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Street styles

Recently Slate had an item by Justin Shubow about street-fashion blogs, which consist of snapshots taken of ordinary people on the streets of a city with a few lines of commentary. I expected to loathe them the way I do the Sunday Styles section -- which I continue to look at anyway, either out of masochism or the cleansing refreshment of a five-minute hate -- but instead I found myself oddly moved, particularly by this blog from Helsinki. Taken in isolation, any of the self-referential comments the subjects make about their own fashions would have seemed gratingly self-aware and almost impolite; it's hard not to sound fatuous when describing your personal style. (An example: "I bought a jeans jacket for 50 cents from the recycling center, cut off the sleeves, dyed it, added the batches and made this vest out of it. My mother bought the jeans for me and I took the seams in to make them smaller. I don't go to shops. The only thing I buy is band T-shirts at concerts. My favorite piece is a pair of ultra loose boxer shorts in orange and green.") You are almost forced to sound a little overly pleased with yourself and your choices, as if they were all adroitly calculated to accomplish precisely the effect you had hoped for. (Being pleased with yourself isn't a bad thing per se, but talking about it seems to threaten it by instrumentalizing it.) But reading a series of these personal comments, clicking through image after image, the people began to seem more and more artless and unaffected -- relative to each other they by and large seem clearly within the register of normality and not out on some unchartered ego trip. They started to seem self-effacing, almost embarrassed. In the face of public scrutiny and ambiguous social expectations, the individual's resourcefulness comes to the fore, an ability to take bricolage from discount stores or thrift shops or what their parents give them and perform a kind of aesthetic labor of synthesis with it all. A note of defiance toward fashion industry norms creeps in: "I like plain and simple clothes: black, white and red. I wear H&M and lots of second hand. If I had more money, I would still not change anything in my style." Or: "The problem with many good clothes is that when they become comfortable, they break down. Like this leather jacket which I found one and a half years ago. The badges have just come from somewhere, I and my friends have made the drawings on it." You read through enough of these and you start to really the anthropological approach to consumerism that, for instance, Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood espouse in The World of Goods, where they argue that consumer goods "are good for thinking," that is, they are a "nonverbal medium for the human creative faculty." It's impossible not to be impressed as you click through the photos on one of these sites with the human creative faculty at work.

These street-style blogs are apparently carefully watched by designers, who draw influence from them. This gives Shubow a chance to trot out the canard that the movements of fashion are controlled by the masses rather than by haute couture arbiters or the whimsical decree of style czars.

It is, of course, no surprise that the fashion industry has already begun to use street-fashion blogs for its own commercial purposes—indeed, the Marxist social critic Walter Benjamin once accused the flâneur of being a "spy for the capitalists, on assignment in the realm of consumers." But ultimately these blogs should strengthen the leveling and decentralizing forces that continue to dismantle the once dominant fashion pyramid. The time is long past when a few couturiers could dictate international style from the heights of Paris. Thanks to the growing popularity of this new medium, it seems likely that a leaderless multitude will increasingly influence fashion from the ground—or rather, pavement—up.

I don't know about this. My suspicion is that fashion revolves much faster than people's natural predilection for novelty would dictate, and certainly no one prefers to be terrorized by fashion or style -- if there's one thing that these blogs make clear is that there is a vast difference between style as ordinary people live it, and fashion as it's conceived by the apparel industry and promulgated through its advertising and infiltration into lifestyle TV programming and magazines and such. That is why I find these blogs so moving; they capture a moment of down-to-earth self-awareness just as the technological and sociocultural web that moment is bound up in perverts it into something like its opposite, which in turn makes the moment of awareness and flattery into a moment of credulity. They have been prodded into publicly delighting in some private aspect of themselves so that it could then be taken away from them and made into a template, making them a stamped-out product retroactively.

Obviously I side with Benjamin on this question -- that these blogs don't do their subjects any favors. The blogs allow for their innocuous expressions of personality to be compiled, collated and distilled into bankable trends. Rather than being something personal and more or less spontaneous, the subject's outfit is recruited as an example of something the subject may not have been aware of. The subject is thereby estranged from herself and in a small way becomes primarily an object -- her image has slipped out of her control and now connotes something besides what might have been intended and is exploited by someone else. On the Helsinki blog, people over and over again say how they don't follow trends, yet they've been caught by the camera and put in jeopardy of becoming one. We develop a fashion approach to project our sense of subjectivity, but these blogs invert that and make the individuals objects to the very extent they've tried harder to be stylish than the average person. The harder they try to be individual, the more likely it is they will be reified.

So in other words, I subscribe to the co-optation model of culture, whereby the culture industry, through a kind of undirected, spontaneous-order series of expropriations (by a "leaderless multitude" of industry functionaries), attempts to eradicate expressions of personal style and supplant them with something that's identifiably institutional while remaining capable of signalling an ersatz independence and individuality -- something that says, "I play by the rules, one of which is, Be unique!" The reward for playing is a sense of power that comes from being influential within the institutional hierarchy -- what at some ultimate level motivates bloggers to compile these street styles in the first place, a quest for recognition on a scale that seems more significant than that which comes from mere personal exchanges. (This is how I felt before when I was without power, desperate to blog but unable to, yearning to think through the network, which could validate my effort.) One's struggle against trends and the "machine" and the culture industry thereby subtly slips into one's working at its behest, all while one's personal sense of righteousness is barely affected.

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