Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Is Street Style Dead?

A couple of weeks back, Independent Fashion Bloggers posted an article asking the provocative question: Is the end of street style near? Sites emulating The Sartorialist, Facehunter, and Street Peeper have become so ubiquitous, so commonplace, so over-exposed, that the fashion cycle has already moved on. We, goes the implicit assumption, have a limited attention span. Street style had its moment. Now it's time for something else. Something, perhaps, "more."

So, is it true? Is street style dead? Or at least dying? Is it on its last legs? Is something poised to replace it?

Well, I have a couple of thoughts on the subject. First, one should always take such claims with a grain of salt. Painting has been declared dead by embittered art critics and MFA students so many times the statement barely elicits a response anymore. The hipster has been declared dead repeatedly on popular websites — usually with a strong glimmer of self-satisfaction — and yet skinny jeans and mustaches are still visible on street corners the industrialized (and industrializing) world over. Things are almost uniformly declared "dead" at the height of their popularity. That's when the elite of cool has the most stake in differentiation. After all, cool is an inexpansible (think "scarce") resource (see Milner 2004). If everyone is cool, no one is. So whenever anything gets too big, the pioneers and the early adopters will have already moved on to something else. Or at least, they will tell you they have moved on to something else. Who knows what they do when no one's watching, except maybe Google.

Second, what do we mean by "street style" in the first place? Chelsea Burcz (of IFB) writes, "What are we sick of? The shallow, substance-less, uncredited, unidentified, mass influx of snap shots of ‘fashionistas’ posing on the streets." Is that what street style is? I was thinking that was more street fashion, the endless snapping of photographs of style stars and fashion icons outside runway shows. Street style's appeal has always been something of its anti-fashion sensibility, its depiction of the imperfect and the idiosyncratic. She goes on to say that what we want now is "a little more insight." We want, she explains, to know what's behind the styles we see. We want to know what makes someone tick, what they do for a living, what their inspirations are. We want to see people surrounded by the objects, things, spaces and places that define them as creative beings. Think The Selby or Backyard Bill. Social scientists call this "context."

But was context missing from street style blogs in the first place? Popular blogs from Buenos Aires to New York have always seemed to me to be as much about the place they're shot as the people featured in them. Dam Style is all cobblestone and canals. The Sartorialist is all fire escapes and concrete. And early street style blogs like Hel Looks have featured interviews since the beginning. Perhaps the imminent death of street style is a misdiagnosis. Perhaps what we are observing is a clinical boredom with fashion photography as usual. Now that the conventions of fashion photography — the stick thin models, the vacant stare, the too-perfect ensemble — are becoming such ordinary features of so many street style blogs, we have begun to notice how problematic they are. We thought street style was something different from that, something more spontaneous, something more immediate, dishing up a more authentic experience. Perhaps we are not bored with street style so much as nostalgic for it.  

So what's next for street style blogs then? Will they disappear or simply transform? If you ask Refinery 29, they think the future is crass commercialism, product placement through "improvised" street shots, the ability to purchase items featured "casually" on blog posts. IFB doesn't agree. They think the future points towards "richer content." It's no longer marketable to just post pictures. Now one needs interviews, background information, the impression of depth. Curious, however, that they label this movement towards depth as a "trend." If the fashion cycle really does feed on novelty and change for its own sake, it seems almost contradictory for it to produce depth as a consequence. Is that what happened to network TV when its market share was threatened by cable? Is that what's happening to the music industry now?

But there's an even greater question that ought to be asked here: why must street style blogs bear the burden of meaningfulness in a way that other style blogs (think personal style or menswear blogs) are not required to do? Why must we justify their content? There's an almost moral underpinning to these arguments. Fashion, after all, is about images and impressions, selling fantasies and illusions. It doesn't pretend to be something "more." Why should street style? 

My guess is that it's because street style was thought to be above fashion, a grass-roots expression at odds with the manipulations and machinations of the fashion industry as usual. These days, however, that distinction is becoming less and less clear. We are longing for clarity. And we are longing for some small aspect of who we are to be beyond commodification. 


  1. GREAT post Brent. That article on IFB prompted me to think as well and the way you write is great! Loved your insight.

  2. I saw the IFB article, and enjoyed your expansion on its premise. Both have given me food for thought about the direction and future of my own blog.

  3. Brent, you continue to impress me with your insight regarding this research study. So well written. This is such an interesting topic, and ironically one that I have been thinking about a lot over the last few months. I feel inundated with street style from every direction and every few months I find myself pondering whether what I am doing is important/needed anymore. Then I stop thinking and just keep enjoying the act of documenting the expression of personal style in this city. I find that I enjoy doing my blog most when I am not in tune with what is popular/trending in the blog world. There are only a few blogs that I keep going back to over the years and all of them maintain one very important thing: Authenticity. I like the sites that I can go to and see something that feels unique to the person presenting it as well as the subject rather than photos that blend in with the masses or feature runway perfection. I can peruse Style.com for that.

    Either way. I think I will just keep doing what I am doing the way that feels right to me till I don't enjoy it anymore or until something else pulls my attention away. Whichever comes first.

  4. Agree with all the commenters above! Insightful commentary as always. I personally don't believe everybody is looking for more insight/depth into the street-style-subject per se. Sites like The Selby/Closet Visit of 'creative, stylish' people almost always fit the norm of mainstream fashion and tells stories of certain kinds of people that can afford good fashion. It's like the depth of magazine interviews gone online. It is much easier to photograph people/things that are already aspirational-looking, rather than reacting to how a person looks and photographing them to look aspirational.

    You know how they always tell personal style bloggers to 'develop their voice' yadi yadi yada, I feel like it is similar for street style bloggers in a sense, even those that do not write anything (like us). For your images to translate the certain vision you are trying to say, because in the end, we are curating and not documenting. But with street style it is also harder because we have to source the people to 'fit' our vision of good style (and diversity) and with what the streets present, it is easier to get caught up in what is easier to take photos of - the pretty hipster girl, or someone you reacted to but you know instinctively it will be difficult to make a good photograph with them. I'm sick of a lot of too-perfect street style imagery myself but it's hard not to take the same kind of pictures with the same kind of look over and over again.

    It's been somewhat useful for me to start thinking of the photos we take as 'street portraits', which is related to street style but also to street photography, where you're looking for interesting characters or just people you instinctively react to (whether by their face, a gesture, or gait), and that's the feeling that I try to go on these days. It also reminds me of the more 'grassroots', non-fashiony side of style on the streets.

    So sorry if all that didn't make much sense. End ramblings now!

  5. Thanks all for your lovely comments! Lots to think about in there. Will definitely help push this project forward.


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