This paper considers how street fashion blogs identify and map changes in contemporary, post-industrial creative cities through manners of style, dress, and presentation. In so doing, street fashion blogs witness at the subjective level the privileged social, cultural, and affective registers that individuals of the creative city adopt. I argue that street fashion blogs only valorize subjects able to successfully navigate those thresholds of cultural capital that come to define the “neo-bohemian” creative city. In the turn to the creative city paradigm and, more specifically, as it is articulated by Richard Lloyd’s notion of “neo-bohemia,” changing processes of cultural production and creative labor have re-defined city spaces previously understood as marginal by favoring urban “grit.” One’s ability to interpret and ultimately wear “grit as glamour” becomes a shibboleth that implicates thresholds of distinction, class, and cultural capital. Street fashion blogs celebrate these shibboleths by offering online visibility. Important to this discussion are those subjects excluded from street fashion blogs, representing an actual exclusion of undesirable or irreconcilable social identities that live in the very inner-city neighborhoods so glorified by, but who are excluded from, “neo-bohemia.”
Turning Grit into Glamour: “Neo-Bohemia” and the Street Fashion Blog
As a simultaneously mobile, material, and symbolic object, street fashion presents a useful vector in delineating and mapping changes in contemporary, post-industrial, creative cities. Street fashion, when presented in the form of a photoblog, is given spatial and geographic coordinates. Information such as the street, neighborhood, and city where the photo was taken is usually included. These coordinates not only mark out the physical boundaries of a neighborhood’s transition, but also have the effect of cataloging the imagery associated with a given street, neighborhood, and city. Moreover, these blogs witness at a subjective level the privileged social, cultural, and affective investments that denote membership within what I wish to identify as the “neo-bohemian” creative city. For example, merely having enough spare time to sift through racks of clothes in second-hand shops represents for the right vintage accessory represents degrees of privilege. From this perspective, I argue that street fashion blogs only valorize subjects able to successfully navigate those thresholds of cultural capital that come to define the “neo-bohemian” creative city.
In terms of structure, the street fashion blog occupies a diffuse, decentralized, and intersubjective position. Because the street fashion blog is not anchored to any central definition or to a particular mandate (anyone with a blog is free to offer his or her own interpretation of what should be understood as “street fashion”), it is an object of study that presents some constraints. Though we may locate several methods of analysis for the constitutive elements of the street fashion blog (for example, methods employed in the study of digital media and art history), the street fashion blog itself is a generally new object of inquiry and thus one that might benefit well from a more novel set of approaches. Given that this paper’s aim is to read the social as it is articulated through the street fashion blog, I wish to propose a sociologically inflected read of the street fashion blog supported by a visual analysis of photographs culled from various street fashion blogs.
Setting the Stage for Neo-Bohemia
Long before the rise of the street fashion blog, a number of sociologists and theorists in urban studies began to identify changes in the urban centers of industrial American and Western European cities. As domestic manufacturing collapsed in the 1970s, once economically mighty cities became emptied of their industrial core. Left only with the material remains of the industrial past, many city administrations and real estate developers looked to the booming service industry as a way to revitalize the increasingly forgotten industrial core. In Loft Living, sociologist Sharon Zukin discussed these trends as they relate to how artists in downtown Manhattan unknowingly paved the way for real estate developers to usher in a period of deindustrial revitalization. This connection between artists and urban space foregrounds an important development in the rise of the post-industrial city.
I have so far used the term “creative city” as a way to connect, albeit loosely, the series of changes associated with the post-industrial city. The idea of the creative city relates to what Richard Florida terms the “creative class.” Characterized by professionals whose key function revolves around innovation in the knowledge economy, the creative class prefers living in urban environments, where creativity, diversity, and cultural vitality take precedence over more traditional living criteria (Florida 7). The emphasis on creativity underscores how art and artists play a crucial role in restarting the economic engine of the once-industrial urban core. For the creative class, the desire to live and consume in a local context (for example, preferring an independently run neighborhood coffee house over a downtown coffee chain) coincides with concentrations of cultural, artistic, and design enterprises usually found outside central business districts.
It is in this transition from industrial to post-industrial that emerges Richard Lloyd’s term “neo-bohemia,” which Lloyd uses to describe prevailing trends found in post-industrial cities. I find that neo-bohemia offers a greater degree of texture and specificity to the more general creative city model. Lloyd characterizes three key features of neo-bohemia: the growing importance of cultural commodities, the increased demand for educated, culture savvy workers, and the appropriation of industrial city spaces (“Neo-Bohemia: Art and Neighborhood redevelopment in Chicago” 518). Positing bohemia as a historical reference is useful in that it highlights the connections between urban space and artistic production. According to Lloyd, “urbanism as a way of life is imprinted upon the bohemian project” (Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City 49). The persistence of bohemia is significant in that it highlights how the city provides for a distinctive lifestyle afforded by the heterogeneous social and cultural potentialities embedded in the city. The neo-bohemian denizen willfully romanticizes the lifestyle of the artist, asserting authenticity through a cavalier attitude of excess and the fetishization of inner-city diversity. It is described by Lloyd as “a culture of opportunism and a lust for experience, evidenced in licentious sexual norms and the liberal use of drugs and alcohol” (Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City 53).
There is, however, an important break that Lloyd observes in the move from the traditional bohemian ethic to neo-bohemia. Whereas bohemia was understood as a state of mind, a project that made art out of the artist’s life itself, neo-bohemia takes as its primary concern the spatial reorganization of the city. Therefore, I find this model to be particularly useful in theorizing the stakes of the street fashion blog as it considers both cultural and spatial dimensions. As much as the neo-bohemian subject participates in the creation of local space, the local spaces of neo-bohemia produce the subjective orientations of its participants. Inheriting the ruins of industry (including factories, warehouses, and transport infrastructure), the spatial landscapes of neo-bohemia are undoubtedly gritty, illicit, and marginal. However, the very project of neo-bohemia transforms urban decay by valorizing these sites through cultural and symbolic reversals. Sites previously associated as the detritus of once-industrial America are now crowned as neighborhoods par excellence for a new kind of urbanity—one that is made to be socially, culturally, and, indeed, economically vital (“Neo-Bohemia: Art and Neighborhood redevelopment in Chicago” 518).
Grit, in addition to describing the physical and spatial features of industrial space, also serves as an emblematic cultural marker for neo-bohemia. Synonymous with being on the “edge,” the symbolic connotations of grit lend a sense of purpose to young artists and creative workers attempting to assert their subjectivity into the marginal spaces of urbanity. The valorization of grit is the crux on which the mundane and abject state of industrial decay becomes desirable and, indeed, fashionable. The street fashion blog thus becomes a relevant barometer in considering the shifting cultural landscapes of post-industrial cities. One’s ability to interpret and wear “grit as glamour” becomes a shibboleth that implicates thresholds of taste, distinction, and cultural capital. It is here, in the affective space between perceiving grit as a thematic register of neo-bohemia and enacting its aesthetics through styles of dress, where the street fashion blog holds court.
Neo-Bohemia in the Context of the Fashion System
[I]t is the result of neither a gradual evolution … nor a collective consensus; it is born suddenly and in its entirety, every year, by decree (this year, prints are winning at the races); what points up the arbitrariness of the Fashion sign is precisely the fact that it is exempt from time: Fashion does not evolve, it changes: its lexicon is new each year” (215).
This system is informed by what has been described as the “trickle-down theory” in which the latest trends to emerge from the elite fashion houses are first worn by a wealthy class and then trickles down to the middle class and is thus taken up by popular culture (Niederer and Winter 691). Over time, however, the structure of fashion began to change; vernacular and street fashion of lower socioeconomic classes were identified, replicated, and made “sophisticated” by elite fashion designers. This change informs the “trickle-up theory” in which styles like street fashion “bubble up” to elite fashion designers and eventually are adopted by a wealthy class (Niederer and Winter 691). The street fashion blog becomes a mechanism with which to further mobilize the later theory. In this context, we can consider neo-bohemia as a social laboratory in which creative and culturally sophisticated individuals freely mix and experiment with new styles or comment on past styles, eventually inspiring fashion editors and industry leaders to harvest the more compelling innovations found in street fashion trends. In this way, parts of Barthes’s fashion system live on. Fashion continues to be arbitrary in that tastemakers and fashion editors still wield power, though their authorial power is diffused; it is now the result of the collective evolution of style occurring in spaces such as neo-bohemia. Fashion could be said to be born every moment, rather than every year, in the contingent spaces found between the stylish urban denizen and the camera lens of a street fashion blogger.
Through the Digital Looking-Glass: A Visual Analysis of Five Street Fashion Blogs
The images gleaned here from The Sartorialist represent several of the major themes Lloyd points out as key features of neo-bohemia, including hipness, intensity, diversity, and authenticity. The young woman in Figure 1-a communicates a sense of hipness predicated on the urban authenticity afforded by her fixed-gear bicycle. The fixed-gear bicycle, a kind of bicycle popular among urban bike messengers, often appears in street fashion blogs in part because it serves as an index of contemporary urban life. Moreover, the young woman’s tattoos, short hair, and masculine style of dress might be said to signify a queer identity that has the effect of confirming the diversity of identities found in urban spaces.
Authenticity is forged in an entirely different way in Figure 1-b, this time with an older man dressed in what might be considered period club attire. He wears precisely the same vintage items popularly worn in an ironic manner among twentysomethings. Authenticity here is grafted from age, ostensibly because he dresses his age, he transcends an ironic fetishization of period vintagewear.
The collision of patterns worn by the man pictured in Figure 1-c exhibits a diversity of style that cites Western motifs alongside what appear to be Native American-themed designs. Though not unproblematic, it would appear that the Native American design adds to his ensemble a dimension of distinctiveness. His spontaneous and unorthodox pairing of styles maps well onto the cultural imagination of neo-bohemia insofar as his sartorial expressions unambigously mark him as intense and eccentric. The play of unlike styles, including that of indigenous dress, also maps well onto neo-bohemia’s valorization of diversity, however fetishistic that relation may be.
In stark contrast to the previous subjects, Figure 1-d depicts an image of a homeless man on New York’s Bowery Street, whom Schuman controversially describes as “not giving up.” This image is made to confer a sense of authenticity; we are encouraged to consider style as a universal quality, manifest even among indigent populations. The image is certainly unusual in that it depicts a marginalized subject. Generally speaking, street fashion blogs do not “read” glamour onto depictions of marginalized bodies, but represent grit at a second order through the appropriation of styles.
Compared to The Sartorialist, Face Hunter is newer and more homogeneous in terms of the style and age of its subjects, generally favoring the most avant-garde of twentysomethings. It also tends to emphasize the more playful and suggestive elements of street fashion. Perhaps the most distinctive item of clothing in the photograph of the young woman in Los Angeles (Figure 2-a) is what would appear to be her second-hand Harley Davidson shirt. Irony as a stylistic device in fashion appears frequently and mirrors its operation in neo-bohemia. Irony would appear inappropriate given the many paradoxes found in neo-bohemia, including the fact that neo-bohemia is broadly oriented against normative structures of mainstream capitalism yet neo-bohemia is called into existence by the logic of capital. Rather than anxiously overcompensate for its paradoxes, however, street fashion seems all too eager to put on parade the ironic circulation of outdated logos, accessories, and styles, perhaps as a way to cynically acknowledge the neo-bohemian articulations of post-industrial “grit.”
Face Hunter’s preference for loud examples of anachronism, humor, and camp is demonstrated in the image of the young man in Figure 2-b. His “anti-fashion” aesthetic includes a sweater that is garishly patterned and stylistically outdated, demonstrating a lack of style so obvious that it becomes a style of its own. He also carries a highly personalized vintage camera (Figure 2-b expanded), a cartoonishly ironic anachronism. The ostensibly hand-colored decoration is camp in its self-conscious artificiality (Wilson 194). Handwritten on the camera in an unsteady hand are the words: “ready, smile!” The subject, through his camera, endears himself to others to the point of caricature. The quality of this object is clearly positioned for style rather than utility. Like with the previous subject (Figure 2-a), the elements of style here are clearly meant to signal the subject’s awareness of his self-presentation to the point of being cynical through modes of irony and camp.
The most compelling aspect of the subject in Figure 2-c is the young woman’s arm tattoo (see Figure 2-c expanded), which reads “How soon is now?”, a reference to the 1980s club hit by Manchester, UK band The Smiths. The tattoo is a fitting accompaniment to her 1980s vintage dress, including bleached blonde hair and slouchy jacket. The reference to The Smiths makes clear the linkage between music, in this case an alternative rock band, and urban style. Moreover, The Smiths is particularly appropriate in the context of a discussion on neo-bohemia, as the band played a founding role in the music culture of Manchester during a period of tremendous musical innovation in the wake of the city’s industrial collapse.
Adorned in unmistakably masculine dress, the young woman walking in London pictured in Figure 2-d follows Lloyd’s diversity axiom. The more formal and masculine elements of her dress (slacks, dress shoes) represent a refusal of the normative conventions of women’s fashion. As a racial and possibly sexual minority, “wearing normativity” might be understood to be as much a stylistic play of the gendering of style as it is a political gesture. The image also demonstrates a sense of the sophistication one encounters on the street: something as subtle as a shortened trouser hem, socks in a contrasting tone, and leather dress shoes becomes an object of attention, worthy of documentation.
The Pregnant Goldfish
Of the five blogs presented here, the Pregnant Goldfish is decidedly the most amateur and the most openly subjective. The Pregnant Goldfish gleefully provides, sometimes to the point of unintelligibility, colorful descriptions of its subjects and uses the tag feature of the blog as a space for free association in response to the photographs. The messy and sometimes nonsense demeanor of the Pregnant Goldfish—the title itself is indicative of its absurdist temperament—is interesting in that it makes one aware of the intersubjective quality of the street fashion blog. Most amateur blogs have no traditional publishing or editing standards, and thus their legitimacy is negotiated on the merit and originality of their content. Face Hunter, for example, implies in its absence of textual commentary that it only needs to present a visual truth through photographs. The Pregnant Goldfish, with its casual approach to the street fashion blog, appears to pursue instead a sort of anti-legitimacy. The blog revels in playful teasing and subjective, highly referential expressions of street style.
In Figure 3-a, amusingly titled “Give me my money,” the blogger seems to make a point about the consumption and circulation of clothing at a yard sale. The image is tagged: “another gift sold,” “i find the best gifts for friends,” “then they sell them at yardsales.” Again, tagging as a tool for organizing blog searches is redefined as merely another space to attach subjective content to the image. It is clear that the young men and woman are the blogger’s friends, implicating a completely different relationship between blogger and subject than most street fashion blogs. Generally speaking, there is a presumption, whether real or fictional, of anonymity between blogger and subject. The image also presents a connection between street fashion and the circulation of second-hand clothing. Second-hand clothing, an important material source for street fashion, is a prominent theme in the Pregnant Goldfish. Rather than looking at subjects whose style is the result of rummaging through second-hand shops and yardsales, this image presents the site of exchange as itself important in representing street fashion.
The subject in Figure 3-b, titled “J’adore,” is at yet another yard sale. The young woman’s vintage dress is likely an assemblage of second-hand pieces, coming together to form a shabby chic vintage style. Judging from the background, we might infer that her style is in some way a product of the wide range of material resources provided by yard sales. Ostensibly, the storage and eventual re-circulation of clothing of various styles and eras enables neo-bohemia’s denizens to draw on a wide range of raw materials.
The subject in Figure 3-c wears face paint and a flamboyant bodysuit over boots, strewn together in a stylistically brazen manner. The title of the photograph is “Bali Babe” and the tags read: “coupe bizarre,” “leather boots,” “liquor fountain,” “marie jane,” “pink hair, “st. laurent street sale.” The eccentric style of the subject signals a sense of intensity and authenticity, the striking pattern and color of her clothing seems to celebrate the freedom, openness, and originality one finds in the neo-bohemian city. In the background, a rack of used clothes hangs on display, reminding the viewer of the constant presence of clothing as a form of cultural currency.
The outdoor festival scene continues in Figure 3-d. Two subjects are again dressed in second-hand regalia: the young woman wears a vintage Sailor Moon t-shirt and the young man wears a pink vintage Gucci t-shirt. Sailor Moon, a long defunct manga and television anime, is humorously used in the title of the post: “Sailor Penny and Sailor Gucci.” Gucci, whose elite clientele represents the antithesis of street fashion, is ironically worn as an affront to high-brow fashion culture.
The Berlin-based STYLE/CLICKER blog offers a compelling perspective into the city’s richly textured and eclectic fashion. The subject in Figure 4-a, identified as a boy scout, is interesting in that the look is not necessarily a commentary in response to a particular fashion trend or pop culture commodity so much as it is a stylistic exercise. The subject takes inspiration from a boy scout’s uniform seemingly because it is an unusual form of dress. This rather formalist approach to fashion confers a sense of distinction activated by the subject’s ability to identify and style a particular typology of dress.
It is precisely a specific style that the subject in Figure 4-b seems to subvert. The wild assemblage of unlike pieces does not translate to an existing style, and there seems to be no attempt to situate her style along any recognizable themes or trends. Somewhat like Figures 1-c and 3-c, this young woman’s dress is characterized by a collision of unlike colors, patterns, and styles, seemingly expressing what we might understand as the radically open and liberating promises of neo-bohemia as it is articulated through a refusal of conventions. In this instance, it is clearly not her ability to interpret a particular genre or style that is the subject of attention, but rather the creative audacity to push beyond an emulation of pre-existing aesthetic styles.
The young woman’s outfit in Figure 4-c, on the other hand, references with great specificity a historical period of 1960s American counterculture, signaled by items like the Harley Davidson shirt and oversized feather earring. These historically situated references recall the aesthetic of outlaw motorcycle gangs such as the Hell’s Angels. However, the woman’s earth-toned shorts and earring are more indicative of 1960s hippie style. Taken together, her conflation of countercultural motifs seems to notate the semiotic gestures of rebellion and reframe them towards neo-bohemia’s appetite for originality.
Copenhagen Street Style
Exchanges of Cultural Capital in Neo-Bohemia
As much as street fashion blogs obsessively document the details and minutiae of style, the denizens of neo-bohemia are similarly obsessive in their attentiveness to matters of dress and presentation. As Lloyd observes: “The adoption of the appropriate demeanor and dress quickly became a means through which insiders were distinguished from outsiders” (Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City 81). The attention to style comes as no surprise because the street fashion blogger is, other than his camera, blog, and spare time, indistinct from the subjects that he shoots. This obsession is an inherited trait from the traditional bohemian ethic; Lloyd here identifies the mechanism on which the shibboleths of neo-bohemia are constructed: “adherents maintained aristocratic commitment to distinction via cultural capital, mocking the tastes of the bourgeois” (Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City 52).
The jealous contestations of cultural capital are motivated by the fact that the move into the gritty inner-city is usually purchased on the mobility afforded by the neo-bohemian prerequisite: a more or less middle-class, college-educated background. In place of forsaking upwardly mobile narratives of financial stability, the neo-bohemian denizen’s currency becomes culture. Lloyd explains: “Because young adults in the arts can rarely compete in terms of income with professional peers, the performance of cultural distinction becomes all the more crucial to their sense of status.” However, he goes on to identify a problem in the problem: “But for young people in contemporary consumer society, this performance is complicated by the broad dissemination of subcultural styles across social strata” (Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City 96). The street fashion blog does not “answer” this problem so much as create occasions to document and sift through the plethora of subcultural styles. In this regard, the street fashion blog operates as a mediator between the intersubjective exchanges that are occurring in neo-bohemia.
Also discussed in the visual analysis, second-hand clothing shops play an important role in the exchange of styles in neo-bohemia. These shops serve as a sort of iconographical sourcebook of styles and genres that could be absorbed by the caprices of street fashion, second-hand clothing shops are. However, it is necessary for one to acquire a degree of cultural competence so as to be able to identify clothing that would represent, subvert, comment on, or otherwise embody a particular style. This strategy of cultural competence, which prizes second-hand goods, has had an appreciable impact on second-hand shops. Will Straw observes, “Increasingly, these shops came to make their money by selling clothes and other goods to hip teenagers or to an educated class that recognized the signs of connoisseurist value in older, discarded artifacts” (198). This “connoisseurist value” becomes an important element that enables one to cultivate and perform a sophisticated personal aesthetic. Taking hippies as an example, Elizabeth Wilson argues that hippie fashion, borne out of an anti-capitalist indictment of boisterous consumption, is undermined by the time required to procure desirable articles of clothing. Additionally, there still remains a form of snobbery not unlike that of haute couture fashion originating in the skill, taste, and desire it takes to construct a particular kind of style from the masses of discarded clothing (193).
Diversity in Neo-Bohemia
Another concern regarding the status of racial diversity in neo-bohemia is not so much that it shuts its doors on poor, primarily non-white minorities, but that neo-bohemia as a project is premised on a fetishistic form of diversity that, at its lesser moments, takes as its mandate a colonial position endeavoring to “tame” the urban core. As Lloyd describes: “For an admittedly small but disproportionately influential class of taste makers, elements of the urban experience that are usually considered to be an aesthetic blight become instead symbols of the desire to master an environment characterized by marginality and social instability” (Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City 88). For the young transplant to neo-bohemia, instability is read as a desirable motif; however, for the marginalized resident of post-industrial spaces, instability is consequence of socioeconomic inequality. One’s socioeconomic position correlates to degrees of formality between the subject and the economy. For example, someone of low socio-economic standing experiences highly informal relations to capital (Berlant 280). That informality constitutes the relation of difference from which neo-bohemia arises. There is a clear imbalance of power when young, largely white and middle-class transplants create spectacle out of the banality and grit that is the life of the marginalized resident. For many of the inhabitants living in the urban cores of post-industrial cities, grit is an undesirable yet inescapable condition of life.
The issue of diversity is paradoxically situated at both the center and at the margins of neo-bohemia. Diversity animates some of the key functions of neo-bohemia; Lloyd attributes it as “a central principle of urban authenticity … the definition of diversity typically proffered by local artists gives special value to the illicit and the bizarre” (Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City 88). But diversity is about more than merely eccentric characters—it is also about the role of race in neo-bohemia. Though the topic is beyond the scope of this paper, I believe that race is a critical issue in discussions of the post-industrial city, as many non-white neighborhoods in American cities experienced periods of significant civic disinvestment. The turn towards the post-industrial city is often characterized by a historically fraught ghettoization of non-white communities. Given the street fashion blog’s investments in the social and demographic shifts of neo-bohemia, further study might include a more rigorous account of who is excluded from the street fashion blog’s valorization of style.
To conclude, I wish to return to the aforementioned trickle-up theory of the fashion industry. It would appear that under the trickle-up model, the street fashion blog unfortunately serves a rather insidious role in maintaining structures of inequality. It is in the interest not only of the hip residents of post-industrial neo-bohemia, but also of the fashion industry to maintain—for purposes of profit—an urban poor. The trickle-up model requires spaces of urban experimentation that, given neo-bohemia’s preference for “authentic” and gritty aesthetics, seem to be invested in the innovations and stylistic originality that emerge from the marginal spaces of cities. Sites of urban marginality secure for the world of street fashion important social, cultural, and affective conditions that enable creativity and innovation. The moment of translatability, or its impasse, occurs between those who experience the grit of post-industrial urban space as authentic, seductive, and glamorous and those who experience it for what it is: grit as grit. This relation of difference between the marginalized urban body and normative standards of capitalism constitutes, through the commodification of style, a space of surplus extraction. This social violence is subtle, articulated through the stylistic caprices of irony, pastiche, and the seductive gaze of the sophisticated young urbanite, though it is as real as the lived marginalization of the post-industrial underclass.
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