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Does The West Actually Celebrate Individuality When It Comes To What We Wear?

Are we all victims of a consumer and social media culture geared against genuine individuality?

Vogue marked 2016 as the year of individuality. For beauty, this means ‘bold lips’ and ‘daring short cuts’. For the runway, there has been an increased focus on casting models of all ethnicities and colours, case in point Yeezy at this year’s NYFW. Some designers are opting to accentuate the unique beauty of each individual model on their catwalk, rather than fitting them to one ‘look’ (see Louis Vuitton’s AW16 show). The fashion institutions of the West appear to be heading towards notions of individuality and distinctiveness when it comes to their clothes and models, and indeed the brands themselves depend upon their perceived uniqueness to survive financially and reputationally. But when it comes to what we put in our wardrobe, are we that individual?

Individuality is how we distinguish ourselves, and ultimately others, from everyone else. It ranges from characteristics that are difficult to change, like heritage, race, family, even height, but also includes features we can control, like hair colour, interests, dress. Increasingly, individuality in the West has become synonymous with ‘cool’, a desirable trait. When it comes to what we wear, fashion weeks are the perfect time for people to showcase their individuality and creativity off the catwalk, notably in the top four (NY, London, Paris and Milan). With this comes photographers vying to snap the outfits of celebrities and regular mortals alike to capture what’s ‘in’.

Does this mean we are all victims of a consumer and social media culture geared against genuine individuality? ​

The photos generated are circulated across the vast social media platforms to provide up-to-date inspiration for fashion followers and a literal snapshot of to-the-minute style. However as expected, social media is a powerful tool and the items of clothing featuring in these photos become immediately in demand through mass exposure. This can be in the consumer’s attempt to replicate a look, to emulate the person of interest, or simply because they like the clothing. There is even the suggestion that we have subconscious tendencies to mirror and replicate the actions of others within our social (online) environment, dubbed the chameleon effect (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999). Intentional or no, much of the individuality attached to the items are lost, snapped up by consumers immediately (see any item that a Kardashian has worn) or replicated and mass produced, negating notions of ‘uniqueness’. Individuality, and the person it is attached to, sells, then it stops being individual.

This reflects the birth and death of a trend, and can be understood in regards to social group theory, such as social proof. Rao, Greve and Davis (2001) considered social proof as ‘using the actions of others to infer the value of a course of action’. In the context of dress, if a celebrity or someone of influence decides to dress a certain way, this attaches value to the style of dress. The same can be seen with high-end brands, where the actions of a fashion house, such as the contents of their most recent collection, are considered of ‘value’, and therefore influence consumer decision-making. As a result, large groups can be motivated into buying into certain styles of dress or trends; the more people who wear such clothing, the greater the social proof that the style of dress is ‘of value’ or better yet, ‘in’. This is until everybody is wearing jeans with holes in them, the value decreases, a new trend surfaces, and the cycle repeats with new clothes.
​To extend this rather capitalist engine, buying into trends is a good example of social categorization, where one increasingly bases their social identity on the ‘group’ they belong to, rather than their own individuality. Groups include style movements, most notably punk, where distinctiveness is achieved but not necessarily individuality. 

Beyonce’s release of her activewear/athleisure collection ‘Ivy Park’ saw members of her fanbase break the internet for the items, becoming the top-selling brand on Nordstrom during its launch week, holding 12% of all sales on the site. On one level, the obvious branding on these items, (the most popular items, bodysuits, feature ‘Ivy Park’ clearly on the front) allow Beyonce’s fanbase to actively identify as a follower of Queen Bey (the Beyhive) and in turn satiate the human need to belong as part of a group. At the same time, the marketing campaign’s emphasis on each woman as as an individual with their ‘own park’, a real and emotional/mental safe space, is yet another example of the media and consumer culture promoting individuality to achieve quite the opposite.  

Does this mean we are all victims of a consumer and social media culture geared against genuine individuality? Are we all just wearing Meryl Streep’s Devil-Wears-Prada cerulean sweater? Not necessarily. What is evident is that individuality does in fact start with individuals, but that each individual is a combination of manifold interests, experiences, influences and social groups, which are reflected in what we wear (and not what wears us). Street style photographer Phil Oh at NYFW commented that to have an individual style, ‘just be genuine’. Genuine unique style can be achieved, even with that romper you saw on instagram - unless someone told you to wear it.