The Discipline of Street Style: Is It Really, Still “Street” and What Does That Even Mean?

When you think of “street style”, what do you think? In 2015, I would venture to say our minds drift to someone wearing an ironic graphic tee, black skinny jeans with rips at the knee, a red plaid flannel tied at the waist, Converse, and, maybe a fedora. Or maybe, a comfortable look dressed up with heels? Or a more dressed up look toned down with sneakers. Something like this:

There are a wide variety of images that fit under that umbrella of street style, and the variety we see is only subject to our generation. This could have been street style from the 70s:

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What I am trying to say it, is that it is largely interpretational in nature, so how did it get to a place where we can get a classroom of 20-something people to agree on a rather specific look that is “street style”?

Street style is a relatively recent phenomenon in the fashion world that has been slowly taking over the industry in various aspects. It has largely influenced content of fashion magazines, the “blogosphere”, and self-proclaimed fashionistas in major metropolitan areas all over the world. The concept of street style is, literally, style originating from the streets (not the catwalk or Vogue though it often ends up there). But more and more with the growth of its popularity, fashion blogs, and ideals of individual uniqueness, street style has become disciplined into something that is more “mainstream”, more identifiable. As there is no set definition of ‘street style’, let’s keep in mind its most literal interpretation and examine it as it evolves in this text. We will discuss the concept of discipline, as defined as a deliberated consciousness of one’s actions and being for the beneficial purposes of adhering to societal rules and expectations, as it relates to the fashion of street style*. This is not to be read as a criticism of street style but merely a confounding, controversial observation of the simultaneously conscious and unconscious nature demonstrated in fashion and society.

*Although in relation to something entirely different, Judith Butler mentions that certain things are a performance (so for the sake of this paper let us say that style is a performance), and that when people act out line with norms of this performance, it brings negative consequences thus persuading the performer to abide to the societal rules and expectations for beneficial purposes. This is how she helped me define “discipline”. 

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The mere creation of the term “street style” was the start to disciplining this particular type of fashion. Historically, street style was simply the observed styling and fashion of “real” individuals on the streets. It seemed to be a generalized description of the unique dress of youths and the subcultures they identified with. But as it is human nature to classify and allocate titles to all things ambiguous, this phenomenon was molded into a category of the fashion conversation by sociocultural influencers of the industry, such as, large magazines. The sole fact that there is now a specific way of addressing this suggests society’s conscious deliberation of an increasingly popularized act. But the problem with labeling anything is that it automatically sets it up for limitations of its interpretation. Foucault writes, “discipline sometimes requires enclosure, the specification of a place heterogeneous to all others and closed in upon itself. It is the protected place of disciplinary monotony…[a] ‘confinement’” (141). “Street Style” was now subject to deliberate and conscious social constructions by all those who took part in it –consequently, confining it to the active constructions of what is is and is not by public documentation. The construction of the term “street style” and its subsequent usages in the industry disciplined the connotations of the word from its literal definition to something entirely different: an eclectic genre of fashion that seemed to idealize this informal style of dress.

That is not to say that street style is now entirely confined to those specific type of outfits, but it was no longer that pure observation of style curated by individuals on the street. It became more of an unspoken, conscious performance by fashion people purposefully for the viewing and documentation by those in the fashion realm– whether that is street style photographers, magazine editors, or consumers. Even though street style fashion photographers do not make the outfits and rather simply snap “photographs of stylish people…on the street”, arguably making it one of the most authentic and least disciplined mediums through which street style can be presented, they still partake in a process of conscious deliberation (Marwick 6). They consciously or unconsciously filter all the outfits they see and photograph only the ones they think fit the street style image, are cool enough or worthy enough to document, and match the expectations and standards of the platform they intend to publish it on. Because, you see, even street style fashion photographers have a reputation to keep. French theorist, Pierre Bourdieu, discusses this concept as social or cultural capital, which basically is the resulting power or social influence one has because of their knowledge or expertise in a given cultural subject. Wikipedia more clearly defines the two as: “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” and “forms of knowledge, skills, education, and advantages that a person has, which give them a higher status in society”, respectively.

Scott Schumann, who runs The Sartorialist, is one of the most prominent street style photographers in the industry. He is known for travelling the world and photographing street style, among other things, from all cultures and across all demographics. Schumann’s particular style of photography, I feel like should belong in The National Geographic if they had a fashion vertical.
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He is very good about capturing fashionable aspects in an organic setting that attracts so many people to his blog. Now when people do read his blog their concept of street style is influenced by his. And it is that readership, that social influence that results in the beneficial and necessary cultural capital to participate in the conscious curation of what is sartorial, what is fashionable, what is “street style”.

But this particular type of currency seems to work both ways in the photographer -subject relationship. The photographer needs that resulting reputation in order to display his works in a place that it will be seen by many (granted that is his goal), or there is the case in which the photographer has so much sociocultural backing that the opportunity to be photographed by him is the subject’s motivation of dress. For example, in a documentary of Bill Cunningham, basically the father of documented street style, Anna Wintour, Vogue magazine’s long-term editor-in-chief goes so far as to say that, “we all dress for Bill”. This is another way in which this relationship dynamic embodies “discipline” in that the subject makes the conscious effort to dress in a particular way that appeals to the photographer’s codes for the benefit of (1) being captured by the Bill Cunningham or (2) being featured in the style section of The New York Times.

Screenshot 2015-05-07 at 1.42.50 PMIn the case of the subject, he or she also has to have enough displayed cultural capital, or taste, for a photographer to want to photograph them. Taste as discussed by Bourdieu in “Distinction” (in the unobjective and socially constructed connotation of good taste type of way), is essentially the acquired competence and preference of understanding and appreciating “high art” developed by one’s social “upbringing and education” (1). We can see a lot of this happening during fashion-conscious seasons or events, such as Fashion Week.
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There are several things going on here that illustrate my definition of discipline: (1) the subject’s conscious choice of dress to adhere to the socially constructed image of “street style”, (2) the benefits of being photographed and thus portrayed as “tasteful” in society, (3) the cultural or social capital she is to earn from the fact that her picture was taken at a fashion event (Seoul Fashion Week) because people liked (read: socially approved of) the way she dressed.

The interesting thing is that now with the rise of mass, social media and the desire for more “authentic”, unbiased interpretations of fashion (similar to what street style originally embodied), there was a production of an entire profession surrounding just that. In a study titled, “Conspicuous and Authentic: Fashion Blogs, Style, and Consumption”, author Alice Marwick discusses the occupation and lifestyle of fashion bloggers. She writes, “Fashion blogging is an international subculture comprised primarily of young women who post pictures of themselves”, “their outfits”, “swap fashion tips…and review couture collections” (1-5). They are “real women” who “dress specifically to display their acts of consumption to a networked audience” who are drawn in by their “skill of styling”. They are simultaneously consumers and producers in that they must participate in consumption in order to produce the content for their blogs (5-11). And in a society where there is a build up of skepticism surrounding the Internet, fashion bloggers are commended for being more authentic, “transparent…[and] unbiased purveyors of informations and commentary” (Marwick + Duffy 1).

The ironic thing about this is that with their increased popularity in part due their authenticity, it creates a following for their “international subculture” and thus “inspires” consumers to dress like them. But when you have fashion bloggers with 2.1 million followers on Instagram, you’ve got a lot of people inspired by one person attempting to be authentic and accepted in their styles and dress. Thus the authentic, street style of that one fashion blogger is suddenly the “authentic, street style” of 2.1 million other fashion consumers, disciplining 2.1 million interpretations of “street style” to essentially one. So fashion bloggers, as incredible a source of individual fashion inspiration they are, also have a tendency to create popular trends in “street style” thus disciplining the free nature of styles on street.

As their desirability and sociocultural capital increased, some fashion bloggers gained large followings and became something of a “micro-celebrity” in which they often involved themselves in what Marwick and Duffy call “life-streaming” (5). If you follow any fashion blogger, you know that they don’t just post pictures of the #OOTD (outfit of the day) but of everything they do and eat throughout the day –making sure that whatever they capture is positioned in an appealing way, in good lighting, and edited to perfection for their Instagram accounts.

Clothes Encounters:
Screenshot 2015-05-07 at 3.13.14 PMThe Blonde Salad: 
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Although known for two very different aesthetics, prominent fashion bloggers Jenn Im (Clothes Encounters) and Chiara Ferragni (The Blonde Salad) participate in that “life-streaming” aspect by posting pictures of their meals, their travels, the events they went to, their friends, that they went biking or went to Coachella, etc. From these snapshots of their Instagram accounts we can see that they post so much more than their outfits and that’s what makes them more interesting and relatable sources of fashion inspiration then magazines. But one cannot simply be a fashion blogger, you must work to embody the entire lifestyle of one. First off, one would need the financial and timely leisure to maintain a blog based on consumerism, as well as, the cultural knowledge and expertise of the written content. But as they become the image and face of their brand, they are expected to upkeep that aesthetic of their physical bodies; face and make up; style and dress; and the extravagant lifestyle demonstrated through the Sunday brunches, fancy dinners, exotic travels, frequent shopping trips and the hottest parties in an effortless manner. In “Modeling Consumption”, Elizabeth Wissinger describes a similar occurrence in the modeling profession because of how they commodify themselves as “forms of aesthetic, entrepreneurial, and immaterial labor” (273). The professions of both models and fashion bloggers make it that their entire lifestyles are a huge part of their labor because their presented lifestyles are a representation of themselves, their image and that reflects on the brand they are the face of (even if it that brand is themselves or their blogs). Thus the entire lifestyle of a blogger is a discipline. Their entire actions and the resulting creation of their being, their lifestyle, their brand is a constant effort that appeals to societal rules, expectations and standards. And despite the horrible work-life balance they must probably have, the benefits of doing this is their success as a brand (and the obvious cultural, economic, and social benefits that follow in that).

But to once again bring fashion bloggers back to street style, I would just quickly like to mention that they also partake in the same form of discipline as the aforementioned street style photographers in that they curate and publish outfits for the mass audience to see, interpret and digest. I think Foucault would say that both entities seem to enclose the representation of street style actually on the streets to an Instagram-worthy ideal this fashion genre. Although, they seem to do so to be in line with the workings of our capitalistic society.

Works Cited:
Bourdieu, Pierre. Introduction. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge. (1984): N. pag. Print.

Butler, Judith. “Chapter 20: Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. By Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina. Barale, and David M. Halperin. New York: Routledge, 1993. 307-20

Foucault, Michel. “Docile Bodies.” Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Print.

Marwick, Alice. “Conspicuous and Authentic: Fashion Blogs, Style, and Consumption.” International Communication Association annual conference, Boston, MA, 2011. Print.

Marwick, Alice, and Brooke E. Duffy. “Podcast and Dialogue: With Alice Marwick and Brooke Duffy.” Culture Digitally RSS. N.p., 26 Mar. 2013. Web.

Wissinger, E. “Modeling Consumption: Fashion Modeling Work in Contemporary Society.” Journal of Consumer Culture 9.2 (2009): 273-96. Web.

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