization of bodies within dominant systems of power like capitalism which operates through commodity accumulation and the desire for the good life which commodities are imagined to bring.
[Enough of this gloom and doom! Read OF/SB, part III: Blog Ambition for what’s wonderful in and about the fashion and style blogosphere.]