the culture and values of social media

Fashion as Participatory Culture

Posted: November 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: internet culture | Tags: , | 1 Comment »

Whenever I start a new project, I end up floundering around, investigating various fields and subfields until things start coalescing. I’m definitely in the floundering stage with this fashion blogger project.

So I’ve been uncovering things that are familiar. One of these areas is copyright law, and the general theories of free/participatory culture. On one hand, we have Johanna Blakely, giving a great TED talk on how the lack of copyright in the fashion industry enhances creativity and innovation.

On the other, we have Scott Hemphill and Jeannie Suk’s article “The Law, Culture, and Economies of Fashion” (Stanford Law Review 61, 2009, available at SSRN here), which argues for greater legal protection of fashion designs.

Hemphill and Suk make a distinction that I really like, that between “differentiation” and “flocking.” They write:

In fashion we observe simultaneously the participation in collective trends and the expression of individuality. Consumers have a taste for trends– that is, for goods that enable them to move in step with other people. But even in fulfilling that taste, they desire goods that differentiate them from other individuals. Fashion goods tend to share a trend component, and also to have features that differentiate them from other goods within the trend.

Hemphill and Suk argue that what should be regulated are direct copies of garments–something where if you squint, you can’t tell the difference between a good. I tend to disagree with this, both in terms of harm (does it really hurt Gucci if Steve Madden knocks off their sandals for $100? They’re not the same customer base) and innovation (hasn’t stopped fashion designers from innovating yet). But in order to make this argument, Hemphill and Suk have to argue against the top-down model of fashion trends.

This argument, which runs throughout a lot of early sociological theories of fashion (e.g. Veblen, Simmel), maintains that fashion is the province of the elites, and the masses try desperately to emulate them. By this logic, allowing copyright protection of specific items of clothing by high-end designers would make it only available to the elites, disadvantaging the masses. By arguing that people don’t want exact copies of things, they want to differentiate themselves within the trend, Hemphill & Suk side-step this argument.

In studying fashion bloggers, I’ve realized that people interact with fashion in a hugely diverse number of ways. This should be one of those academic insights that makes anyone interested in fashion roll their eyes, but often I find in these articles a holistic theory of fashion, which just doesn’t jibe with what I’ve discovered. Some of my interviewees are passionately dedicated to thrift-store or vintage fashion. Some love High-End Designer for Target collections. Some want only couture originals, or the newest “it” shoe the day it’s released on Net A Porter or Nordstrom. Some are into “shopping their closet,” or re-combining stuff they already have to create new looks. Some sew their own clothes. Some are bargain hunters, sharing tips with other fans of a particular store to get their favorite items at the cheapest possible prices.

Does this language sound familiar? It should. It’s the same rhetoric of mashup/remix culture that academics have been writing about for years with regards to “transmedia storytelling,” media properties, music, and film. But what’s interesting is that fashion has ALWAYS been a remix culture. The point of fashion IS the remix. And fashion blogging makes that very, very obvious.


Zoe, one of my interviewees, from Girl with the Flower


Tavi of The Style Rookie


The beautiful Carmen of Closet Case Vintage (another interviewee)

This idea of fashion as the ultimate “culture of copying,” repurposing, re-framing, remixing is something Blakly brings up in her video, above. And unlike things like remixing songs, fashion doesn’t require any special talents. “Style” is an ephemeral quality, and it can certainly be developed and learned (may Bourdieu strike me dead if I imply that “style” is inherent), but it’s practiced by almost anyone interested in clothes, at least a little bit. And it mostly goes unrecorded and unnoticed, which is the appeal of the ‘outfit a day’ fashion blogs: they record and they codify.