Tag Archives: FASHION 2.0

New Technologies of Style and Selfhood

When Mimi suggested I post about Blair Fowler, the 17 year-old haul vlogger from Tennessee (a.k.a “JuicyStar07”) who was the subject of a recent Jezebel post, I resisted. Fowler is certainly worthy of a post or at least our acknowledgment since her significance in the mainstream fashion culture of the 21st century, in particular, and in the new creative economy, in general, is undeniable. Her fans number in the high millions and a single haul video of hers can “amass over 300,000 views in just a couple of days.” Yet I still resisted watching Fowler’s haul videos for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve written about haul vloggers before. My observations about ChanelBlueSatin as well as Tavi Gevinson and the new digital work order in which they and indeed most of us labor might easily be transposed to Fowler. For example:

  • Fowler’s compulsion for digital productivity is a topic I’ve previously discussed in “Why I Feel Guilty When I Don’t Blog”. (Fowler notes in the video below that she feels “bad and guilty about [sleeping in when she should be] . . . getting up and responding to emails and doing videos and stuff like that.” Remember, she’s seventeen years-old.
  • Child entrepreneurs like Fowler (she’s an older teenager but she also has a 7 year-old sister who’s vlogging) is suggestive of the ways in which Web 2.0 technologies are dissolving the boundaries between labor and play, is reliant on child labor, and is capitalizing free and democratic spaces – some of which I discuss in “Digital Work and Child’s Play”. In this GMA segment, we learn that Fowler’s devotion to vlogging led her to quit attending regular classes at her high school (she’s now home-schooled) to focus on shopping which, for haul vloggers of course, is working

But perhaps the primary reason I resisted writing about Fowler is that while haul vlogging is interesting to me as an academic, it holds very little appeal for me personally. I enjoy shopping with friends and sometimes I even enjoy glimpsing their “hauls” but a stranger’s haul? Not so much. It isn’t that I’m offended by haul vloggers’ “bragging,” as Fowler assumes of her detractors; instead, I find haul vlogs boring. In my low blood sugar moments, I find them downright tedious. But I’m in the minority. According to the GMA segment on Fowler and her sisters, their videos have gotten a combined 75 million hits – enough to make YouTube offer them a partnership, guaranteeing them a cut of the ad revenue from their vlogs. And along with the Fowler sisters’ YouTube videos are about 110,000 other haul videos that are viewed thousands of times a day.

In previous posts, we’ve emphasized the ways in which lifestyle experts and technologies instrumentalize neoliberal forms of governmentalization that correct and regulate populations to normative social formations of professionalism, middle-class respectability, femininity, masculinity, motherhood, etc. But such technologies of power do not operate by coercion alone. As Terry Eagleton reminds in The Significance of Theory,

No oppressive power which does not succeed in entwining itself with people’s real needs and desires, engaging with vital motifs of their actual experience, is likely to be very effective. Power succeeds by persuading us to desire and collude with it; and this process is not merely an enormous confidence trick, since we really do have needs and desires which such power, however partially and distortedly, is able to fulfill.

The enormous popularity of Web 2.0 lifestyle technologies such as what-not-to-wear fashion blogs, what-to-buy-now haul vlogs, and the shopping and style guide apps available for our smartphones, demonstrate that millions of people (particularly women and girls, who are still the ideal subjects of the highly dispersed fashion media complex and its makeover logics) want the expertise of life-conduct authorities. But why are these lifestyle technologies so appealing? Why do millions of people search for, share, and subscribe to the RSS web feeds of life-conduct gurus? What is it about this particular moment that makes such expertise a matter of urgency? What conditions, in the words of print and online fashion journalists, the “fashion emergency” that iPhone apps like Ask a Stylist, Elle Shopping Guide, Net-App, and Gilt on the Go are said to rescue us from? (Download Ask a Stylist and you’ll have a small cadre of stylists  available to you 24 hours a day, seven days a week, ready to provide you with personalized responses within 2 minutes of your question.)

The desire for self-improvement is not unique to this historical moment. While new technologies such as blogs, video sharing, smartphones, and GPS deliver the tools of and paths to self-reinvention faster, more often, and to more people than ever before, the desire itself is a foundational element of the American Dream in which the exceptional potential for and possibility of self-improvement is central. Recall Horatio Algers’ 19th century rags-to-riches stories which assured Americans that wealth, success, and happiness were available to anyone through hard work and determination. Today, the ethos of success through hard work persists however the site of this labor – particularly for women – has shifted inward, from the office, factory, and field to the body.

The role of technologies in women’s histories of selfhood and self-reinvention is especially familiar. New kitchen technologies, as we know from Laura Scott Holliday, played a major role in creating and securing ideologies about femininity. In the post-war years, when women were no longer needed or wanted in the work force events like the Kitchens of Tomorrow exhibits enticed women to return to their homes and their roles as (newly liberated) homemakers.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, kitchen and home appliances located proper femininity in the home and particularly in the kitchen while large cars and the new car radio situated ideal masculinity “on the road.” In the neoliberal post-welfare present, digital lifestyle technologies like blogs, vlogs, and iPhone apps privatize (rather than domesticize) femininity. Personal and personalized technologies allow and encourage us to be responsible for our own well-being. For women and girls, the health of our “well-being” is intimately tied to the look and style of our bodies, which includes our sartorial appearances. The unprecedented availability of life-conduct expertise through lifestyle technologies that are always at our fingertips through our laptops and our smartphones facilitates the transfer of the responsibility for our welfare from the government to individual women. Such responsibility is articulated in the neoliberal present as freedom. That is to say, lifestyle technologies give us the freedom to work on our bodies and appearances whenever we want. Such technologies do more than shape our social identities; they deliver directly to us the  immaterial and material tools (i.e., information and consumer goods) for realizing our optimal selves.

Providing up-to-the-minute product and sales information, style rules, and GPS mapping, these lifestyle technologies are timely instruments of rational consumption, self-determination, and social and physical mobility that enable us to be enterprising agents of our own care and happiness. (Lifestyle technologies have also expanded into biomedical spheres, monitoring and regulating our diets, exercise routines, and even menstrual cycles.) Such care and management of the self is the mark of good “post-welfare citizenship.” As Laurie Ouellette and James Hay write in their wonderfully useful essay, “Makeover Television, Governmentality and the Good Citizen”:

Today . . . the state relies primarily on the private sector rather than public bureaucracies to produce ‘good’ citizens. Acting more as a supporter and less as an ‘overseer’, the United States has offloaded much of the responsibility of governing onto public–private partnerships and depends more than ever before on cultural technologies.

As such, blogs, vlogs, and mobile phone apps are at once technologies of power as well as technologies of self-optimization. Thus, the promise of the American Dream and particularly the dream of self-reinvention at the heart of the American Dream is located not merely in the free market but in the fashion media complex specifically. The rapid digitalization of fashion media from the online publications of print magazines to the lifestyle technologies discussed here (many of which are owned, in varying degrees, by media and/or fashion corporations) makes it possible for anyone to create the Perfect Outfit, the Perfect Shopping Experience, or the Perfect Smoky Eye. This is the democratization of fashion and style. Like the Perfect Day in Davin Heckman’s fascinating study of smart homes, the Perfect Outfit is a technologically-enhanced, media-saturated, and future-oriented narrative of “the good life” that is the promise of an “exceptional consumer lifestyle.” Heckman explains:

The Perfect Day is a grand goal, a utopian dream for the subject of neoliberal capitalism that owes its existence to the numerous promises that are conjured up daily in the marketplace . . . It is a technologically facilitated experience of subjectivity as life without deficiency and without doubt.

And as with all consumerist ideals of perfection, the Perfect Outfit that is the utopian promise of the Ask a Stylist app, is always, in Heckman’s words, “just beyond the present and stopping short of perfect satisfaction.” The anticipatory but not yet fulfilled promise signified by the Perfect Outfit is precisely the driving force of consumer capitalism. But in desiring the Perfect Day or the Perfect Outfit or the Perfect Body –  mass-mediated “spectacles,” to borrow Guy Debord’s term —we have to concede that we are deeply un-perfect and thus in need of the lifestyle technologies and life-conduct expertise that will surely improve not only our outfits and bodies but our chances for happiness, future employment (as the Chicago Bar Association, would have it), love, and, in places where racial-sartorial profiling is institutionally sanctioned, the right look can improve our chances for living a life without police harassment.** This is the appeal of lifestyle technologies and life-conduct expertise. A complex of biopolitical affective power, these technologies and agents produce “post-human” neoliberal subjects who are no longer determined by biology but are instead self-determined through their consumer choices.

Personal, convenient, and mobile technologies of (economic, social, physical, and sartorial) health rationalize the care and management of the self. Women who are not (yet) style experts can still be “entrepreneurs of the self” if they take the initiative for searching out, downloading, and conducting their lives and themselves according to this expertise. And since lifestyle technologies and life-conduct gurus are so easily accessible, enabling anyone to have the Perfect Body and the Perfect Outfit, there is no excuse for obesity or sloppiness. A disorderly look, as we are reminded everywhere in our makeover culture, signifies a disorderly worker, low self-esteem, and bad consumer citizenship. It is as such that Nikolas Rose finds in advanced liberal democracies, there is an “ethic in which the maximization of lifestyle, potential, health, and quality of life has become almost obligatory, and where negative judgments are directed towards those who will not adopt, for whatever reason, an active, informed, positive, and prudent relation to the future.”

Although this post has focused on women and girls who, as I’ve mentioned before, continue to be the ideal subjects and target consumers of lifestyle technologies, men are not excluded from makeover culture’s ethical imperative. To quote Tim Gunn before making over some of the husbands and boyfriends of Oprah Winfrey’s viewers on the “Makeover My Man!” episode (November 19, 2009):
“Men have no excuse. It’s so much easier for us.”

Tim Gunn: "It was all about respecting who they are at their core and making them better, enhancing them."Josh: "I feel like a new man."

** A footnote: Xenophobic legislation such as California’s Prop 187, the Homeland Security Act, and Arizona’s just-passed SB 1070 which allow state agents to question or imprison people they suspect are “illegal”or “terrorists” often implicitly sanction racial-sartorial profiling. That said, the histories of Asian Americans, Chicanos, and Latinos are full of instances of creative sartorial subversion! See Debbie Nathan’s Women and Other Aliens: Essays from the US-Mexico Border; Erika Lee’s At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943; and Min Song’s chapter in Q&A: Queer in Asian America.

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The Incensed Beauty Guru and Pop-Feminism

Oh, my. A vlogger who was mentioned in a post about the phenomenon of “haul vlogging” in New York magazine’s The Cut last week is fighting back against what she perceived as the slandering of her reputation, in particular, and the profession of haul vloggers, in general. To be sure, The Cut’s assessment of haul vloggers was rather piquant:

“‘[H]aul videos’ . . . consist of girls videotaping themselves showing the world what they just bought at the mall. Like, they go home, plop down in front of their webcams, and pull their new purchases out of shopping bags. And discuss each item in way too much detail . . . Haul vloggers seem to be primarily of one species: the girl who flatirons her hair, wears too-thick eye shimmer up to her eyebrows, drowns in eyeliner, and gets her brows waxed regularly. She also wears trendy-but-ugly nail polish and probably gets chemical peels at regular monthly intervals. Haul vloggers seem to favor, typically, cheap stores like Forever 21 and Target. Also, they don’t ever seem to wear half the trendy crap they’re constantly buying. And to think these people think they need this stuff, when what they need most of all are lives, hobbies, jobs, maybe cats.

As an example of haul vlogging, The Cut offered this popular video – apparently viewed nearly 8,000 times when the post was published.

The haul vlogger ChanelBlueSatin, a 22 year-old “Blogger, Youtuber, teacher, model, and wife!” from Texas, was so incensed by The Cut’s characterization of her that she made this response video.

Last week, I posted about the backlash against fashion bloggers and what this backlash might suggest about the shifting meanings of fashion’s democratization. The Cut’s review of haul vloggers is yet another example of this backlash. But what’s particularly interesting about this kerfuffle between ChanelBlueSatin and The Cut (mostly its readers now rather than the blogger Amy Odell who has since issued a mea culpa to the vlogger) is the ways in which the response calls Odell out for the misogynistic tone of her post:

Shouldn’t the editor of New York magazine try to be inspiring to women rather than bashing other women? I mean, shouldn’t they try to report on factual information rather than accusations based on outward appearances? . . . Bottom line is I respect the editor for having an interest in us beauty gurus on YouTube but I don’t respect the fact that she took a negative spin on it. Listen, there’s a whole lot of hate in this world so let’s just stop hating and start loving again. So keep the peace.

While the vlogger misidentifies Odell as the “editor” of New York magazine (Odell is the magazine’s fashion blogger) and misrepresents the blog post as a “featured article,” she is right to feel gender bashed by Odell and especially the readers who commented on the blog post. There’s a lot of “dumb girl fashion/capitalist victim” talk that dismisses fashion consumerism as feminine stupidity. (Click here for another example of this as well as Susie Bubble’s response.) We’ve posted about the stupidity of this line of logic but for a summation of the significance of fashion that is so spot-on that I wish we had written it, see Good Morning Midnight‘s post, which Mimi has also cited in a previous post. (See especially the paragraph that begins, “Would the world be a better place without Uggs and Ed Hardy? Probably.” – a blogger after my own heart.) Moreover, the classist strain of Odell’s evaluation of ChanelBlueSatin and haul vloggers in general is incredibly ugly. Odell seems most bothered not by haul vlogging as such but by the inauthenticity of haul vloggers who shop at down-market stores like Forever21 and “wears too-thick eye shimmer up to her eyebrows, drowns in eyeliner, and . . . wears trendy-but-ugly nail polish.”

Yet, how does ChanelBlueSatin’s call for peace (among women) square with her self-identification as a “beauty guru”? How is the mastery over one’s image and body (the real commodity beauty and style gurus sell) the means and measure of pop-feminist inspiration, according to this vlogger? Put another way, how are material entitlements to Forever21 jewelry and teeth whitening strips coextensive with a moral discourse about love and inspiration among women?

Unfortunately, ChanelBlueSatin’s pop-feminism is commodified rather than politicized in consumer culture. It is, as Sarah Banet-Weiser describes postfeminism, a “commodity-driven empowerment.” More from Banet-Weiser’s essay “What’s Your Flava?”: “As a contemporary social and political movement, then, feminism has been rescripted (though not necessarily disavowed) so as to allow its smooth incorporation into the world of commerce and corporate culture.”

As a self-professed “beauty guru,” ChanelBlueSatin as well as the growing cadre of fashion bloggers, vloggers, television personalities, and print media authors of the what-to-wear/what-not-to-wear makeover variety disenables precisely the humanist feminist project she claims to be leading. The relationship between the makeover guru and makeoveree is an inherently hierarchical one that is based not simply on an uneven distribution of skills (shopping, styling, etc.) but rather an uneven distribution of personhood based on the apparent mastery of or incompetence about dominant codes of beauty and behavior. The subject “in need” of the expertise of the lifestyle guru is imagined as a deficient person – a person who lacks self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth – and thus, in need of correction. I’ve cited Brenda Weber’s account of the role of the fashion/beauty guru before and she’s useful here again:

A new and improved appearance will not only make the woman more congruent with larger codes of beauty, but will increase her confidence and thus her personal power. In order to gain access to this form of power, however, makeover subjects (often called “victims,” “targets,” “marks”) must submit fully to style authorities.”

So while ChanelBlueSatin’s self-identification as a “beauty guru” made me giggle, it is worth recalling that being a lifestyle guru is serious economic and cultural political business that is also ideological and disciplinary. The social relationship of lifestyle gurus to their subjects is one of casual, consensual, neoliberal domination. As Tania Lewis, the editor of a wonderful special issue on the topic of makeover television in the journal Continuum (volume 22.4) explains: “As government seeks to devolve responsibility for welfare to individuals, television, and in particular what they term ‘life intervention’ formats . . . can be seen to play an increasingly central role in inducting viewers into new neoliberal modes of self-governing citizenship.”

The Internet, which is quickly surpassing the television as the primary medium of visual and consumer culture, makes “life intervention” ideologies especially appealing. Whereas television is generally understood to be a top-down medium controlled by a handful of profit-seeking corporations, the prevailing logic about the Internet is that it is an inherently democratic form in which ordinary people participate in the structuring and content-building of new cultural publics. And indeed, the celebrity of bloggers and vloggers like Tavi Gevinson and ChanelBlueSatin are particular to the way the Internet works. What is especially appealing about these “gurus” is that they are ordinary people, people whose person and style of modern personhood seem to be easily accessible. As embodiments of the democratization of fashion, the figure of the citizen blogger/vlogger occludes the uneven access to commodities and communication technologies between makeover gurus and makeoverees (both Gevinson and ChanelBlueSatin, for example, are privy to the deep pockets of fashion and media companies) and thus conceals the ways in which the promise of self-invention is shaped and limited by one’s successful self-governing and normativizing of body, image, and behavior.

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The Backlash Against Bloggers: What Does It Mean?

There are some signs that the best days of the fashion blogger phenomenon may be behind us. This isn’t to say that fashion bloggers are going away but the public discourse about them and the value of their digital labors seems to have shifted in the past couple of months.

  • First, Elle editor Anne Slowey described Tavi Gevinson’s commissioned column for Harper’s Bazaar as “gimmicky” and then Huffington Post’s style editor Lesley Blume was quoted as saying that asking adult women to take style cues from young women like the Olsen twins and Gevinson was “insulting.” (Read here.)

This month, Barney’s Creative Director Simon Doonan told GQ magazine that he wants his front row seats back from the teen/tween bloggers that have overtaken runway shows. He even throws a little snark at 13 year-old blogger: “Since they are all about my height, I am going to impersonate one of them. I am going to wear a doily on my head (Tavi!) and tell everyone I’m a teen blogger.”

Late last week, New York Times fashion writer Guy Trebay told WWD that he doesn’t really care “whether Bryanboy gets excited by a handbag or something.”

The easiest explanation for this backlash is to cite the techno-generational divide: the persnickety old guard vs. the whipper-snapping new guard. And I think that’s part of it, but only part of it. Instead of resting the critique of this backlash entirely on the laps of cantankerous sartorial Luddites, I think it’s useful to consider the political economy in which this backlash emerges.

Not too long ago, fashion/style bloggers were embraced as the embodiment of fashion’s democratization. Along with cheap chic fashion, fashion/style bloggers were heralded as proof that fashion had finally become accessible to everyone despite race, gender, class, physical location, time zone, etc. The free flow of fashion objects and images across socioeconomic differences and fiber optic cable lines (as with the deregulated circuits of trade, capital, and labor) signified, according to numerous fashion editors, writers, and neoliberal politicians, a truly democratic society where everyone has the right to access the commodities that will enable them to practice their freedoms of expression, self-determination, and consumer choices. Free market agency, we were told, is coextensive with political agency.

Drowning out previous celebrations of democratization are anxious cries about the massification of fashion journalism. Consider Trebay’s statement: “It sounds like a very Establishment view, but I think that the Establishment is composed, in general, of really skilled people.” The inference, of course, is that bloggers (now positioned as a threat to the Establishment rather than as a sign of the Establishment’s fairness and openness) are unskilled. But the significance of massification rhetoric has implications that go far beyond a techno-generational divide.

Massification rhetoric has historically secured dominant power relations by producing a category of collective identification called “the masses” and then casting suspicion on them as unruly, unthinking, and uncultured. Moreover, as Andreas Huyssen has pointed out, the categorization of “the masses” carries with it gender inscriptions that imagine the masses (here, the collective of “teen/tween bloggers”) as subjective, emotional, and thus feminine. This is evident in the Pulitzer Prize winning fashion writer Robin Givhan’s assessment of fashion bloggers: “[T]heir opinions [are] suspect. They’re too invested. They’re biased. Passion gets in the way of truth-telling.” Establishment fashion journalists, we are meant to understand, are dispassionate and objective reporters.

I don’t think that the recent backlash against bloggers suggests that the era of fashion’s democratization is coming to a close – it’s difficult to imagine that fashion, in this economic climate, would risk alienating any potential customers especially customers with as much cultural capital as star bloggers like Gevinson and BryanBoy. However, I think this backlash does signal a shift in the popular understanding of “democracy” in the creative economy, a return to a social theory of apprenticeship in which hierarchies of power are not seen as opposed to democracy and free market societies but rather as opportunities for “paying one’s dues” and “earning one’s stripes.” This is precisely the link Weber observed between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.

Exclusion and exploitation in the forms of higher rates of un- and underemployment and free labor (typical in the new creative economy, in general, and in fashion, in particular), are incorporated and naturalized as part of the cost of democracy. Enduring exploitation becomes a virtue – it demonstrates a faith in and a faithfulness to the meritocracy and magicality of capitalism.

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Queer & Feminist New Media Spaces: A Dynamic (and Smart!) Conversation

Check out this wonderful discussion on the HASTAC website between academics and new media artists about everything from the complex and contradictory relations between our digital and corporeal bodies; digital and “real” styles of identification; the convergences of queer, digital, and capitalist academic time; queer parenting; gay avatars; Ellen on American Idol; and so much more!

The discussion – which shifts and reconfigures by the minute! – is an absolute must-read for those interested in thinking critically about technoculture, digital media, and, of course, the politics of fashion and style blogging.

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Democratization, Schmocratization

It’s not even 9am where I’m at (in San Francisco) and I’m already feeling like it’s getting late in the day for all the things I need to do. No doubt, I’ll feel this way all week – just as I felt this way all last week.

Briefly, though, I wanted to link this article on Jezebel, “Fewer Models of Color Work New York Fashion Week.” There is nothing surprising or provocative about the findings of this article (unfortunately). But I do think the points it makes are worth bearing in mind as the rhetoric about “the democratization of fashion” becomes more and more a part of our cultural common sense. Recall, for instance, all the feature stories on amateur bloggers – this new young creative class of enterprising techno-savvy dynamos – breaking through to the front rows of illustrious fashion runway shows, edging out traditional media and journalists on their way up.

What this article evidences is how popular narratives about democratization actively obscure a persistent reality: race and gender difference continue to organize the labor market of fashion.

Don’t let’s get that twisted.

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Bloggers and Ann Taylor’s Bottom Line

As a postscript to my previous post about the implications of the corporatization of the fashion blogosphere, I just wanted to share this bit of hubbub over Ann Taylor LOFT’s recent invitation to bloggers to “come take a sneak peek at LOFT’s Spring 2010 Collection before anyone else.”

The invitation, according to Jezebel and the Los Angeles Times (threadbared was not invited), promised “a special gift to all attendees and entry into a ‘mystery gift card drawing.'” So far, okay, right? The cause of the controversy is LOFT’s fine print stipulation that “all bloggers must post coverage from our event to their blog within 24 hours in order to be eligible” for the gift card drawing. (The amount of the gift card to be revealed after the submission of this blog coverage.)

Jenna of Jezebel admonishes those “editors and bloggers [who attended the event for being] too excited by the opportunities for graft to notice that it’s precisely this kind of constriction of editorial judgment that atrophies creativity, and which is turning the fashion media — women’s media — into a lowest common denominator whirl of focus-grouped, product-placed bullshit. The internet was supposed to be different.” (Click here to read one blogger’s response to this post.)

While LOFT’s terms of inclusion are no doubt unseemly, my point in the previous post is that creative digital labor, while represented as free from market relations, is actually deeply entrenched in capitalist relations and logics. Moreover, the capitalization of creativity is rooted in a much longer history of art and commerce dating back to the late 18th century, when writers and other artists labored under what cultural economic scholars call a “regime of patronage.” What’s shocking about the LOFT’s invitation is not that it invites bloggers into a matrix of market relations — let’s be honest, this happens all the time! — but that it does so so openly.

Recall, for instance, that in 2007 the Chanel Company invited 12 bloggers to Paris for a weekend of discovering “the history and iconic places of Chanel.” Susie Bubble stresses on her blog that “there was no obligation to do blog reportage but for me along with most of the bloggers I think, it would have been criminal not to blog about the wonderful experiences we had.” While there may have been no formal agreement to post (positive) comments about Chanel’s traditions, products, and largesse, Bubble clearly understands that there is an unspoken social-economic contract conditioning bloggers’ access to the fashion industry. It was precisely New York Times fashion writer and blogger Cathy Horyn’s perceived breach of this contract that led legendary designer Giorgio Armani (and before him, Helmut Lang, Carolina Herrera, and Dolce & Gabbana) to ban her from their shows.

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Why I feel guilty when I don’t blog

There are buckets of reasons why I’m glad Mimi is my on/offline writing collaborator and dear friend – but surely top among them is her capacity to deliver much-needed kick-in-the-ass motivation from thousands of miles away. At least that was the effect of her two previous blog posts for me this morning.

I’ve had a bit of blogger’s block lately — but it isn’t for a lack of topics to write about. For example, I’ve been following the news and campaigns about fashion philanthropy (specifically, the Fashion Delivers campaign for Haiti and the LA Times‘ piece on Dress for Success) and wondering how much the overstatements about fashion’s capacity to “empower” and “save,” while no doubt commensurate with the prevailing lifestyle politics of neoliberalism in which consumer power is made co-extensive with political power, is also a kind of false bravado that betrays fashion’s own inferiority complex about its social significance.

Add to that, Angela McRobbie‘s admonition (also bouncing around in my head lately) that fashion “colludes in its own trivialization.” Here’s the full quote from the essay, “Fashion Culture: Creative Work, Female Individualization”:

In the absence of a lobby of policy-makers arguing vociferously on behalf of this autonomous sector, and for them to have access to low-rent urban retail spaces such as market stalls, lanes, corridors, and other cheap locations, when designers do find themselves in difficulty they are judged by a model which deems them simply unviable and the fashion press fatalistically announces another fashion label going out of business. Despite the profusion of fashion magazines, the expansion of the fashion media including television, and the appearance of academic journals devoted to fashion, there seems to be no coherent map of the field, which in turn encourages government to rely on simplistic accounts. In this sense, fashion lets itself down and colludes in its own trivialization.

In 2002 when McRobbie wrote “Fashion Culture,” fashion bloggers weren’t nearly as visible as they are today, so she didn’t mention them or any other members of the “creative proletariat,” like online and print magazine editors who finance their own publications. But like independent fashion designers, many bloggers and editors are being edged out by the corporatization of the cultural economy as well. It is increasingly difficult — almost untenable — for independent designers, bloggers, and editors to sustain their cultural projects without some form of material or immaterial corporate sponsorship (i.e., a feature story in a giant media outlet like the New York Times, affiliate marketing, direct ad sales, banner advertising, etc.). All of the social media outreach events planned for the upcoming Fall 2010 New York Fashion Week which, as Mimi puts it, are “aimed at cultivating new contacts and nurturing existing collaborations between fashion bloggers and captains of industry” attest to this.

Fashion and style bloggers understand that the support (material and immaterial) of fashion giants like the Chanel company, Marc Jacobs, or Vogue brings with it an enormous amount of cultural capital that can launch them into the stratosphere of fashion/media. And I certainly don’t begrudge the fashion blog elite the corporate love they’ve received — we’ve considered and continue to consider different strategies of monetization like speaking gigs, consulting, and commissioned articles. (Though we’re not opposed to advertising, the opportunities we’ve been presented with haven’t been right for us yet.)

Fashion bloggers and social media discourse celebrate — quite automatically now — the independent, DIY, and democratic spirit of blogging. Consider this quote about blogging from Jennine Tamm Jacob (The Coveted) in the video Mimi re-posted:

It was something that I could do. I could just set up a blog myself and I could write about whatever I wanted . . . it was just me doing my own thing and I found that to be really liberating.

But in understanding the cultural and political economies of the fashion blogosphere, it’s important not to gloss over the fact that computer-mediated communication technologies and digital labor are deeply embedded in capitalist logics.

My 3-part blog post on the state of the fashion blogosphere has had many iterations — a pocket-sized and abbreviated version appears in Style Sample Magazine, issue 5, and there’s a revised and expanded academic essay I’ve been working on as well. In the expanded essay, I point out that the new digital work order in which fashion bloggers labor is shaped and limited by capitalist logics. For example, the structures of digital temporality (i.e., timestamps, the organization and archiving of posts in reverse chronological order, etc.) continue to naturalize and positively secure capitalist valuations of productivity, punctuality, and accumulation (of symbolic, cultural, and material capital). Working overtime (if we can still use that concept in the “flexitime” of digital temporality) is de rigeur for fashion bloggers, especially because their productivity must keep pace with the accelerated rhythms of the fashion-beauty complex organized and driven by the capitalist logic of the New/Now. In other words, the spirit of capitalism and its ethic of dogged and steadfast productivity permeate the digital creative labor of fashion blogs even when that labor is “free” (that is, both free from the 9-to-5 workday/workplace and also unpaid).

So while digital technoculture scholars and fashion bloggers alike celebrate the Internet for enabling the flexibility of work and work hours, it may be that we no longer need the external regulatory mechanisms of the Industrial Age (i.e., factory clocks, etc.) because in the Digital Age, we are self-monitoring and highly multi-tasking subjects whose body, image, and time — commodified as cultural goods — are produced, distributed, and consumed in a global cultural economy that is unprecedented in its pace and efficiency.

It’s little wonder, then, why I’ve been feeling guilty about not posting! And I’m hardly alone — consider how many and how often bloggers apologize for their lapses in posting. Such guilt illustrates the affective economies of digital capitalism as well!

As a salve for this capitalist guilt, I have to remind myself that I’ve been highly productive offline — writing chapters at a maddening pace (for me) and loving (most) every minute of it. All free creative labor, but nevertheless . . .

I have to admit, though, it hasn’t been all work for me. I’ve also been quite distracted and all dreamy about Julie Wilkins’ London-based label, Future Classics, which I’ve only just discovered! (How did I not know about their deconstructed jersey deliciousness and their diaphanous silken wonders until now??) Now, should they want to collaborate on some affiliate marketing . . .

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Conferencing Fashion Blogs

This has been making the rounds of late, and it seems like a good moment to revisit Minh-Ha’s three-part series on the phenomenon of the fashion blog (which begins with this introduction). Presented at the PREMIUM Exhibitions panel on fashion blogs, the video features Suzy Menkes, Yvan Rodic (Facehunter), Jennie Tamm (The Coveted) and Julia Knolle and Jessi Weiss (LesMads) each providing their own perspectives on the rising influence of the fashion blogosphere.

Fashion Week in New York City is going to be puh-acked with events aimed at cultivating new contacts and nurturing existing collaborations between fashion bloggers and captains of industry. The Chictopia 10 Social Influence Summit suggests something of these efforts to woo the on-line set: “The Chictopia 10 Social Influence Summit is where global online taste makers meet executives from premium brands. This half day conference and cocktail party will feature CEO presentations and high level discussions on what forces are most influential in online brand image.”

Is everyone either looking for, or hoping to become, the next Fashion Toast or Sea of Shoes with their design collaborations with corporate sponsors, or the next designers’ muse, like Bryan Boy and Style Rookie? What should we make of the increasingly intimate and immediate address between consumer and corporation? I cannot wait to hear from Minh-Ha what she thinks. Meanwhile, Independent Fashion Bloggers is hosting its own fashion blogger conference, called “Evolving Influence.”

_______________________

I am saddened by the news that radical historian Howard Zinn (1922-2010) has passed away. A People’s History of the United States (1980) should be required reading for all high school students, and I take to heart his words on being a teacher: “From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity’; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.” He will be missed terribly.

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OF/SB, part III: Blog Ambition

Despite the pessimism of Part II, there are plenty of things to be excited about with regard to fashion/style blogging. Although real and constructed divisions remain between what counts as legitimate/professional writing and amateur blathering, the lines between them are increasingly blurred. Bloggers do produce knowledge and opinions about fashion, style, design, and modes of consumption that the fashion industry, independent designers, retail firms, and advertisers have good reason to heed especially since some blogs get as many as 15,000-20,000 hits per day. It is due to the industry’s recognition of bloggers’ informal but no less powerful influence and insight that fashion and design firms are turning to bloggers as knowledgeable fashion enthusiasts. In this way, bloggers play a crucial role in producing and shaping culture.

Further, the burgeoning numbers of academic fashion/style blogs—blogs maintained by cultural and social theorists—demonstrate the blurring of lines between academic and public discourse. Threadbared, as with some of our favorite academic fashion/style blogs such as LipstickEater, Fashion Projects, and Fashion for Writers intends to bring intellectual praxis out of academia and into everyday sites of culture, feelings, and sociality. Simultaneously, as we discussed in an earlier post focusing on the uneasy relationship between fashion and academia, academics who blog about fashion or other arenas of popular culture, demonstrate the diversity and heterogeneity of scholarly modes of production as well as reveal how the personal and the informal (i.e., feelings and fixations) constitute rather than inhibit intellectual engagements. Unfortunately, research on the politics of blogging and the blogosphere rarely attend to blogs about fashion and instead focus on political blogs, first and foremost. Blogging during the 2004 Democratic and Republican National Conventions is an especially popular subject. Because mainstream political blogs are predominantly maintained by men, these scholars skew the actual picture of the blogosphere making it seem male-dominated when we know from demographics research that slightly more women have blogs than men (though most researchers agree that the difference is so small that it is statistically insignificant) and most female-run blogs are maintained for longer periods of time.

A narrow understanding of political participation misses the heterogeneous and informal modes of cultural politics that many people who feel disenfranchised from formal politics participate in as well as denies the organizational and mobilizing power of blogs for youth, artists, and diasporic communities. Moreover, it tacitly reinscribes a “separate spheres” division between consumption/production and culture/politics that have historically been organized in gendered terms. In these studies, the blogger is a politically efficacious subject—if they are granted political consciousness at all—only when they are blogging about “formal” politics (electoral politics, etc.). The ideal blogger is imagined in relation and resemblance to the ideal (male) political worker. Not only is the political work of culture unintelligible in this framework, culture is implicitly connected to (women’s) mass deception and mass consumption. For example, Jodi Dean argues that bloggers “[believe] in the importance of their contributions, presuming that there are readers for their blogs” and that this communication makes a difference when in fact, such practices, though pleasurable, “displace political energy from the hard work of organizing and struggle.” While Dean believes that pleasure and politics are mutually exclusive, Nan Enstad’s fabulous study of the ways in which 19th century working women used cultural practices like dressing fashionably and reading romance novels “to lay claim to dignified identities as workers . . . [and] to claim formal political status” is exemplary of how cultural practices and political praxis have long been intertwined.

Blogging about fashion and style, like fashion itself, can be (and absolutely has been for us) an immensely joyful endeavor because we get to think about fashion and engage with both academic and nonacademic linkers and thinkers across the globe whose intellectual curiosities fuel ours. These pleasures and cultural practices are not insignificant even while they are circumscribed and clipped by the hierarchical and capitalist structures of the internet outlined by Dean. The question may not be whether blogging and the internet is democratic but rather how have fashion/style bloggers, even within difficult and anti-democratic conditions, produced meanings and practices about political action, self-construction, material and immaterial consumption in a context of global neoliberal capitalism, and the politics of sociality that change or clarify dominant systems of race, gender, sexuality, and class?

Return to On the Fashion/Style Blog: Intro
Return to OF/SB, part I: Going Postal
Return to OF/SB, part II: Blog in the Machine of Democracy

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OF/SB, part II: Blog in the Machine of Democracy

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.]

Return to On the Fashion/Style Blog: Intro
Return to OF/SB, part I: Going Postal

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