It’s a bright September day. Pillars of water twist heavenward from the Lincoln Center promenade fountain. Bodies mill to and from a white archway at the upper-left most corner of the terrace—perfect bodies, bodies on stilts, attached to phones and umbrellas (it had been raining just an hour ago) and pert little clutches made of animal skins. Another set of bodies—clad mostly in black, attached to digital cameras—flanks the other corner and keeps close. A perfect body stops, a camera clicks; a perfect body doesn’t stop, a camera clicks; a perfect body stops, a camera remains silent. The body stream dissolves into the white arch or down the promenade steps.
A single body, a young woman of 19 or maybe 26, stands by the fountain. Her hair is brown, shoulder length with a blunt bang, and hovers above a crisp teal overcoat, which dangles from her shoulders like a sheet of suspended metal. A white button-up with a Peter Pan collar retreats into a high-waisted black wool skirt. Fluorescent green pumps do 4 inches of easy work. She is holding yet another pert little clutch made of animal skin.
After 10 minutes or maybe 50, a camera stops in front of her, a hand attached to it, a body attached to the hand. The archway stream rushes behind it. The girl looks up.
“Can I take your picture?”
The girls freezes, smiles.
She crosses one leg in front of the other, tilts her head to the side, takes a sharp breath in and says, “Yes.”
The street style universe is the zaniest ring in the fashion circus.
What began as a set of distinct documentary photo blogs on urban street fashion has, over the past few years, snowballed into a media frenzy-cum-litmus test of international trends. Fashion magistrates (American Vogue, Style.com) enlist photographers like Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist and Tommy Ton of Jak + Jil for “street style” coverage at major international fashion weeks. Needless to say, the proceedings give way to an intoxicating landscape of editors, models, and bloggers, looking their parts, traipsing from show to show to show.
The street style lens snaps up the eye candy and posts it online; the Internet beholds what fashionable people are “really wearing.” A cast of cult celebrities has emerged from the street style throng: socialite Michelle Harper, model Hanne Gaby Odiele, blogger Susie Lau, and the inimitable editor of Vogue Japan, Anna Dello Russo—notorious for wearing head-to-toe runway looks and launching her own line of accessories for H&M.
Unknown fashion diehards take heed and craft looks, hovering outside of runway shows (most never make it inside) in hopes of getting “street styled”— upheld as a casual ideal on the fashion blogosphere.
On paper, the hype around street style looks like a great egalitarian unifier between the public and the institution of Fashion (capital F). The idea of street style entails a neutral, de-privileged zone—the Street—where the stylish are stylish no matter who they are or how powerful or famous they are. The unwavering eye of the camera seeks the aesthetes and originals and brings them to light, where they clearly deserve to be—right?
It’s a thrilling proposition, but who’s calling the shots? Who defines style?
Last month, Vanity Fair announced that it would open up its 2013 International Best Dressed List to applications from the public, from which it will select one man and one woman to be featured based on “editors’ choice” and “users’ choice.” With Kate Middleton leading last year’s list followed by a string of actresses (Jessica Chastain), “actresses” (Kate Bosworth), “it” girls (there’s Michelle Harper again!), and obscure European nobles, the winners would be in the company of unequaled prestige.
As Vanity Fair casts its arms wide open to the public, it is easy to forget that Vanity Fair is going to pick the winners not necessarily based on their personal conception of style, but on Vanity Fair’s.
“This is another example of print media trying to pretend that they are social media: ‘Send to us and we’re the judge,’” says Julie Anne Quay, creator of VFILES.com and a former editor at V Magazine. “I think that’s really wrong, actually.”
Indeed, the big project of postmillennial Fashion has been this very negotiation between social media and print media—the latter being pretty antisocial. With limited zoning for “reader submissions” slipped in between full-page ads on the heels of the table of contents, the standard Fashion magazine is—as we know—totally pedagogical from there on out. A tacit authority, some nebulous cloud of “Fashion professionals,” selects each cover star, garment, and essay for our reverent consumption.
“Fashion professionals” are perhaps better equipped than anyone to process, organize, and comment on the seasonal contortions of the industry. Taste, however, collides with authority in the realm of print, posing the subjective whims of Fashion oligarchy as mandate for the masses. The rise of social media continues to threaten the pedagogical ethos of print as bloggers (Tavi Gevinson, Bryan Boy, Garance Doré, etc.) emerge as self-made international authorities (institutions?) in themselves. Their success is aspirational, and Fashion deals in aspiration if it deals in anything at all.
The application process for Vanity Fair’s International Best Dressed List reflects a new facet of plebeian Fashion aspiration: authority, if only as a stylish someone.
A winner of the Vanity Fair contest is “gonna be someone who wants to be a celebrity or look like a celebrity,” says Preston Chaunsumlit, a New York-based casting director for high fashion print and runway. “It’s gonna be that Vanity Fair ideal: thin, young, and white.”
Such a forecast puts the dream of dominating social Fashion media to rest for all but a privileged few: a consequence of print media—and Fashion itself—trying to get “social.”
Vanity Fair’s application process for the International Best Dressed List is best understood as an extension of the street style circus: a labored, subjective ideal masquerading as some incidental or authentic reality of “style.”
An unknown blogger will put on her best Anna Dello Russo drag and wait for hours on the Lincoln Center promenade not because of the joy she takes in dressing, but because of the pleasure she’d take in being institutionally recognized for it by the street style lens. Vanity Fair is just another lens with its own preferences and ideals—and those are certainly up for debate. Even the “users’ choice” vote is a ruse when “users” themselves come pre-equipped with a vocabulary to articulate “best dressing”—a vocabulary they inherited from what was, up until recently, a print-only hegemony of taste.
On the Vanity Fair International Best Dressed list, style is obedience, and it will be rewarded accordingly.