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.

Off-the-Runway

It was about a month into the new semester –right about the time you settle into a nice, mundane cycle that basically illustrates the entirety of the next three months of your life. Work, class, work, class. Eat, sleep, eat, sleep. You get the picture.

Oh, the thrill of a student in New York City.

You can understand my excitement when I was offered free tickets to the “Tokyo Runway Meets New York” fashion show courtesy of MTV (read: cousin who works there).

Yes, the perks of having a cousin work at Viacom.

So on the morning of the 19th, after my coffee and bagel, my cousins and I giddily made our way up to the iconic home of New York Fashion Week. Thirty-seven pictures in front of the Lincoln Center later, we walked in and awkwardly stated, “Hi, we’re here with MTV. Where do we do go?” Security pulled us to the front of the line (I must sadly admit that I momentarily enjoyed the pretensions and exclusivity so deliberately fostered in this culture), and two minutes later we were thrown into the hustle-and-bustle of 6-inch stilettos and over-accessorized attendees.

Everyone there had something going on…and lots of it. I was feeling particularly underdressed in my basic head-to-toe black outfit and chunky statement necklace. I mean I knew Japanese fashion could be a little over the top, but fishnet everything and neon hair were eye-catching to say the least.

Come on, even the dogs there were more photo-op ready than I was.

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It was about twenty minutes before the show was started, so all the attendees were lounging in the main area sipping on their green juice, signing up for their free styling at the TRESemme booth, and posing in every corner of the room for the perfect Instagram shot. I mentally thought to myself why every morning of my life couldn’t start like this; though, quickly realizing I have classes, a job and a long list of responsibilities that I can’t help but prioritize.

Because who actually has the time to frolic about a fashion show at 11 am on a Thursday morning, really?

This one woman who “left the children with the nanny” (I quickly overheard) had on a huge pair of (kinda obnoxious) red Prada sunglasses, a leather jacket under a fur coat, and black thigh-high Stuart Weitzman boots that were “oh my god…on sale for only $499”.

Oh, that’s who.

I suddenly felt very conscious of my $30 Zara Necklace and Lucky Brand Jeans that were on sale for a whopping $49.99. Fashion theorist, Fred Davis stated in an article, “In this age of heightened self-consciousness…that the clothes we wear make a statement is itself a statement” (1). He discusses how what we wear, or who we wear, is indicative to particular signs in society, such as economic wealth or social status. The people who are rich enough and have enough time to attend to their upkeep demonstrate this through things, such as, their distinguished mannerisms, expensive hobbies, or personal adornment.

The fact that some people have the time and money to attend and dress the part for a fashion show is demonstrative of what Thorstein Veblen calls “conspicuous leisure” –basically time to kill because you’re not spending it working or at class or attending to your other responsibilities. He writes that this leisure comes “from a sense of the unworthiness of productive work, and as an evidence of pecuniary ability to afford a life of idleness” that can be better spent say shopping or as he likes to put it: “the vicarious consumption of goods” (28-29, 43). To be conspicuous whether that is with one’s time or one’s consumption is a leisure only afforded by the wealthy.

Once seated, I took the moment to scan my neighbors and fellow attendees. You could tell everyone took the extra minute to be fashionably conscious today. People look to separate themselves (whether that is subconsciously done or not) in how they dress, make a statement that they are different or even that they are of a particular social group. We take this “aesthetic act” of dress, and by comparison of others in a social context use it to express, define and evaluate. Mary Ellen Roach and Joanne Bubolz Eicher say that personal adornment can express or indicate mood, individualism, social role/worth, economic status, political stance, religious stance, values, etc. There was so much going on off the runway that the event setting itself served as a spectacle.

(To see what was actually going on the runway: http://tokyo-runway.com/ny/report/)
Next to me, in the third row, were the Michael Kors’ Jetsetters, Coach booties, staple Louis Vuitton totes, and cookie-cutter button-down and skinny jeans of the bunch. But in the front row, that is where the action was. There was everything from seven-piece herringbone suits to classic designer dresses to high-class street style. Clearly adept to the fashion scene, these front-rowers knew what they were wearing and they were wearing it to their liking, their personally developed taste. Pierre Bourdieu, French intellect, states that taste is something learned, refined and acquired. It is a conscious effort manifesting from knowledge of the art. He writes, “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly…quality and quantity, [and] substance and form” (6). This thus classifies the classifiers as having the knowledge of good taste and representing that knowledge through their dress. It distinguishes themselves as the elite of the fashion world, if you will –those apart from who are subject to simply following the crowd.

Interestingly enough, at the fashion show, where one is used to seeing these front-rowers wearing looks way too expensive for normal people to afford right of the runway, I was surprised to see the musical duo Nervo in quintessential “street style”.

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It almost looked cooler that they didn’t just throw on a pretty, pink designer dress and expensive heels. Sorry Che’nelle. Instead of sticking to the unwritten semi-formal rule that these events tend to entail, they broke the boundaries with an oddly acceptable casual look. But this could not have been done with a merely casual look off the street. Your combat boots and plain white tee weren’t going to do it. Their aesthetic from their hair to their makeup to their printed leggings and mid-drift bearing outfits was deliberate and stylishly appropriate to the concept of the “Tokyo Runway”. It was a dressed-up enough dressed-down look to be considered acceptable and fitting to the event.

But, once again, I do not believe this breaking of “such conscious use of dress” as the rule to evoke a particular mood as is done in “particular social event[s] or occasion[s]” could have been done by just anyone (Roach and Eicher, 111). Being a celebrated musical sister duo known for their eccentric subcultural tendencies in both their music and fashion styles, they have attained enough cultural capital to make this subtle power play. Cultural capital, as explained by Bourdieu, is a non-financial wealth and respect gained by one’s personal expertise, knowledge or involvement. Though not solely based on the politics, I believe it was more easily digested coming from celebrities who have already garnered a following and traction in the media.

Although this dressed-up dressed-down look is not completely unheard of in fashion scenes with the growing love of street-style, society still does not consider it the norm. Nervo’s style embodied a look that was much more retro and “street” than Song of Style’s camel Max Mara coat over her biker jacket and suede over-the-knee Stuart Weitzman boots. Sound familiar? (Check out Song of Style’s outfit on her blog: http://www.songofstyle.com/2015/02/camel-coat-suede-knee-boots-nyfw.html) Liv and Miriam Nervo are relatively “early-adopters” of this trend, perhaps making them (and I say this in the least offensive way possible because evidently it’s connotations have deemed it offensive) what Heidi Khaled, author of “The Enduring, Insufferable Hipster”, calls “hipsters”. Khaled writes that “hipsterdom is the first ‘counterculture’ to be born under the advertising industry’s microscope…[it] is about stuff…a natural byproduct of a consumption-obsessed culture” (4). The hipster culture, or even the current youth generation as a whole, chooses to express their identities through aesthetic presentation and particular, adopted lifestyles. They “represent critiques of the blind pursuit of consumer trends, of overwhelming homogeneity, and of the inauthenticity that is thought to characterize contemporary life” (6). In simpler terms, hipsters actively work against the norms in society and mainstream culture. Considering this, we can call the Nervo sisters in relation to the normal social scene at fashion shows “hipsters”.

In her article, Khaled references Mark Grief, author of The New York Times article “The Hipster in the Mirror”, in which he mentions that it was Pierre Bourdieu’s “life work to debunk the powerful classes’ pretensions that they were more deserving of authority or wealth than those below” as expressed in his 1979 masterpiece “Distinction”. So perhaps these hipsters are more than their superficial image of “first adopters of novelties [whose] pride comes from knowing, and deciding, what’s cool in advance of the rest of the world”. Maybe, they are little Bourdieu-ians embodying his efforts to break these societal distinctions and feelings of elitism amidst their collective efforts “to generate a superior body of cultural ‘cool’” (Grief 2-3). (To read more on hipsters by Mark Grief, check out his NYTimes article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/books/review/Greif-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0).

Could society have been wrong in calling hipsters a superficial group of Millennials unattached to any sociopolitical drive and only concerned with rebelling for the sake of rebelling? Are hipsters more than their awkwardly cut beards and Pabst beers? Could hipsterdom have been the ultimate social movement that slipped right underneath the world’s nose –now too saturated into society to rewind?

Wait a minute, if hipsters have now become saturated to the point of a subculture of mainstream-esque quality…is hipsterdom, in essence, still hipster?

Works Cited:
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984. Print.

Davis, Fred. Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion? Fashion Theory: A Reader. By Malcolm Barnard. London: Routledge, 2007. 148-58. Print.

Greif, Mark. “The Hipster in the Mirror.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 Nov. 2010. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.

Khaled, Heidi. The Enduring, Insufferable Hipster: Popular Critiques of Art, Commerce and Authenticity Through the Ages. N.p.: n.p., 2012. Print.

Roach, Mary E., and Joanne B. Eicher. The Language of Personal Adornment. Fashion Theory: A Reader. By Malcolm Barnard. London: Routledge, 2007. N. pag. Print.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Dover Publications, n.d. Print.