Tag Archives: new technologies

The Digital Decade in Fashion (and then some)

The End-of-Year List reflecting back on the best, worst, biggest, funniest, etc. is by now a popular culture tradition. The CBS-run website BNET has already come up with its “10 Biggest Fashion Business Faux Pas” list (the Rodarte/Juarez debacle gets top billing, deservedly). And Newsweek has just published its “13 Worst Trends of 2010” (jeggings get no love). Since this month also marks the end of the first decade of the 21st century, I expect (and look forward to) many more lists that recount this historical period. It is not difficult to imagine, for example, a TVLand tribute to reality television competitions (beginning with Big Brother, Survivor, and of course American Idol) which came of age—and for some, is now well past its prime—in the last decade.

On behalf of Threadbared, I offer this (annotated) list tracing some of the roots and routes of what has become a defining event in the fashion industry, in particular, and in global commercial culture, in general: fashion’s digital revolution. (The focus is certainly on the post-millennium but, as with all cultural phenomena, it has a history so my list begins in the mid 1990s.)

  • 1994: The Stanford Federal Credit Union and Pizza Hut establish their place in e-commerce history by being the first financial institution to offer online banking and the first commercial business to record an online sale (a pepperoni and mushroom pizza with extra cheese). Also in this year, the Dutch company Stork Prints launched the first digital textile printer which not only increased the speed and scale of garment production but also helped to initiate the business practice of mass customization, which would later come to define fashion in the digital age.
  • 2002: Friendster, the first popular social media site, helps establish computer-mediated communication (CMC) as an everyday practice of daily life in the new millennium. In the new fashion media complex, CMC is not only an everyday practice but, for many, an all-day activity.
  • 2002: LookOnline Daily Fashion Report and She She Me invent the fashion blog. (Both are still in operation!)
  • 2003: Isaac Mizrahi debuts his diffusion line of classically-designed fashion sportswear made exclusively for Target’s female customers.

While Mizrahi certainly didn’t invent affordable fashion (this distinction, as we know from Joan DeJean, belongs to the 17th century French couturieres’ trade guild) or even designer affordable fashion (Halston had a similar idea in the 1980s with his J.C. Penney’s collection), Mizrahi did successfully re-brand the concept of affordable fashion for a 21st century U.S. market. Claiming that the Target line “celebrated the style of American women of all ages and all walks of life,” Mizrahi successfully inaugurated a sartorial-political philosophy of democratic fashion that resonated strongly with post-September 11 patriotic consumer values while still being attentive to recessionary levels of consumer confidence. (For more on democracy and fashion, see my essay, “The Right to Fashion in the Age of Terrorism.”)

Mizrahi’s mass market partnership was both a commercial success (to the tune of $1.5 billion over its five year run) and a cultural sensation. Boldface named designers like Karl Lagerfeld, Roberto Cavalli, Vivienne Westwood, and Oscar de la Renta followed Mizrahi’s business model by collaborating with Target but also other mass market retailers including H&M, Payless Shoe Source, Macy’s, and Kohl’s department store. And style icon Sarah Jessica Parker teamed with discount (and now defunct) retailer Steve and Barry’s to create a line of fashionable clothes and accessories under the label Bitten that she promised would never cost more than $19.98 for any single piece. Meanwhile, prominent tastemakers such as American designer Tom Ford and Gucci creative director Frida Giannini publicly boasted about shopping at the Gap, Banana Republic, Target, and H&M.

Though certainly not without its detractors, the idea that fashion is a cultural form and practice that every woman had a right to—a right coextensive with her right to self-expression and self-determination—was firmly established in the cultural imaginary by the mid 2000s. However, the global economic crisis, widespread un- and under-employment, and the emergent trend of eco-chic in the latter half of the decade strained, if not ended, U.S. fashion consumers’ love affair with cheap chic fashion, now often disparaged as “fast fashion,” the sartorial equivalent of fast food. (Parker’s move away from Bitten to Halston Heritage where she now designs is reflective of a larger shift in popular sartorial philosophy from the logic of cheap chic to that of investment fashion.) Nonetheless, the neoliberal democratic discourse around fashion has a second life in fashion’s digital revolution and particularly in the rise of fashion bloggers.



While some critics contend that social media spectacles like D&G’s are nothing more than marketing ploys to show off a designer’s technocultural relevance (and thus curry virtual street cred with the highly influential consumer market segment that is the Teen Vogue and Nylon fashion crowd), the impact of social media in fashion is more than symbolic.

A recent study finds that instantaneous user-centered viral marketing—also called word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing—“is the primary factor behind 20 to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions.” It is no surprise, then, that the WOM marketing industry is growing at an exponential rate. In 2001, U.S. companies spent $76 million in WOM marketing; in 2006, spending increased nearly 67 percent to $981 million. Analysts expect that by 2013, U.S. companies will spend $3 billion on viral marketing. Interactive fashion media, in general, is expected grow into a $55 billion industry and represent 21 percent of all marketing spending. These numbers are especially staggering when we consider that fashion’s traditional commodities like the stock overseen by the chief executives of Saks, Neiman, and Bergdorf’s and print magazines are on the wane. Recall the decline of advertising in 2009 in Vogue and Lucky (each 44 percent), Allure (41 percent), and Glamour and Vanity Fair (15 and 15.5 percent, respectively). Some magazines like Jane, Cargo, and Men’s Vogue shuttered their offices altogether. Fashion business – like the creative economy in general – is fueled more and more by the nonmaterial, though highly valued, goods of images and information than traditional material goods.

However, even the most popular of fashion’s new technologies and nonmaterial commodities – fashion blogs – remains a relative minor player in the digital commons. Political/news blogs; celebrity culture/gossip blogs; and tech blogs rank highest in terms of online traffic. Still, the digital fashion media complex on the whole is an incredibly significant cultural, social, economic, and, yes, political site. In addition to the 2 million or so fashion blogs, there are countless more fashion-focused blog posts on non-fashion blogs and websites like The Huffington Post, Jezebel, and Mashable; fashion/style/beauty vlogs; microblogs; and through Facebook pages/links/updates. The digital fashion media complex thus generates at breakneck speeds and unprecedented frequency countless web streams of popular knowledge (and nonmaterial goods) everyday.

Taken together, the proliferation of online sales information and product reviews on e-commerce sites as well as on fashion search engines like Google’s latest venture Boutiques.com, blog posts, tweets, how-to-dress and what-to-buy advice streamed to our mobile devices, and of course online magazines begin to illustrate fashion’s central and organizing role not only in the new creative information economy but also in digital literacy and the very nature and form of public culture today. In other words, not only is fashion experiencing a digital revolution, digital culture is experiencing a fashion revolution in which fashion objects, images, and information are the stuff of which digital imaginaries are now made.

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Boutiques.com: The Scientization of Style and The Promise of Happiness

Yesterday, I created a virtual boutique on Google’s new website, Boutiques.com. The process begins with The Stylizer quiz which involves answering something like 40 – 50 questions about whether my style was more like Jennifer Garner’s or Beyonce’s, Rachel Weisz or Jennifer Biel, Kate Moss or Serena Williams, Courtney Cox or Kristen Stewart – [sigh] – Chloe Sevigny or Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Biel or Alexa Chung, M.I.A. or Rachel Bilson, a margarita or a tequila shot, Las Vegas or New York City, and on (and on) it goes. I’ve never really understood the appeal of personality surveys so this process felt really interminable to me. And while I do want to give Google credit for trying to think outside of the binary box by providing users the option to not choose either Courtney Cox’s style or Kristen Stewart’s, for example, there were times I would’ve liked the option to choose Style A and B.

Following the Stylizer quiz, there was another set of questions regarding the types of silhouettes, patterns, and colors I love or hate in dresses, tops, bottoms, and shoes. And still another set of questions about which designers I love and hate (organized in categories of Boho, Casual Chic, Classic, Edgy, Romantic, or Street). Note: my personal style category, The Softer Side of the Matrix Warrior, was not an available choice.

Having taken all my sartorial vitals, the website then generates a Personal Storefront filled with clothes that are scientifically determined to match my taste. In some ways, it was spot-on. I loved the Opening Ceremony black loopy poncho, the 3.1 Phillip Lim gray t-shirt dress, and the Alexander Wang Addison platform ankle boots (which have been a personal sartorial fantasy of mine for weeks now). But the bowler bag, the multitude of flat strappy sandals (think: suburban mom on vacation), and the 7 for All Mankind halter top (I definitely remember checking “halter” as a silhouette I hate) are inexplicable. In other words, after 20 or 25 minutes of testing, the system’s accuracy rate was about 50% – not unlike flipping a coin? Maybe I need to edit my answers . . . then again, maybe it’s not me. Cate Corcoran of WWD relates: “the number of inappropriate, random or unappealing suggestions it throws out is overwhelming.”


Longtime readers of Threadbared know my propensity for sample sale shopping but what I haven’t mentioned before is that I’m an avid and, if I do say so myself, expert online shopper. In the past few years, I’ve teased out a good number of small e-tail sites devoted to independent and emerging designers; keep abreast of about 20 fashion blogs from which I regularly poach shopping and style ideas, learned how to game sites with more e-coupons, promotional codes, and friends and family discounts than I (sometimes) know what to do with; and am a member of half a dozen or so members-only shopping sites. (A recent example of my e-shopping prowess: 60% off the price of a pair of this season’s Surface to Air ankle boots from an outlet e-tail site using two coupon codes. The boots are going back but the achievement remains.)  All of this is to say that I approached Boutiques more as a hopeful consumer than a skeptical critic. And while the website failed to impress, its appeal is real.

The defining feature of the site and one repeatedly highlighted in every review (see here, here, and here)  is its tacit claim to have scientifically “cracked” style. No longer elusive and mysterious, style is now a set of codified information in the form of “hundreds of style rules” – an algorithm implements these rules and separates friendly style pairings from bad pairings and then these scientific codes are inscribed onto the user’s body via the automatically generated style suggestions in my personal boutique. An example of a bad pairing, according to Google, is “heavily patterned handbags don’t tend to go with heavily patterned dresses.” Should a user attempt this pairing while building her outfit, (the site doesn’t yet include men’s clothing), the website will automatically suggest different options – and not just any ol’ option but, using “computer vision and machine learning technology” it “visually analyze[s] your taste and match[es] it to items you would like.” And voila! The scientization of style!

The words algorithm, precision, hone, analyze, and vision technology that pepper every review and description of the website are suggestive of fashion’s recent turn to science. The “art of fashion” might be OK for the industrial age (new means of mass producing and mass distributing clothes meant that more women than ever before could aesthetically, sartorially express themselves) but in the digital age, it’s all about the “science of style” – the digital age being a time when scientific advancements in information technologies have dramatically increased the cultural and economic value of digital or nonmaterial fashionable goods (e.g., blogs, viral marketing campaigns, and web-hosted fashion films) and decreased the values of fashion’s traditional material objects (e.g., print magazines and brick and mortar shops).

The appeal of and desire for a scientifically rationalized method of consumption and self-fashioning are endemic to what scholars describe as a “risk society”. As a result of the Immigration and Naturalization Act (1965); social justice movements for women, gays, and racial minorities; the growing privatization of welfare services; and declining personal economic security (due to wage stagnation and increased work hours) throughout the latter half of the 20th century, traditional structures of U.S. society have been profoundly destabilized. Americans experienced these instabilities or risks most acutely in the changing structures of their neighborhoods, workplaces, and families. To alleviate their anxieties, Americans turned to an expanding and welcoming market of self-help literature, time-saving and self-empowering consumer goods, and life coaches.

An array of TV chefs, shopping experts, style gurus, and therapists promise time-poor and anxious Americans quicker meals, better sales, no-fail style tips, relationship strategies, career advice, more efficient workouts, and so on. Such lifestyle expertise gives us a sense of control (a feeling backed by the surety of science) in a changing post-traditional world. It also resonates with and reifies key principles of neoliberalism including self-responsibility and self-management that are now commonsense ethics in a post-welfare society. What were once concerns of the state and the rights to which citizens were entitled (jobs and health care, say) are now responsibilities of individuals who are tasked with making good choices among a wide range of products and services. Tanking economy? Shop for America! Feeling sick and under- or uninsured? Web MD! Un- or underemployed? Don’t just be a blogger! Diversify your skills by also being a photographer, a stylist, a social media expert, and a dogwalker!

Against the backdrop of this risk society, fashion’s new technologies (the Stylizer as well as mobile device apps, vlogs, blogs, and 3D imaging body and garment simulation technologies) emerge as “happy objects” – objects as Sara Ahmed has written, that are culturally and socially endowed with the capacity for happiness-making.  As happy objects, fashion’s new and “democratized” technologies (because, ostensibly, everyone has access to the Stylizer quiz) promise the ultimate kind of happiness in a risk society: risk free choice-making in one of the most important areas of our lives, our self-presentation.

Fashion, we are repeatedly reminded in the deluge of makeover TV shows, fashion magazines, blogs, and even our colleagues, is an external expression of an internal character. Unkempt look = low self-esteem and bad lifestyle choices. Polished appearance =  strong self-esteem and good lifestyle choices.  Evidence of good choices mark individuals as good workers, good citizens, good parents, etc. Thus the scientization of style that fashion’s latest technologies promise are nothing short of, to borrow the title of Ahmed’s book, a promise of happiness. And who doesn’t want that?

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Radio Silence + Some Noise

Apologies for the recent radio silence — I’m suffering a terrific head cold as well as ever-anxious anticipation for my manuscript workshop this week. Being ill has been something of a relief, quite frankly, as it feels like a legitimate reason to stop working for at least a little while. (Or to do other work, though I have my cat Morton to do my laundry for me!) I’ve actually taken a bit of a break from the Internets –except for vintage shopping on Etsy!– but here are a few things I’ve enjoyed reading in the last week or so, while Minh-Ha has been on a research trip.

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Queer novelist and performer Michelle Tea is blogging for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art now, and in her latest missive she ponders the return of possibly regrettable fashions past:

I don’t know if I am ready for creepers to make a comeback, even in the form of a boot, even if the boot comes with a leather faux-sock poking over the top, even and especially if it comes hung with a couple of decorative boot-belts. And even if they are designed by Alexander Wang. But you know, even as I type this, looking at the boots in their buttery lighting at Barneys, where they live, I am starting to have second thoughts. Maybe they are actually the greatest things I’ve ever seen. Sometimes being repulsed by a piece of fashion is a signal that I’m about to be obsessed with it.

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It seems that the Internets is spitting up reflections on the impact of fashion bloggers these days (we’re no exception), especially with Style Rookie Tavi’s skyrocketing interplanetary profile as both model and muse. Imran Amed from The Business of Fashion offers this new social media reality check to industry insiders, while Evil Monito’s Lindsey Ibarra chimes in with some thoughts on the increasingly blurred divisions between insider/outsider status, as well as shifting measures of expertise, especially apparent as amateur fashion bloggers appear to replace professional stylists:

As the fashion blogosphere has grown it’s become packed with new voices, talents and faces. Through its evolution it has become clear that in order to be a valid blogger one must be a visible blogger and in turn the World Wide Web has been flooded with boys and girls eager to show themselves off to the rest of the world. No longer is it just about the clothing; suddenly it’s also about a face wearing the clothing, and yet I suppose in some ways it always has been. When supermodels ruled the world their faces were just as important (if not more so) as the clothing they were modeling but the added element of worldwide exposure at the click of a button has created an entire generation of “I’m famous on the Internet” icons.

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Next, there be black dandies all over! Jezebel covers the recent release of photographer Daniele Tamagni’s Gentlemen of Bacongo, documenting the phenomenon of sapeurs, or the Congolese subculture of dandies. I’d been worrying at this postcolonial knot of politics and desires since I read a few months earlier Patty Chang’s review at Fashion Projects of George Amponsah and Cosima Spender’s documentary The Importance of Being Elegant. Chang’s comments are insightful:

Watching this documentary, it’s unavoidable to draw parallels to the image of ‘bling-bling’ culture propagated by new school hip hop. The projection of cool by emulating the conspicuous consumption of elites, and the impersonation of success and fashionability, rather than the projection of a sense of depravation are traits shared by both subcultures. Indeed, Amponsah and Spender seem more inclined to portray the phenomenon of la Sape in a similar vein to the glorification of material excess found in hip hop culture. The inherent paradoxes of poor unemployed urban youths who hustle to be able to wear designer duds or footage of Papa Wemba trying on garish fur coats by Cavalli, all seem to confirm this.

Yet, la Sape has a history that is far older than this documentary suggests. Originating in Congo-Brazzaville in the 1930s, the movement’s inspiration (though often disputed) draws reference from the archetypal dandies of modernity as well as Western films of the 1940s and 1950s, especially those of mobster, black and white thrillers, and the Three Musketeers. The sapeurs of Brazzaville were mainly composed of lower middle class young men, high school drop outs, and later, disenfranchised youths. Observing a strict three color rule, their austere elegance became a method to cope with colonialist hegemony and assimilation policies, as well as a way of subversion and resistance. In addition, the acronym la Sape plays on the French term for clothing and points to the fascination with their colonizers. The sapeurs of Brazzaville preached a conservative style that focused on cleanliness and absence from using hard drugs. Through the cultivation of clothes, they sought to define their social distinctiveness while deriving pleasure in admiring themselves, somewhat akin to what Pierre Bourdieu has called a ‘strategy of self-representation’. Fashion became a symbolic gesture of reclaiming power in times of economic deprivation and attempts at political dominance. In some instances, it proved a man could be a master of his own fate. Some authors have remarked that the sapeurs concealed their social failure through the presentation of self and the transformation of it into an apparent victory.

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And finally, Fashion for Writers is on some kind of posting roll with wonderful prose and lovely photographs. I’m inspired, though not enough to get dressed in something besides yoga pants and my old Maximumrocknroll t-shirt right now. Damn this cold! I will just have to heal in the warm glow of the Kate Bush Dance Troupe!

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Uniform Vs. Detail

Rob Walker’s “Consumed” column in the New York Times Magazine addresses the latest experiment in sustainable fashion, Sheena Matheiken’s Uniform Project, in which she wears the same custom-made black dress (she has seven for laundering purposes) every day for a year, and models just how creatively she can accessorize this single item. Sheena herself is inspired by her own history in uniform as a schoolgirl:

I was raised and schooled in India where uniforms were a mandate in most public schools. Despite the imposed conformity, kids always found a way to bend the rules and flaunt a little personality. Boys rolled up their sleeves, wore over-sized swatches, and hiked up their pants to show off their high-tops. Girls obsessed over bangles, bindis and bad hairdos. Peaking through the sea of uniforms were the idiosyncrasies of teen style and individual flare. I now want to put the same rules to test again, only this time I’m trading in the catholic school fervor for an eBay addiction and relocating the school walls to this wonderful place called the internet.

As Walker notes, the Uniform Project is unique among other similar efforts to explore the concept of the daily uniform. Neither artist Alex Martin’s 2006 Little Brown Dress (her thoughtful notes on how she changed as she moved through the world in this one dress are here) nor sculptor and performance artist Andrea Zittel’s on-going A-Z Uniforms, which include variations on a self-designed garment worn for six months at a time, involved daily documentation for public view. I would add to his list the 2004 Gray Sweatsuit Revolution, which dared its adherents to wear a uniform of the generic grey sweatsuit in a half-humorous, semi-serious send-up of the rapid pace of the fashion cycle and its drive toward distinction.

Against these other experiments which often defined themselves as solitary contemplations “against fashion,” what is most noticeable about the Uniform Project is first, its interactive nature –readers to the daily blog often send Sheena their secondhand or handcrafted items (available on Etsy!) to wear– and second, the enormous treasure trove of accessories she’s already accumulated and photographed for this project, only on its third month (she began in May). The photographs of her daily outfits are sometimes so laden with eye-catching accessories that it takes a moment to discern the black dress –her blank canvas– beneath them. This leads Warner to conclude:

There’s an obvious tension here: what sounds at first like an exercise in neo-Puritan making-do in a time of austerity is in reality a celebration of the very thirst for inventive novelty that has defined consumer culture for years — or at least that has defined the many online fashion entities that have glommed onto the project. However you might characterize the Uniform Project, it’s definitely not antifashion. “If anything,” she says, “it’s quite the opposite.” Which is what makes it so much fun to follow along.

Style blogs focusing on the daily sartorial statements of their authors are odd creatures — creating heightened processes of deliberative self-presentation (taking and posing for good photographs is an art), sometimes purporting to instruct others in the ephemeral pursuit of style, often inviting commentary and, more rarely, critique. But the Uniform Project is fascinating inasmuch as it illuminates some of the distinct features of style blogging (especially the daily outfit photograph) as the most recent innovation on fashion’s seemingly only constant since its industrialization — that is, the ongoing tension between individualization and standardization.

(In an aside about the rise of some style blogs to the top of the heap, I think that my favorite intellectual fashion blogger –whose own obsession seems to be theorizing hipsterism and its aesthetics– Footpath Zeitgeist is onto something when she writes, “I guess for me the question right now is: ‘How do we make clothing our own?’ Too often, fashion writing answers that question through a logic I could call ‘stylism.’ Stylism is the belief that having a coherent and identifiable ‘personal style’ is the yardstick of chic…. [S]ome people are held up as possessors of an ineffable logic of creativity and bricolage that enables them to render old ideas new, either through recombination or by recontextualisation. The rest of us can learn to attain that logic ourselves through observation (especially in ‘street style’ discourse) and copying.”)

What’s most relevant here are the parameters of the most-praised photographs on the most trafficked blogs, which as an informal rule must detail where or how each item worn was bought or collected, and as an informal observation seem to include a mix of mass-produced items (Forever 21 or H&M), thrifted or vintage pieces, and in some cases, more high-end purchases. The production of a unique “style” deliberately treads on this tension between individualization and standardization, between Forever 21 layering tank tops and Chloe leather sandals and thrifted Palmetto acid-wash denim skirts, which in combination renders the wearer distinct in her styling of these items. (As someone whose closet is crammed overfull of thrifted garments –including more than one ’80s beaded-and-feathered sweater dresses– and a few pieces from a wide range of retailers, I want to note that I am hardly exempt from this magpie strategy.) The key to this bricolage, as Footpath notes, is in the detail that enables distinction. She cites Roland Barthes on the figure of the “dandy,” and the same quote is useful here:

The dandy is condemned to invent continually distinctive traits that are ever novel: sometimes he relies on wealth to distance himself from the poor, other times he wants his clothes to look worn out to distance himself from the rich – this is precisely the job of the “detail”, which is to allow the dandy to escape the masses and never to be engulfed by them; his singularity is absolute in essence, but limited in substance, as he must never fall into eccentricity, for that is an eminently copyable form.

But as Footpath notes, the detail is performed not for oneself but for an audience. She observes, “And it is in the (at least theoretical) infinity of singularity that dandies can identify each other. They are recognising each other’s thoughtful originality: the precision and subtlety of each other’s sartorial signatures. They are not identifying with the other’s stylistic similarities, but with the other’s stylistic differences.” While Footpath extends and modifies this line of thought to the phenomenon of boy hipsters to hilarious effect (comparing photographs of sullen boys in unkempt haircuts, low v-neck graphic t-shirts, and chain necklaces, taken at the same MisShapes party), and could be applied to any number of subcultural groups (I remember this attention to “sartorial signatures” when I was one of the punks), this is a useful way to begin to understand the exchange that occurs in the most popular style blogs, between the posted outfit and the comments that follow, that produce what can be understood as an informal, semi-exclusive community based on shared aesthetics and cultural capital. That is, such style blogs are exercises in self-presentation put together for the purposes of rendering transparent the not-intuitive process of becoming an expert in evaluating as well as cultivating an “individual style” under the watchful eye of hundreds, even thousands, of other stylish persons striving for the same. None of this is “bad,” of course. But for me, it does highlight the paradoxical coincidence of standardization and individualization, or the uniform and the detail, in any one outfit — a coincidence purposefully illuminated by the daily photographs on the Uniform Project.

The Uniform Project takes this exchange in another direction, in which the viewer can participate in Sheena’s quest for individuality in spite of the spirit of the uniform by sending her an accessory or item of clothing that she will recognize in response as a suitably singular detail, chosen by you as an also distinctive personality, and subsequently might wear on her daily blog for others to also admire as such. You can become a participant, as long as you are stylistically literate in her sartorial semiotics, which are specific to the magpie aesthetics and what Footpath might call a “calculated insouciance” circulating also on other style blogs. And if you are not now literate, you can become so. New technologies up the ante on numerous levels then, increasing the audience for one’s aesthetic individuality as well as the stakes for continuous self-reinvention and the sorts of exchanges that affirm, amend or even police the daily expression of a public self.

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