UNA TESIS EN FASHION STUDIES

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Comparto la introducción de mi tesis en Fashion Studies The Digital Fashion Gaze.

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INTRODUCTION

No organ is more promiscuous than the eye, and no appetite more insatiable than the hunger to look.  -Guy Trebay

Fashion is a language of images, a sphere of pictures in which clothes adorn the human body. The woman in striking attire passing us by on the sidewalk; the model swaying her slim corporality on the runway; the frozen vision of mixed and matched separate pieces on the lustrous page of the magazine; the female in trendy ensemble smiling from the computer or the telephone screen. These images are defined by the way they are looked at. As a visual idiom, fashion both shapes and is shaped by ways of seeing; modes of perception that are continuously subject to context. This act, of looking at clothes, is shaped by the ways in which they are visually represented.

We are, according to Anne Hollander, “a picture-making civilization”; perpetually moved by the “visual need to see the human world, both known and imagined, in the form of life-like images.”[1] In Seeing Through Clothes, Hollander developed a theory of looking based on the power that images have in relation to clothing. Clothes, she reasons, are best understood through the medium of visual convention. It is the ‘alchemy of visual representation’ that defines fashionable dress in a certain time or period. The most significant aspect of clothing is, in Hollander´s terms, the way it looks and this depends not on matters of design or manufacture, but on how clothes are actually perceived visually.

Consequently, it is the style of pictorial representation that governs an epoch’s ideas of fashionable dress. Using this logic, visual need is actually stronger than practical demand. What is fashionable in clothes conforms to a pictorial ideal. And this ideal perception is accomplished through the images offered by representational artists. Fashion, then, is controlled by a ‘visual truth.’

When Hollander was writing, in the late 1970s, photography and cinema were already the most common medium for figurative art; “camera vision”, she pronounced, had become “the ultimate reference for everyone’s sense of visual truth.”[2] But Hollander, as a historian, was also trying to demonstrate that the history of Western art is filled with representations of clothed human figures and that changes in fashion were predominantly of visual nature. The ways clothes look and the way these looks change, at any given time, is made clear through the ways in which they are pictorially represented. Dressing is, she says, always picture-making, with reference to the form of imagery that is predominant in a specific time frame. Hence, the effect the garment may have on the body is pleasing because it resembles and concords with a contemporary pictorial ideal. This ideal derives from pictures of humans wearing clothes. Consequently, bodily movement and aesthetic self-composition tend to conform to mental self-images that are always partly conceived with the help of other (external) images.

Whether these images be paintings, drawings, prints, photographs or the moving pictures of the cinema varies according to context; but they can all be a common notion of visual reality, a common vision which shapes the way people dress and perceive what is fashionable. For Hollander, art has continually monitored the perception of clothes.

The nature of visual imagery, however, is transformed by time. In nineteenth-century Paris, clothes were likely to be seen on oil-painted canvases; the period’s dominating pictorial convention as well as in prints. Fashionable women were rendered through the gaze of Impressionist artists who were taking note of fashionability as a way of being modern as the recent exhibition, Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art demonstrated.[3] The exhibit, in which Impressionist paintings render the details of fashionable dress in French women of the period, for example, highlighted the way fashion was a crucial subject matter for painters in late nineteenth-century Paris.  In the 1930s, the black and white moving images of cinema were a common place in which to see glamorous lamé and timely silhouettes, steered by a star system that was already exploiting advertorial tie-ins to film. Today, as we inhabit a realm of digital experience, the perceptions of dress have come to be affected by the constantly in-flux, instantly accessible, high-definition images of digital technologies. Fashionable dress is often viewed on computer and telephone screens, rather than on paintings or in film.

This thesis argues that pictorial representations of fashion today are found in digital imagery: in the images of street style photography, personal style blogs and, most recently, Instagram streams. Both the blogosphere and portable phones have enabled a distinct gateway into fashion, creating a virtual sphere dominated by immediacy and stripped of the constraints of spatiality. Both contain images that simultaneously shape and are shaped by a time where fashion has grown ever more decentered and democratized or accessible as image. In the past few years, these mediums have also developed a visual language of their own, generating stylistic tropes that have trained the gaze of those who heed these technologies – tropes that, in our contemporary “visual alchemy” have become “naturalized” and have affected how people style themselves. These remain scarcely examined by the academy.

For the past seven years, I have been observing how these digital technologies unfold, seeing how they have crept into the world of fashion. In 2006, still living in a Latin American country with a fashion culture in the making, I discovered I could see the fashionable creatures of Paris, Copenhagen or New York, at any moment, on my computer screen. Two years later, during my first stints as a fashion writer, living in Buenos Aires, I became acquainted with the now globally recognized phenomenon of young women who dared to become their own arbiters of style by sharing, on a daily basis, detailed and visual accounts of their sartorial individualities. As an established fashion critic in my home country, Colombia, I also witnessed the ways in which the Internet began to penetrate urban, sartorial, everyday habits. My persistent interest in what these images signify for the “spirit” of our times and the effects they have on contemporary subjectivity have often propelled solitary moments of inspection as well as journalistic pursuits.

In my trajectory within the field of fashion studies, I often feel the urge to create pathways between the theoretical and the contemporary. This perhaps explains why, during my first encounter with Hollander, my initial urge was to find homologous pictorial conventions between the contexts she analyzed and the fashion-frantic world we live in today. This led, initially, to a timid analysis of interesting similarities between personal style blogs and eighteenth-century French fashion plates. My everyday observations of these images constantly spark musings on what they reflect of the time we are living in and what they signify for contemporary femininity.

Hence, this thesis, predominantly inspired by Hollander, aims to dissect how we see a fashion moment through current pictorial – digital – representations. In this context, the “fashion moment” is singled out as a very specific time frame: digital images produced from 2012-2013. It uses three forms of digital fashion representations: street-style photography, personal style blogs and Instagram. It focuses on the work of Tommy Ton, Adam Katz and Carola de Armas. In order to limit my scope of analysis, I view their street-style photography set around the major shows during the biannual fashion week circuit, where these three photographers are driven every season to capture their subjects. It includes the images created by three personal style bloggers: an Italian, a Parisian and a New Yorker: Chiara Feragni, from The Blonde Salad,; Alix Bancourt, from The Cherry Blossom Girl; and Leandra Medine, from Man Repeller. I have selected four images from each of the women’s blogs for analysis. Finally, it also includes Instagram, one of the latest additions to digital technologies; a visual-driven realm taking place on the surface of compact iPhone screens, with flows of images vertiginously being replenished by the minute, where contemporary fashion brands, designers, stylists and insiders have found a fitting platform for the quickened paces of current fashion.

Using a visual semiotic approach, I look at the images of street style photography, personal style blogs and Instagram in order to trace differences and similarities, searching and defining invariant visual features and connecting these to a mixed body of theories from diverse disciplines. This range embraces both fashion and media studies, anthropological consumption, feminist philosophy, cultural theory and postmodern assessments of fashion. I connect differences and similarities to literature on digital media and the impact it has had on the aesthetics of fashion. I touch upon the ways in which digital technologies have also enabled transformations of vision, new ways of subjectivity and distinctive ways of looking. A wider theme that runs through my research is the feminine ideal and gaze as rendered in the images.

A digital fashion image might reveal a high-definition close-up of a female torso, while describing the mixture of pattern and color in her blouse and jacket; the particular way her hand clasps a candy-hued clutch. Headless women appear standing against an abstract urban backdrop, their bodies clothed in unexpected, clashing, yet harmonic colorful prints. Or frontal head-to-toe shots will show a glowing female, dressed in contrasting patterns of plaid, a boxy jacket placed carefully over her shoulders. The aim of these tropes is to show detail in composition, to allow the observer to look at every single element that composes a contemporary fashionable look. There are photographs of legs caught in movement, going somewhere, feet pushed upwards in arresting shoes – in lustful coral red or with heels in the whimsical shape of the Eiffel Tower. These are objectified images comparable to movie posters, stills, and cinematographic scenes, already examined by feminist theorists. These digital images are interrogated throughout, using a variety of theoretical frameworks. Through them, I unpack themes of zeitgeist, subjectivity, hypermodernity, consumerism, the communication of fashionable self, vision and self-knowledge, an aesthetic of ephemerality, rhizomatic time, eclecticism and contemporary ideals of femininity, also questioning the waves of feminist theory and where this places feminist ideology today.

Hollander argued that the visual language developed by fashion photography came to ape the look of snapshots, and that ‘modern visual taste’ came to be grounded on instantaneity.[4] This thesis draws on this notion in order to speak of a ‘hypermodern visual taste’, shaped in and by digital images. Hypermodernity is the term utilized and coined by French philosopher Giles Lipovetsky in Hypermodern Times, a 2005 essay that meant to actualize the dated concept of postmodernism. In short, hypermodernity is a societal status in which freedom and individuality predominate. Within this context, there is an important emphasis on the values and developments of new technologies of information. Hypermodernity is also a context in which norms are imposed by choice; it is also about the realm of the spectacle, where ideological discourses have been taken over by the logic of fashion and where there is a multiplication of subjective viewpoints and singularities; stances that, according to Lipovetsky, are not necessarily defined by creativity or reflectivity, but by flexibility and variety.

These elements, described by Lipovetsky, combine with another form of diversity: stylistic eclecticism, a feature commonly attributed to postmodernity. This combination creates a temporal framework for the developments of subjectivity and perception of dress through digital imagery. Eclecticism is a recurring theme in the images of street-style photography that render a contemporary fashionable ideal; it is also common ground in the self-representations of personal style bloggers and often stands as a trait of contemporary fashionability, a virtue in stylistic or sartorial creativity and audacity. I am defining eclecticism as a style in which things that are not usually combined can go together, where contrary elements can display a harmonic, fashionable whole. This eclecticism, I argue, is exaggerated by a digital fashion context. It can be visible within a single outfit, but also in the ability to style oneself differently on a daily basis. Fashionability today celebrates variety in guises; hence, a woman can look edgy one day and ladylike the next, or she can combine both references in a single ensemble.

A subjectivity tied to eclectism, has a lot to do with time and space. In a hypermodern context, a setting where digital technologies have created instantaneous access to information, communication and images, the experience of time and space has been dramatically compressed, reduced in such a way that it has also had an effect on the temporality of fashion. Fashion cycles have been radically condensed, recycling has speeded up, novelty has become an arduous endeavor, and the traditional logic of fashion – the logic of replacement, the voracious pursuit of the new – has been redefined by a logic of accumulation (or supplementation)[5]. The old and the new exist side by side; stylistic multiplicity proliferates, and no single style has been able to completely dominate the field of fashion since the 1960s. Instead, the fashion landscape has become increasingly polymorphic, with no style being more in fashion than the other, but with multiple styles overlapping each other instead. In this context, all styles enjoy a general contemporaneity. This heterogeneity, which validates virtually any style, regardless of the cycle or season, is also defined here as eclecticism. This eclecticism in fashion and aesthetic expression also remits to Lipovetsky’s idea on the multiplication of subjective viewpoints that is characteristic of hypermodernity.

Themes of consumption are also vital to this analysis. Fashion is conventionally known for its pursuit of novelty and untiring renewal. Fashionability usually implies the quick, voracious replacement and renovation of commodities. Modern consumption, in this sense, places high value on an aesthetic of ephemerality. In this theoretical context, consumption can be related to Lipovetsky’s concept of hyperconsumerism. The most notorious difference between postmodernity and hypermodernity is the experience of time it creates. In this sense, hyperconsumerism is the urge to revivify time through the renewal of commodities, a practice that exacerbates the logic of replacement already intrinsic to fashion.

Digital images, created within a hypermodern context, are propelled by this logic of replacement, as the blogosphere and the ever-changing flux of images on Instagram, for example, are constantly being replenished by new images, posts, links and virtual texts. Hence, in a hypermodern context, where the logic of fashion is ubiquitous, digital technologies both reflect and configure a dynamic of continuous speed and replacement. The way we look at these images, and hence the way we experience fashion, must have an effect on contemporary perceptions of dress and subjectivity.

This idea that a pictorial practice of representation can coincide with the subject it renders is central to the topic of this thesis. The way fashion is visually represented today through digital images coincides with the reality of the fashion it renders.  Form and subject overlap. Just as the blogosphere mirrors the very logic of fashion, in a similar way, the nature of digital images matches the fleetingness, speed, immediacy, saturation of detail, eclecticism, and narcissism that defines fashion today, and the nature of its everyday life. If fashion is, as described by Hollander, a lot about looking, digital technologies have created their own ways of subjectivity; particular forms of experiencing both time and space; peculiar modes of perception that define what is fashionable today. In a digital context, subjectivity becomes even more dominated by the act of looking. This context brings about a transformation of vision and specific viewing practices. It is possible to see, all through the day, at any moment, from any place, the realm of the Internet, its ever-flowing, constantly relieved streams of images. Digital images of fashion saturate computer and telephone screens. These images stand as our present pictorial representations of fashion. What they say about the visual truth of fashionable dress today is what this thesis aims to further unveil.

In contrast to paintings in an exhibition or to the act of going to the cinema, digital fashion images are stripped of spatial constraints, meaning they can be accessed by virtually anyone who has a computer or a mobile telephone. This gives them a distinctive temporality – they can be viewed anywhere at any time and they are constantly being changed and replaced.  If Impressionist paintings captured the hesitancy and new speeds of urban, late-nineteenth century Paris, digital images reflect the velocity of the digital age; a sense of time that is fluid and fragmented, made of a series of moments that can be encountered in whatever order the person who is looking decides. They also reflect how, today, the pursuit of newness – an intrinsic trait in the traditional logic of fashion – has changed. Whereas newness in fashion used to concentrate around the biannual fashion week circuit, newness is now a permanent present, constantly made visible by the Internet.[6] This shift in the idea of newness feeds eclecticism and the contemporaneity of all styles.

Digital images of fashion, replenished daily and constantly, mediate fashion as something that is always transient, passing and gone.[7] In addition, they crystallize the fact that digital technologies have made it possible for subjects formerly excluded from the fashion system to actively participate as producers of content and representation of fashion. In this context, anyone can not only see but also produce these images. This again can be related to Lipovetsky in what he described as one of hypermodernity’s most defining traits: the vertiginous multiplication of subjective viewpoints. As more people are able to participate in the representation of fashion, subjectivity widens and proliferates. And the fact that newness is being pursued through the replenishment of digital images with an unending pace also connects to Lipovetsky’s ideas of hyperconsumerism, which calls for the renewal of time through commodities.  The temporality created by these digital images creates a way of seeing and experiencing fashion. In this context, fashion feels tangible and proximate because it is so highly accessible as digital image.

The first chapter of this thesis analyzes the digital street-style photography captured outside of the major fashion shows, during the biannual runway circuit. It looks into the ways this genre of street style photography has created ways of looking at fashion; shaping the ways we perceive fashionable dress today. The works of Tommy Ton, Adam Katz and Carola de Armas are analyzed through a visual semiotic approach. I argue that the style of photographic representation in these images blends visual tropes drawn from fashion magazines and conventional concepts of street style. While they give the concept of street style new meaning and visibility, these images demonstrate the way the street, as a backdrop for the articulation of fashion, has shifted within a digital context. Using the concept of ‘remediation’, in which old and new media reshape each other without radically replacing one another, it argues that digital street-style photography transforms our vision of street style, reflecting its digital nature in both form and content. The photographs, which reflect contemporary fashion’s eclecticism, also mirror a fashion that is democratic, not just because of its use of the street, but also because it is highly and speedily accessible as digital image.

In chapter two, I explore the ways we can look at contemporary fashion through the images produced by three personal style bloggers. The phenomenon of personal style blogs, which began developing in the mid 00’s, is now one of the most crucial players in the creation of contemporary fashion discourse and it reflects a fashion landscape where more and more individuals are able to interpret fashion. Because modes of perception are closely linked to subjectivity, this section touches upon ideas of feminine identity formation in a digital, decentralized and democratized fashion context. It explores how personal style bloggers are able to self-represent and exert a control over their image, subverting the traditional so-called “male gaze.” The narcissism and the fundamental role of appearance and commodities in identity formation, however, make control over their portraiture ultimately ambivalent. By analyzing selected posts and images from Chiara Ferragni from theblondesalad, Alix Bancourt from thecherryblossomgirl and Leandra Medine from themanrepeller, it assesses concepts related to the feminine self, self-representation through digital technologies, sartorial variety, the computer and telephone screen as mirrors and the temporality of contemporary fashion. It also looks into how personal fashion blogs remediate visual tropes traditionally found in fashion magazines. Overall, it analyzes a way of looking that clearly reflects subjectivities in a digital fashion context.

The third and concluding section is centered on Instagram and the “hyper-perceptions” of fashion the platform enables. As one of new media’s most recent developments and as one of the fashion industry’s current darlings, Instagram’s technology contains most of the characteristic elements of the general blogosphere – speed, hypertextuality, fluid time, the ongoing, endless replenishment of fashionable goods and images. However, Instagram has taken all of this to an entire different level, by making access and immediacy portable, within the reach of our pockets. This is because Instagram can only fully operate via iPhones or iPads. Most of the visual tropes developed by both street style blogs and personal style blogs are found within the domains of Instagram, but they are all taken into new levels of speed and immediacy. Ultimately, I argue that Instagram is an evolution of the developments of new media in the past few years and that, as a pictorial style of representation, it offers imagery that matches with astounding precision the current logic of contemporary fashion. Research and analysis here have discovered that the digital fashion gaze can be considered a female gaze; with visual tropes that resort to details in order to visually and accurately scrutinize clothes and styles. This “female gaze”, however, is not exempt from the narcissism, consumerism and the definition of self through appearance, thus reflecting the ambivalence of contemporary femininity within current fashion.

This thesis is ultimately about the ways we look at clothes through digital images. And the ways in which clothes are represented through these images has to do with wider contexts of the contemporary landscape they are set in: subjectivity, consumption, temporality and aesthetic values. Through these images, albeit an admittedly and necessarily extremely limited selection, I attempt to unveil our hypermodern, digital pictorial ideal of fashion today.


[1] Anne, Hollander. Seeing Through Clothes (New York: Viking Press, 1978).

[2] Hollander, 338.

[3] Gloria, Groom, Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity. (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2012).

[4] Hollander, 322.

[5] Lars Svendsen, Fashion: A Philosophy. (London: Reaktion Books, 2006) 31-33

[6] Agnés Rocamora, “Hypertextuality and Remediation in the Fashion Media: The case of fashion blogs”, in Journalism Practice, 6:1 (2012) 97.

[7] Rocamora, 98.

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