Once upon a time, I was a fashion blogger. And while I lived happily ever after doing my own thing on this personal blog, I still look into the mirror of the fashion/blog world with a kind of distance that comes from having blogged a very, very long time — and yes, from being one of the early fashion blogs, part of a previous generation that included peeps like Manolo the Shoe Blogger, Marilyn Kirschner and Diane Pernet.
So it was with a kind of detached bemusement that I read this much-discussed Suzy Menkes article on bloggers, showoffs and “the circus of fashion.” Detached, because while I was a fashion blogger a very long time ago, I’m not really any longer. Bemused, because the whole fashion industry bemuses me in a “tempest in a teapot” kind of way. It always has, because deep in my heart I know it’s not a world that I ever fit in — I knew from the onset I’m an outsider, and so you automatically assume a kind of gentle yet critical distance from the aforementioned spectacle.
But I also found my reading of Menkes’ story tinged with a kind of sadness, and I can’t quite pinpoint it yet. I suppose it’s my sense of fashion blogging as a whole having squandered its potential to shift the conversation around style, fashion and industry — and that it has mostly become a distorted, odd Underland version of the mainstream fashion industry itself, with its obsession with status and consumption and its disconnect from reality. Don’t get me wrong: there are lots of shining lights out there in fashion blogging (as there are in the fashion industry), who don’t simply replicate the power dynamics and values of the dominant system, but bring something new to the whole enterprise. But overall, I’d have to agree: it’s a bit of a circus, and many “style stars” don’t inspire me much, on a personal-taste level and an ideological one. But with that sadness and disappointment with fashion blogging as a whole, I’m forced to ask myself where fashion blogging went wrong, and why it feels so often irrelevant to me as an admitted clothes lover and style watcher. And the answers don’t really come any easier, either.
Long ago I learned to make the distinction between fashion and style, which is a bit Fashion/Style 101, of course. A bit like learning the difference between sex and gender in women’s studies: fashion is Fashion Industrial Complex, in/out lists, cacophony, selling, but style is personal, authentic, consumption and sometimes creativity. I actually don’t believe this as rigidly as I used to, but it’s still useful as a kind of compass. But now you do see the industry hijacking formerly personal, engaging style blogs, and I think we can all agree there comes a point when a blog “jumps the shark,” as they say in the television industry — when a blogger’s style becomes a caricature, or there’s one too many sponsorships and too little transparency, or you just get tired of all those pigeon-toed poses and watch bodies get increasingly shrunken and “appropriate” for the medium.
This is all, of course, complicated by the fact that you need to make money, and if you aspire to blog for a living, how do you dance with capitalism and industry to do so? I’m the first person to roll my eyes at a sponsored post, but at the same time, I understand the need for it — because there is such a thing as making a living, which is a reality for most people in the world who aren’t graced with trust funds. (Yet another reality nicely hidden away in the lovely land of fashion blogs, where money is an invisible force we don’t talk about because it would ruin the illusion.)
This is also complicated from the fact that blogging rarely makes money directly. It’s a useful platform to launch a book, get a deal, get a paying gig, find some clients for your work — but unless you get a certain (incredibly sky-high) volume of readership, you don’t just make a sustainable “pay your rent, student loans and eat” living from the advertising. So I can’t help but think that the spectacle of fashion bloggers also is deeply tied to the economics of the enterprise, and the economics are often veiled. (I remember reading a long time ago about a fashion blogger coming clean on how much credit card debt she was in to fund her style habit and feeling that she was so brave and beautifully honest.) As much as I’d wish blogging was a pure space of expression, there is a reality underneath it pulls and shapes it in ways we’re not comfortable with revealing — mostly because it illuminates the ugliness and real costs of aspiration.
Yet what is the solution? Menkes advocates a kind of closing off the ranks and getting things back to a small, select cabal of editors who are granted precious access to designers and information. She’s pinpointed a “problem with no name” when it comes to fashion, to cop a Betty Friedanism, but her solution is just ridiculous, bitter and self-serving — especially surprising coming from someone generally regarded as fair, balanced and perceptive in the fashion world. As an editor she’s hugely influential. But that influence is being sapped away, because print overall at ALL levels of publishing — books, newspapers and magazines — is dying. Digital is the future, like it or not, and her generation is on the wane. That’s just hard facts. She’d like to consolidate that influence, but there is really no going back, not unless it doesn’t matter if fashion doesn’t sell anymore. The truth is that avenues like Pinterest are what drives sales now, as well as blogs that have a direct line to consumers — there may be an elite of designers who don’t need that, but frankly, most of them do.
I feel like I need to pull in all my critical analysis skills, not to mention my political economy reading and years of reading Vogue and feminist theory — to adequate unpack my reaction to Menkes’ story. I’m just starting to think about it now, but I will encapsulate my reactions so far at this point: Menkes is right, but she’s a bit too reactionary and in her reaction reveals a conservative elitism that is equally repugnant to me — and that fashion bloggers need to do better themselves. There needs to be new paradigms and yes, we need to explore sustainable, ethical, non-icky ways of making money from the work. Because as much as I’d like to be 100% punk about it, I’m also a pragmatist. But is such a thing possible? Or is this the ultimate fashion unicorn of them all, along with comfortable stilettos and universally flattering boyfriend jeans?