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.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

The lady doth protest too much, sour grapes methinks?

Aimee said...

Argh, talk about semi-literate. "The lady doth protest too much"?--poor Shakespeare is rolling in his grave at the knowledge that half-wits have turned his trenchant social and psychological commentary into cliches.

Mel, I have just discovered your blog and I love it. I love that you are applying cultural theorists' work to fashion, clarifying, contextualizing, and demystifying the cultural and historical forces that effect fashion trends while bringing obscure theory to the masses. You bring Jameson alive in a way I never quite experienced when pretentious fops in my English Ph.D. name-dropped lasciviously as if recalling a favorite playmate--ooooh, Jameson! ooooo Baudrillard. Were you in my program--or I was as inspired as you in making connections between cultural theory and actual culture--I may not have dropped out of the Ph.D.

Now that I've found your blog, I hope you keep rocking it for a long time.

Anonymous said...

No, actually I don't think Shakespeare would be rolling in his grave, he had a sense of humour which you clearly haven't! But then again you're the one doing a Ph.d. so what would I know? You're obviously really really smart, except that you don't get the Shakespeare, he probably would have used the following word to describe you, "C*NT", he did like to cuss.

Intellectual snobs make me yawn.

Anonymous said...

oops sorry Aimee, you dropped out of your phd, clearly I need to concentrate more, but then again I found you and this blog very very boring.

You'd probably claim that I don't have the intelligence to understand such complex theory's as presented here and you're probably right, it is awfully tremendously clever!

Mel said...

Thanks for these comments. I must say, though, that it frustrates me that "intellectual snobbery" is being raised here. I'm not demanding that all blogging about fashion be high academic theory, although that's my own background so you will see that stuff here.

All I ask is that people be curious, that they be thoughtful about what they see, and interested in seeking out new things. This doesn't need to be highfalutin, and it can be engrossing. 'Entertaining' and 'intelligent' are not mutually exclusive categories (although they seem to be heading that way at The Age).

It also frustrates me that in my post I explicitly criticised the "ur just jal00z" syndrome, and yet here it is in the very first comment! Addressing something precisely and at length is not 'protesting too much' - it is making an effort to think a topic through. Carn anonymous - give it a go!

Anonymous said...

Babe, you don't pen lengthy 'essays' on shit your not heavily emotionally invested in, nuff said. And don't give me this is your 'proffession' or 'academic research' crap, or yooz wouldn be goin round callin peeps "clowns", that's emtional investment whateves ya wanna describe it as!.

Try doing your homework too, seems like a cheap shot to make Mr Farmer the scapegoat here, it's like your suggesting he's responsible for Fairfax editorial policy or somethin. Get your facts straight and do your research before you go throwin nasty pot shots at all and sundry.

Mate, you're one heavy, negative dude.

Doing a phd in hipsterism? Man that'll change the world.

The Bargain Queen said...

One day, Australians will discover that Fairfax's offerings aren't everything blogging can be.

Let's just be there when it happens! ;)

Tash said...

In a tangential comment I would just like to say: I am all for spelling. Correct spelling.

Mel, I love your blogs.

My name is Tash and I don't care who knows it.

Tait Ischia said...

Ouch! Let's turn down the temperature in here. Mel, I found your post far from 'intellectual snobbery'. I thought it was beautifully colloquial at times and not to mention damn funny.

The Age in my opinion is just trying to quickly revitalise it's falling readership. Online blogs seem like the way to go, not to mention the new buzzphrase, 'celebrity sells'.

Obviously fashion is a concept far out of their reach. They got wind of a popular blog, and took the bad spelling and hybrid speech to be 'gen y' text talk. The Age can now say they're awesomely book.

The worst thing about blogs at the moment is anonymous posting. The advertising industry has had a gut full. The last thing we need as a society is destructive criticism. If you're interested, read what Saatchi & Saatchi CD David Nobay had to say about it here.

Jayson said...

I never new about Melbourne Runway, only Third Best. Third Best is okay if you just like looking at stylish people, but I want to know more. After seeing what's on Melbourne Runway, I found it to be more appealing for me, because of the commentary. However, it needs a bit more of that. In additon why just the CBD...? Brunswick, Fitzroy, South Yarra, South Melbourne and other suburbs need to be explored. I feel we are only seeing one part of Melbourne's hipster scene. It would be good to see what else is out there.

Jayson said...

I never new about Melbourne Runway, only Third Best. Third Best is okay if you just like looking at stylish people, but I want to know more. After seeing what's on Melbourne Runway, I found it to be more appealing for me, because of the commentary. However, it needs a bit more of that. In additon why just the CBD...? Brunswick, Fitzroy, South Yarra, South Melbourne and other suburbs need to be explored. I feel we are only seeing one part of Melbourne's hipster scene. It would be good to see what else is out there.

liss said...

Right on Tash! Your comment may not be so tangential after all. I hate reading blogs where someone is intensely critical of the other comments, or the blog itself, yet can't even spell correctly. It prompts me to dismiss that person's comments - short-cuts are fine, but at least try and spell "profession" with one f!

Tasj said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tasj said...

I still cannot believe how far behind Melbourne 'fashion' is... it's shameful!
Trend-setters in New Zealand were wearing the stuff you see on the streets of Melbourne today, at LEAST a year ago!
I am not over-exaggerating. I am serious.
It seems that England is way advanced in this area also, but come on... New Zealand?! Aren't they 'meant' to get everything AFTER we do?

Oh, the shame.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post! Thanks so much for your inciteful commentary about the faux individualism of CBD hipsters and tired photos of them in Third Best.

Fairfax doesn't care about quality in their blogs, they care about page impressions - and Third Best gets them, for the very reason that it's rubbish (how many comments are complimentary, hmmm?) Incendiary comments breed incendiary comments...

That Third Best has gained such a high profile from its Fairfax affiliation is an absolute shame, and in my opinion, a poor editorial oversight. It not only damages the Fairfax brand, it cheapens all their blogs, and demonstrates that Fairfax certainly doesn't have its finger on the fashion pulse. Anyone who's travelled knows that the hipster look is as prolific throughout the Western world as grunge was in the nineties.

And if they haven't travelled, they just need to look at other street style blogs, or look to the British television show 'Nathan Barley', a wry satire about the vapid materialistic hipster culture legions.

Incidentally, I wonder if St Jeromes is paying some sort of product endorsement fee for the ongoing and tedious advertorial it's gaining?

James Farmer has left Fairfax - you probably saw his final blog posting titled 'Comment is Twee'? If not, take a look at it, it's....er! I'll let you make your own mind up.

Anyway, this comment is getting way too long! Please keep up the good work - your carefully considered posts provide a thought-provoking and refreshing alternative to Melbourne's dumbed down style wars, and I for one, look forward to reading many more...

Dolly Mix said...

Third Best sucks! Sign the petition: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/thirdbestattheagesucks/

sarkastik said...

Thank you for this post!
I actually couldn't find your blog anymore, and the whole Thirdbest controversy was how I found it again :D

I really appreciate the insights you give and it is sad that other fashion blogs are just bland opinions or advertising clothed as journalism.

Please keep writing!

Anonymous said...

Holy shit is this article, and these comments, pretentious, and boring.

Mel said...

Ha! I wonder what jolted this anonymous person sufficiently from their boredom to add that insightful commentary to a blog post from two years ago.

threadbared said...

Hi Mel! As a fan of your blog, do you mind if I post a small excerpt of this post to mine, Threadbared? I've cited you several times already, but I wanted to check to make sure I could post a couple paragraphs that are really interesting to me. I've been posting lately on style blogs (esp. The Uniform Project, and how it really highlights the tension between the "uniform" and the "detail," and in which I cite you on the concept of the distinctive detail) and I think this entry of yours is so good to think with!

Mel said...

Of course you can cite me, although I think both these case studies are very outdated now.