Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Turf wars

For some time now, I've been wanting to write about the recent spurt of blogs devoted to 'street style' in Melbourne. As I commented at Camarilla, I am interested in them as a cultural phenomenon, and also as an industrial phenomenon.

Have a look to your right and you'll see that I maintain a list of street style and hipsterism resources. (It's by no means comprehensive.) I see hipsterism as the phenomenon of ironising and spectacularising hedonism and cultural capital, and street style as a genre of fashion reportage that focuses on how real people put outfits together. I am very clear what this blog means by 'street style', as my slightly pompous inaugural post outlines. I have always been interested in the mundane and taken-for-granted ways that people wear clothes, as well as how the cultural institutions of branding, advertising, retail space and fashion media subtly influence how people dress. I am also interested in how clothes make you feel.

But in many other 'street style' publications, the two ideas of hipsterism and lived fashion collapse together so that what we see covered in street style photography is a documentation of hipster culture. (These are general research interests of mine, which I've touched on in previous writing.) We see only the most outlandish outfits; the ones that are strikingly different from 'ordinary' people's clothes and are deliberately put together to attract attention. They are meant to serve as 'inspiration' for us ordinary people, as well as to designers and marketers who adapt these looks for profit. We can also see that in turn, this creates a culture of exhibitionism in which people actively solicit the photographer's attention and then look for themselves in online galleries.

So there's a triple audience: subcultural tourists getting a frisson from observing a scene in which they themselves don't participate; insiders of this scene hoping to see themselves documented; and outsiders hoping to make money from those in the scene. There is even a fourth audience of outsiders who visit to ridicule the photographs: a rich vein of comedy mined by Gawker's Blue States Lose and Mess+Noise's ShakeSomeCaptions.

This is the genre of 'street style' blogs that have started to proliferate lately. The first one to come to my attention is Melbourne Runway. It reminds me strongly of The Sartorialist, one of my favourite street style blogs, and I wouldn't be surprised if this resemblance is deliberate - you can see Marianne positioning herself as a fashion insider in the same way The Sartorialist does. The commentary isn't particularly incisive, but I like this blog's attention to the details of styling and the way that, while it never strays far from Melbourne's CBD, it captures a variety of different aesthetics and is interested in very simple outfits as well as ostentatious ones.

And then there's Third Best, which, while not innovative or insightful at all, is extremely interesting. Third Best is largely photographic and is clearly modelled on photography-centric European street style blogs. Unlike Melbourne Runway, which aims to catalogue a range of different styles and to establish its blogger's credentials as a thoughtful participant in local fashion culture, Third Best tends to depict a samey parade of baby hipsters deliberately looking spectacular, and most of its images appear shot at St Jerome's or in Caledonian Lane (clearly a favourite haunt of Nadia and Adele, the bloggers). Although Nadia and Adele are fashion students with technical knowledge and a rudimentary grounding in branding and market processes, their comments are vague and semi-literate, and they know it. As they write in the comments at Opulent:
We are NOT social commentators and we do not owe anyone a fuckin explanation of where a certain trend started or what was going through someone’s head when they put their outfit on… to tell you the truth we don’t really give a shit. What is funny to us is that we write some bullshit comments that mean absolutely nothing, yet suddenly we’ve got E grade sites such as this giving us shit for not being able to write or choosing crap outfits to document.


We didn’t start this blog with any intentions. All we wanted to do was document for ourselves all this crazy shit that people were wearing, and share it with people we knew.
It depresses me that we are creating generations of designers and commentators who are unable to articulate why they like particular clothes, and who are unwilling to be curious about the sartorial behaviour of those outside their comfort zone. It also bothers me that Third Best aims to document Melbourne style, and yet the blog is not uniquely local. Instead, Third Best is about fetishism - as Nadia and Adele explain, it's about preferencing "crazy shit" over less spectacular outfits. Rather than reflecting how Melburnians dress, Third Best slots itself into an international hipster aesthetic of "craziness" that would be equally in place in Helsinki, Tokyo, New York or London. It promotes a depressing stylistic conformity that is ironic because it appears so individual.

None of this would be a problem - people are entitled to put whatever crap they want on their blogs, just as others are entitled to mouth off about them. Except that Third Best, you'll see by clicking on that link, has been picked up by The Age. This is important. Being hosted by a media organisation with a reputation for 'quality' and 'intellect' sets up a conflict at Third Best between the traditional Age reader, who expects a high standard of writing and looks to blogs for social commentary, and young, semi-literate people for whom this style of fashion reportage is a novelty, and for whom St Jerome's is the hottest bar in town.

This is a problem that The Age is facing more and more as its website moves relentlessly downmarket. In the interests of disclosure, I should mention that I was one of four candidates interviewed for the position of online community editor at The Age, and was phlegmatic when James Farmer got the job instead. Farmer's background is in the pedagogy of blogging, and under his stewardship I anticipated a thoughtful development of blogs that was sympathetic to the heritage of The Age.

I have no idea what editorial and commercial pressures Farmer faces at Fairfax Digital, but the many blogs that have sprung up since his appointment are mostly complete crap. Third Best is perhaps the worst of all in terms of the standard of writing and the sophistication of the content. But commercial blogging is all about audiences; and people go to Third Best not only to be fashion tourists at St Jerome's, but also to mock the outfits and get outraged by the woolly-headedness of the bloggers.

When criticised, Nadia and Adele fall back on the fact of their endorsement by The Age as a raison d'etre. It's the idea that "if a newspaper believes we're worth hosting, then we're worth reading" - or, less elegantly, "We know we suck, and The Age publishes us anyway, so who's the real sucka?" And anyone who criticises is only doing it because "ur just jal00z". Jealous at not being photographed for the blog; jealous at not having the same publishing opportunities.

That is precisely the frustrating thing for me. Despite their complete lack of insight into the clothes they document, despite the fact that they aren't doing anything innovative, despite their complete refusal to show why Melbourne even needs a blog like Third Best, Nadia and Adele take on a certain authority because of their prominent position in the media. Fashion students and enthusiasts are going to link to their inane ramblings from their own blogs; journalists are going to interview them as 'fashion commentators'.

It makes me incredibly angry when Australian media outlets abandon any commitment whatsoever to innovative thought. Blogging does not need to be stupid; but for some reason our paper of record has decided that fashion is such a ridiculous subject that it deserves to be documented by a pair of clowns.