hugo :: brainstorms in sociable media (mas.961 '03)
"only as an æsthetic phenomenon is
existence and the world justified"

- nietzsche


emotus ponens picture

::: fashion and deception:::
Fashion is made to become unfashionable. - Coco Chanel
It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. -Oscar Wilde


The Fashion Litmus Test for Identity

In the physical world and in the online world, fashion speaks volumes about a person's identity. Contrary to popular belief, fashion does not exist for the benefit of allowing people to better express themselves. It's more important function is to communicate a person's social eptness. Fashion is always rapidly changing for a reason. If you want to communicate to others that you are en vogue, you have to expend the money, energy, and effort to keep up. Fashion, or style, to be more specific, is a highly regarded, high quality, assessment signal. It's almost foolproofness makes it an easy rite-of-passage litmus test for entrance into any social scene or online community. From my own analysis, there seems to be five levels of fashionability, each forming an identity: the avant garde creators, the trendy early adopters, the pop consumers, the ignorant, and the classy timeless.

Fashion is born in the hands of a few -- these are the avant garde artists and visionaries who think about the last best thing, listen to the lessons of history, and create the next best thing. they choose new cultures to highlight, or old cultures to reinterpret. They have keen insight into what the collective soul of the world is hungry for. The new fashion they create is not just the physical garment, car, or new webpage aesthetic...the new fashion is the new product plus a provocative tale, told explicitly or implied in the hunger of the soul of the world, about why this is the next best thing. The provocative tale, told from the mouths of these oft-worshipped fashion oracles, is how the new product gets anointed its meaningfulness. Once the new product is borne into the world, it's meaningfulness is perverted over time, and eventually, lost. Measuring the point along this lifecycle at which a person consumes a particular product allows us to learn about the nature of their style and identity. These avant garde creators are easy to identify. They are celebrities who start trends, fashion designers, car designers, philosophers, artists. But even some "regular" people can fall into this category. People who buck the trends and start their own, albeit, necessarily very aesthetic and timely, trends. It's important to stress that not everyone who bucks the trend is an avant garde. What separates a visionary from a confused person is that the style of the visionary is a refreshing unanticipated aesthetic, while the confused person's style will be filled with inconsistencies and offensive vulgarities. It is very easy to detect an offense or inconsistency in fashion. This is what affords fashion with its foolproofness as a high-quality assessment signal.

After the avant garde creators have given birth to a new product, it is the trendy early adopters who take the torch. I'm not using trendy in the pejorative sense which misnomerously refers to pop-ish posers. It is very easy for a discerning person to decide if a person is genuinely trendy, or engaged in deception. Take for example, a girl who owns a louis vitton bag because she believes that it catapults her into a higher social strata. Unfortunately for her, she picks an extremely flashy gold monogram bag. Little does she know, that these flashy pieces are the most difficult to "pull off". You have to complement it with the right wardrobe, hairstyle, culture, and attitudes. For her, she has none of these necessary qualities and it becomes painfully obvious that she is posing. Posing is easy to detect, because there is usually something out-of-place or vulgar about a person's use of a purportedly fashionable product. In the online world, it is just as easy to tell if someone is posing. Lowercase, graphical minimalism, novel use of punctuation, and rich color schemes are all fashion trends of the online world. But these trends are aesthetics. When used inappropriately, or when their use is inconsistent with other cues the person gives off, it is easy to detect posing. Subtle color differences of just a few degrees can tip someone off that there is something "fishy" about a person's purported fashionability. But I disgress. The real trendy early adopters genuinely appreciate the new products bequeathed to them. Only genuine connoisseurship ensures that a fashionable product will be used appropriately and without vulgarity, and in only the right contexts.

Up through the trendy early adopters, the provocative stories of the creators are somewhat intact. These stories are what bridge the inherent symbolic meaning of an object with its newly coined fashion-based meaningfulness. There is evidence of a good faith transfer of these stories to the early adopters. Store employees at diesel style lab, for example, are well-versed in the creational stories motivating each season's collection, and enthusiastically relate these stories to their customers. By the time a sufficient quorum of early adopters have taken a liking to a product, pop fashion's attention is caught. This is as true of the online world as of the physical. In the physical world, celebrities and hipsters attract the attention of the popular media. In the online world, hipsters and hipster communities attract the attention of some very good trendspotter journalists. Once in the media limelight, the commercial industry tries to replicate and further disseminate the product. In the process, the product loses its story, it's intended meaning, and all the care that was put into the original idea and original product. The product becomes dilluted as more and more pop consumers misuse and vulgarize the product. It is easy to spot a popster by their fashion. They are sporting or doing whatever is already in the popular media, such as mtv. They consume products without as much care as to its origin. Also, once the product has made its way to the popsters, it is usually of very poor quality. For example, popster clothing stores like gap and express produce rather vulgar and in-your-face versions of distressed jeans. In an online chatroom, a popster will try too hard to give off the signals of online fashion, through color, fonts, lingo, signatures, etc. All meaning of the product is eventually lost in the popsters, who would hardly miss it in the first place.

In the cycle, we have left out the two remaining fashion identities: the fashion ignorant, and the classy timeless. The fashion ignorant is wholly unconcerned or unaware of the effects of fashion on their own identity, and it is not a part of their vocabulary for identity. To judge these people, it is still possible to examine them for their personal fashion aesthetic. Is it tasteful or offensive? As for the classy timeless, they do not so much participate in the cycle of adopting new trends. But rather, they stick to very classy principles of fashion. In clothing, the classy rules are: black, white, well-fitted, good-material, and comfortable. In the online world, it's: good spelling, good html etiquette, not overly formal, not overly obnoxious colors, no cheesy email addresses or signatures. Classy can be defined as the absence of trendiness, but also, the absence of vulgarity.

For each of the five fashion identities: avant, trendy, poppy, ignorant, and classic, there is a prescription for recognizing the identity from the personal fashion. For the former three, this recognition is relative to knowledge about where a fashion product is in its lifecycle. For latter two, this recognition relies on the presence or absence of overt vulgarity in a person's style. Recognition into these identities is quite foolproof because it is very difficult to successfully pose because it is hard for a disgenuous person to be wholly consistent in their posing.

The future of fashion will be very different from its past. Globalization, and the accessibility of cultures, and the interconnectedness of people over the internet and through mass media will likely force a convergence of fashion trends in architecture, music, online presence, and clothes. The senseless obliteration of good fashion by the poppy mainstream may jade and turn off many hipsters to being trendy. More hipsters will likely stay classy. In the online world, that means a longer-term trend in lowercase, readable pages, rich by tasteful colors, real email addresses, and minimalism.


Ode to Kelly Green

kelly green is the "in" color right now... "in" in certain circles in europe that is, not the u.s., because sadly, americans are generally slower to catch on to this sort of thing. but it's also a trend who has odds stacked against it in the u.s., because the last big thing, distressed denim, still lingers in the stubbornly slow moving american pop mainstream, like the houseguest that overstayed his welcome. the swedish department store h&m does a pretty good job of staying with the fashion trends, and hence, they have lots of kelly green in their spring 2003 collection. a friend of mine at comme des garcons offers this precious advice: "i like h&m.. i buy lots of it, hide it for a year or two, and then pull it out and wow my nyc can't wear it too soon or people just won't get you."

kelly green is a real gem of a color. i'll tell you why. it's not one of those low-maintenance fashion statements. with a pair of distressed jeans, you can treat them like crap, or bust out an old pair of painter's overalls from your daddy's closet, and you're en vogue. but kelly green is an obnoxious color. living in boston, i'm particularly sensitive to its irish connotations and will avoid it like the plague around st. patty's day. kelly green is also a very common color for extremely low-end clothing because the dye is so accessible. you really must take care in what neighborhoods you stroll down, sporting your kelly green peacoat. heaven forbid that you get caught in places where the wrong people match you. context is key, and kelly green, being such a high-maintenance color, should only be worn in extremely trendy neighborhoods like williamsburg, rodeo, or newbury. because it's so finicky, kelly green is a particularly regal color, and anyone who can pull it off is a real someone. and if it happens to be an american, extra kudos to her, because she's dressed herself into the ranks of the avant garde... a fashionista, a sentinel, in a country so polluted by the imitative mainstream.

speaking of which, why are people still stuck on distressed denim? i saw a girl strut down the street in very dark denim, with what appeared to be two big bleach stains on her thighs... then, passing her, i'm shocked to find a bleached white splotch covering her derriere. but the tragedy is not of this girl, it is of the whole of american pop culture. the pop fashion in europe seems to move quite rapidly. h&m, fcuk, and united colors of bennetton pluck styles from the runways with a delay of only a season or two, while american mcfashion houses like gap and express are both slower to catch on, and to move on. one can only speculate why this is. perhaps the europeans, being more concerned with fashion, invest more in fashion trends. or perhaps american pop fashion passes trends through a conservative filter because its consumers are more fashion risk-averse? for example, capris pants for men never caught on in the states.. i'm assuming this is why. sometimes it is so painful to live among such a populous. but then again, it's sometimes quite nice to never have to try very hard to differentiate oneself here. it's too easy to stand out if you have any fashion savoir-faire. return from a shopping trip in milan or berlin and you're guaranteed to be en vogue for a couple of years. and your goods are usually so avant that you run no risk of being imitated. so i guess fashioning in the states has its perks and drawbacks. you're guaranteed to be avant sporting your kelly green peacoat, but you also have to live in constant fear that you might have a run-in with your neighbors, sporting their vulgar kelly green celtics shirts.



H U G O . . L I U ...

program in comparative media studies, mit

the media laboratory, mit
if you like my work, please link to me
hugo at media dot mit dot edu