The ideal of authenticity established a boundary between the self and a complete surrender to capitalism; fashion bloggers live on both sides of the border
In a Starbucks in suburban North Carolina, Lara and I discussed Jane Aldridge, the then 17-year-old Sea of Shoes blogger whose YSL platforms and Miu Miu pumps are the envy of women three times her age. Dressed in a thrift-store caftan and clunky wooden shoes, Lara—a fashion blogger and vintage store proprietor—moaned, “Every post is about designer shoes that she’s gotten from her parents. Apparently they come from money. Lots and lots of money. It doesn’t give kids a good message, you know? Who can afford a pair of designer shoes when you’re 18?” She shook her head and sipped her chai latte.
Lara was not the first fashion blogger I’d interviewed who cast a suspicious eye on Aldridge and her ilk, the ultra-luxury bloggers who’ve won seats next to editrixes and movie stars at runway shows. (While “fashion blog” includes any blog about fashion, the men and women who post selfies of their own outfits are known as “personal style bloggers.”) Young women like Leandra Medine, the self-proclaimed “Man Repeller” (who still managed to get married in a Marchesa dress and crown of flowers); Rumi Neely of Fashion Toast; and Chiara Ferragni of Blonde Salad are the toasts of the fashion world—on- and off-line. Model-thin and chic, they post pictures on their blogs dressed head-to-toe in the same designer labels that appear in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, sit in the front row at fashion shows, and collaborate with labels.
But while Vogue spreads serve as well-understood fantasy for average American women, the flesh-and-blood fashion bloggers who wear these clothes evoke more ambivalence. The tension is palpable in Lara’s voice: We expect the microfamous in social media to be more approachable, more like us, more authentic—distinct from the fashion world’s fetishization of absurdly expensive consumer goods, coat-hanger bodies, and impractical heels and gowns. Who are these ultra-luxury bloggers? How do they live what we always assumed were fantasies?
When asked about luxury bloggers like Sea of Shoes, Samantha, an Asian-American fashion blogger who grew up working class, said, “I can’t look at [the blog] for too long. I’m like, I want those shoes, I want that bag. How does she get all these things? Who is she? Who are these people? I don’t know.” While it was a given that Vogue was a fantasy, readers struggled with “real people” who wore clothes that appeared in its pages. Samantha sighed, “I’ve always had issues like this, just with class and with fashion. Because I didn’t grow up upper class, but I love fashion so much.”
The disconnect between fashion insiders’ world, where people wear Helmut Lang to the bodega and assistants buy Chloé bags on credit, and the way most women interact with fashion, is acute. With figures that clothes aren’t designed to fit, budgets that prioritize rent and food over designer labels, and work environs that look askance at leather skirts or peplum tops, most women learn to dress themselves through trial and error, picking up tips from friends and family and the odd gem of useful information in fashion magazines.
Personal style blogs are massively popular because many of them show the realities of navigating a love for fashion, a limited budget, and a nonmodel body simultaneously. As part of my research on authenticity in online communities, I began interviewing personal style bloggers, becoming more interested in girls and women who showed off clothes from Target or Goodwill than those who, like Medine and Eldridge, shop with family money. In trying to emulate the stylish figures from the fantastic scenarios played out on runways and in magazine spreads, these women, with their nonmodel figures and noncelebrity budgets, demonstrated fashion’s inherent contradictions. Leather mini-dresses, feathered gowns, and metallic sequins collide with the reality of the size-14 American woman trying to look like Scandal’s Olivia Pope in a white dress from Ann Taylor Loft and a pair of Payless shoes. The women I interviewed came in all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and ages, often posting pictures of incredibly mundane outfits bought at TJ Maxx. Others were immensely stylish but had microbudgets, relying on their copious amounts of free time to pick through discount bins and Goodwill racks. While many of them boasted only their mother and BFF as readers, others are earning a living—albeit a sort of art-student one—from their blog, though without the Elle features or Lanvin swag.
But while some personal style bloggers push boundaries—plus-size fashion bloggers like the fabulous Gabi Fresh take explicitly activist stances about the fashion industry’s nonrepresentativeness; Tavi Gevinson, the feminist teen founder of Rookie (a sort of Sassy reboot for the iPhone generation), poses in outfits that are more “weird tableau” than “sexy” or “chic”—the most celebrated personal style blogs reproduce many of the inequalities that made fashion feel impersonal in the first place. Few of us look like Karlie Kloss, but we don’t look like Jane Aldridge, either.
The constant parading of the one percent in celebrity tabloids and reality shows has created a familiarity with lifestyles of the rich and famous: brands, neighborhoods, décor, clothes. At the same time, it’s a familiarity bred in confusion. Most Americans don’t interact with anyone who makes over a million dollars a year. The glimpses we get from Rich Kids of Instagram or Sea of Shoes are immensely disconcerting because these kids are so unlike us, but clearly do not exist only in a fantasy world. On her blog, humorist Kelly Oxford posted a scathing letter to Leandra Medine’s readers, writing:
Be realistic about what she is, she isn’t ‘like you’, a small percentage of people are. She’s the magazine that you oogle, and online it’s hard to differentiate that sort of thing for some people … her wealth vs. the majority of her reader base’s non wealth will remain the elephant in the blog.
Only the very, very richest people in the U.S.—a subsection of a subslice of a sub-demographic—can dress the way fashion magazines suggest we should. But social media implies personal engagement between creator and audience. Fans expect celebrities who use social media to connect with them, whether by @-replying them on Twitter, posting personal pictures on Tumblr, or talking frankly about rumors and gossip. On Instagram, Rihanna’s tattoos and blunt smoke and Justin Bieber’s shirtless selfies imply a backstage gaze into the banalities—always conflated with “realities”—of celebrity life. When social media offers us glimpses into the lives of those who are able to dress like the 1% but simultaneously talk the personal, relatable, intimate talk of microcelebrities (YouTube vloggers, mommy bloggers, online comic artists, and the like) we feel angry. We want disclosure. Where does your money come from? How can a 17-year-old afford these things when I can’t? Why do some people have so very much more than others?
Fashion usually avoids confronting economic inequality and rarely admits to its own unreality, let alone suggests that the rich don’t deserve more than the rest of us. Few of the personal style bloggers I interviewed would ever say something like that. But their plaintive cries betray them.
“Authenticity” is the predominant personal value of our time. It doesn’t mean having good character, or being kind, or even being hot. No, it means… what does it mean, exactly?
That depends. A purveyor of a heritage brand might tell you that authenticity is a matter of being made in the USA by a family-owned company—a kinder, gentler, smaller-scale capitalism. A hip-hop artist might suggest authenticity means remembering your roots when you get rich, staying connected to your community, not pretending to be something you’re not. A fashion blogger would say authenticity involves taking pictures of outfits you actually wear, disclosing clothing you get for free, and providing small glimpses of your personal life. In a response to a blog survey, personal style blogger The Put Together Girl wrote, “How I determine whether a blog is authentic or not, is whether or not I’d like to be friends with you in real life. Could I grab a cup of coffee with you? Could I go shopping with you? I think the key question I ask is do you let me enough into your life that I see that you’re a person with high points and low points, good days and bad?” In contrast, blogger SilverGirl wrote, “If the person dresses over-the-top all the time. I get the feeling they are just playing dress-up and not living in what they are posting as their daily wear.” AlliXT, who wrote a blog focused on second-hand and green fashion, told me:
I stopped reading [certain blogs] altogether because every single outfit was courtesy of, courtesy of, courtesy of… it went from having a little bit of an authentic voice to just being marketing copy…I consume blogging because it’s not traditional media, and I feel that I can tune out some of the messages that, if I were watching TV, would just be there in my face constantly.
In these examples, authenticity is not about eschewing commercialism but resisting the urge to give yourself over to it completely. That is, authenticity serves as a strategy for establishing a boundary between capitalism and the self. It establishes a hard limit that, once crossed, demonstrates that you’ve allowed commercialism to encroach on you completely.
It’s often difficult for fashion bloggers to maintain this boundary. With the current industry emphasis on word-of-mouth marketing, personal style bloggers, with their strong audience relationships, are catnip to marketers, who blanket them with free products, giveaways, and trips. While most fashion bloggers don’t get this type of attention, industry partnerships are a status marker to which many aspire. While their peers may be impressed with sponsors and advertisements, this can alienate readers, who often lust after the blogger’s personal style more than their readership.
Precisely because readers expect bloggers to be more “authentic” than fashion magazines, bloggers must strike a balance between keeping advertisers happy and maintaining their integrity. Liza of Style Blueprint told me, “To be authentic in what you’re writing about, it means that you fully support it. You have tried that face cream. And you didn’t just read about it, you tried it, you liked it, you support it, you think this is great.” As a result, almost all fashion bloggers have created, if only for themselves, a sense of where to draw the line. Some bloggers don’t accept “courtesy-of” goods, while others give them away to readers. Others will only display advertising from brands they like.
Regardless, the urge to sell out is always there. One woman I interviewed conceptualized her fashion blog as a way to get a post-college job. She hoped to show PR and marketing agencies her initiative by demonstrating her ability to attract advertisers and come up with creative sponsored posts. Fashion bloggers were in marketing whether they liked it or not. For them, authenticity is really a synonym for integrity.
Is it possible to be authentic—to seem to possess integrity on the audience’s terms—when one’s wealth differentiates them from 99 percent of readers? Fabianne Jach of The House in the Clouds thought so. She wrote, “If someone is a super sharp dresser with the discretionary income one only dreams of, it’s not any more authentic of them to try to play it down to just appear ‘authentic.’ ” But for most of my interviewees the lifestyles and background of luxury bloggers with sumptuous wardrobes raised questions. Third Floor Closet wrote, “Have you ever looked at a blog and thought that what’s shown there couldn’t be true, that no one lives like this? How does that person live so glamorously every day? When does she work? How do I know she knows what she’s talking about? Is this for real? Is this authentic?!” The lack of economic disclosure on blogs like Sea of Shoes—which, after all, is written by a teenage girl—was a constant source of frustration for the bloggers I spoke to.
A few years ago, personal style blogs were held up as a symbol of the democratization of fashion, allowing average women into the inner sanctum formerly occupied by Wintour and Roitfeld. Today, the vast and obvious inequalities of the blog-eat-blog world proves how oxymoronic that is, and how very la plus ça change the world of fashion remains. For Aldridge and her ilk, luxury begets luxury, since bloggers like BryanBoy and Aimee Song first came to prominence for their ease with designer clothes. High-end bloggers are advantaged from the start, since they can style and display luxury brands that are so coveted by readers. Now they’re also raking in sponsorship, styling, and appearance fees: Women’s Wear Daily reports that top bloggers like Medine, who boasts almost 4 million pageviews a month, make up to $500,000 yearly. With this clout comes more attention from the industry, more money, more readers, and more designer clothes. (While few of the most popular bloggers identify so-called “courtesy-of” goods, it’s likely that not every Celine bag and Gucci sandal is purchased at Bergdorf’s.)
Rather than normalizing young girls and women wearing luxury items, high-end personal style blogs bring into sharp relief the difference between the fashion industry and those who love it. This frank acknowledgement of budget constraints, especially when combined with condemnation of high fashion’s unrealities, reveals a push-pull relationship between the exclusivity industry that is fashion and the sui generis self-expression fetishized by personal personal style blogs. While luxury bloggers are embraced wholeheartedly by top brands, it’s only those who are outside fashion’s normative constraints who give fashion blogging any potentially democratizing or radical potential. Authenticity, which seems increasingly like a meaningless buzzword, is a remnant of that potential, drawing a fine line between the aesthetic pleasure fashion can provide and the temptation to sacrifice oneself to it.