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With COVID-19 putting a pause on the world, the fashion industry has been forced to adapt accordingly, and with the year’s second season of fashion weeks fast-approaching unsurprisingly, they are not proceeding as normal. Unwilling to disrupt the economy and put designer’s work to waste, the industry has followed in the footsteps of most other businesses and moved its highly-anticipated event online.

London led the way by streaming its virtual fashion week from the 12th to 14th June. Hosted by londonfashionweek.com, the three-day event offered a selection of interviews, podcasts, videos and digital showcases of SS21 collections for viewers to tune in with. Supposedly due to the disruptions in the production line, there was significantly less of a focus on the garments themselves and fewer of the leading fashion houses made an appearance. However, this did offer the opportunity to strip the industry from its jam-packed schedules and theatrical catwalk performances, providing the time and space to reflect on its contribution to current affairs as well as its hidden talents in the form of smaller designers.

A time for reflection

The digital London Fashion Week opened with a poem by James Massiah, which captured “all the things that are fun about Summer and all the things that we might miss because of lock down.” It further emphasised how fashion should no longer focus on “peoples’ identity, race or class. You can choose the clothes you wear, the people you hang out with and the places you go and I really wanted to focus on those things more.” This recognition of current affairs and pressing global issues set a striking tone of reflection for the days to come, in line with the slowed pace of life COVID-19 has encouraged us all to adopt. I’m sure we can all agree that taking the time to appreciate what we have got and could work further to achieve is a habit many could adopt.

Research has shown a relationship between being mindful and having more sustainable consumption – both of which have also been shown to improve long-term wellbeing. This brings to question why the fashion industry hasn’t adopted a greater focus on enhancing the wardrobes we currently have, rather than what we should add to it (Geiger, Grossman & Schrader, 2019).  What’s more, adopting a mindful approach can also benefit those around us too, as being aware of our actions makes us more likely to adopt them to become more prosocial (Donald et al, 2018).

Telling a story

The benefits of these new forms of Fashion Weeks may not lie only with the consumer. With approximately 4.57 billion people actively using the internet in April 2020, hosting catwalk shows online hugely increases the accessibility of live content worldwide – if you compare it to the handful of chosen celebrities and industry experts who sat in the front rows each year. By exposing the work of designers to thousands, if not millions, of more people it significantly increases the profiles of professionals and ultimately ends in more sales.

One of the most powerful aspects of the Fashion Week showcases are the stories that each collection conveys; and it is this narrative that allows people to connect with both the designers and the garments themselves. People are more likely to remember information presented in a story format, rate the brand more positively and be more likely to purchase the products (Lundqvist, Liljander, Gummerus & van Riel, 2013). Furthermore, stories are easy for consumers to attend to. From a young age many of us are presented with information through stories, we learn to connect to others by learning about their experiences and appreciate the world by engaging in its history (e.g. Woodside, Sood & Miller, 2008). Although we have begun to see live streams of catwalk shows made available to the public in recent years, it is perhaps surprising that it has taken a pandemic to push the fashion industry into expanding its online presence during Fashion Week, given the accessibility, adaptability and arguably increasingly effective nature of the internet.

What’s next?

This wave of innovation is something that has been deemed as an inherent human instinct; we are driven to adapt to environmental and situational changes, or pressures in order for us to survive – both in physical and organisational terms (Reiter-Palmon, 2011). However, as in most cases, a first attempt is not perfect, so with this season pioneering the new fashion week modality, it is inevitable that mistakes will be made.

Researchers have shown that innovation and creativity however is not always as simple is learning from and acting upon mistakes. In fact, there are a number of specific factors that foster change more effectively than others. Axtell, Holman & Wall (2006) noted how a high initial level of external support for new suggestions is needed, followed by structural job changes like the level of autonomy which allow individuals to freely adapt and generate new ideas. Finally, team members and colleagues must also be supportive of and willing to implement such changes. Although not a complete explanation, this may help to explain why this seemingly obviously beneficial method of communicating Fashion Week has been resisted until now.

Similarly, while we do indeed love to adapt and innovate, we are also creatures of habit. And one thing digital Fashion Weeks threaten is a love for tradition. These historically social and creative events have been held biannually ever since 1943, which provides us a sense of security. Their predictability subtly indicates that everything is constant and ‘normal’ – which is when we naturally feel most comfortable (Psychology Today). As I’m sure you are all aware, the current global situation is somewhat abnormal, and moving these events online only signifies this further by disrupting the predictability, constancy and normality that we crave.

It is still too early to see whether digital Fashion Weeks will be responded to with resentment or seen as a revolution, but whatever the case it is no secret that this new digital scene will take some getting used to. Hundreds of photographers, reporters, celebrities and stylists congregate in the world’s fashion capitals to observe the next-season’s trends, so to see these cities silent in what is usually one of their busiest times of year will be a significant change.

However, this new wave of innovation could be somewhat exciting. Technology is continually advancing, such as the introduction of shopping in virtual reality (Hur, Jang & Choo, 2019), leaving the possibilities for the future of fashion almost endless. Could we be witnessing a momentous change in the fashion industry, or do you think the tradition is too strong for any changes to have a lasting impact? 

The whole situation with coronavirus has undoubtedly taken us by surprise, and in many ways, it has changed our daily lives – myself included. One of the habits that I have unfortunately, developed is being unconsciously glued to my phone 24/7. While watching everyone on Instagram becoming a yoga expert, among other popular lockdown activities, I started wondering what the effect of this was having on my mental health. Don’t get me wrong, it is fantastic that Instagrammers can offer us a form of escapism during these turbulent times. However, for many, seeing such visuals can plunge you into a rabbit hole of social comparison. Therefore, it’s a great moment to ask the question – could social media be the cause of our undoing?

The dark side of Instagram

We are social creatures. The human mind often defaults to social comparison – what other people are doing, eating etc. As the Social Comparison Theory by Festinger (1954) states, we self-evaluate through judging ourselves against others. More worryingly,  we also tend to use other people as reference points to compare our bodies. What happens when you add social media to the mix is that it often results in dissatisfaction with one’s body image. Psychologists say that because Instagram is based on visual communication, it is the easiest for its users to compare themselves with ideal standards of beauty. We are bombarded with pictures of thin and fit people, which serve to harm our body image. 

Why is Instagram potentially worse than the fashion magazines and ads we see off-line? Such social networking sites are peer-generated. What does that mean? Well, the power of comparison is more potent when we’re talking about someone who has many similar characteristics to us. Therefore, a perfect, photoshopped model will not have such an effect as an authentic and spontaneous selfie from a social media friend. Potentially, because we are staying at home now, we can spend more time on social media. Platforms such as Instagram could have a more significantly detrimental effect on body image, especially the “fit inspirations”. What we can observe for the last couple of months is that all weights and yoga mats are sold out, everywhere. Exercise has been associated with a more positive body image (Hausenblas & Fallon, 2006). Still, there should not be any pressure to exercise because everyone does. Which, in fact, might be the case. 

The long overdue change

Somehow, throughout the last years, we have accepted likes as a numerical measurement of physical beauty. This unbelievably reductionistic fact is the part of current reality. In the eyes of young girls, the number of likes equals not only their beauty but also how worthy they see themselves. Fortunately, this is where some people say enough is enough, urging for a pause in self-objectification and homogenous ideals of beauty. Billie Eilish spoke up about being more than her body in her short film “Not My Responsibility“. This is one of the profoundly empowering moments that we’ve recently experienced and desperately needed. She’s saying a definite no to being defined by her body. 

In spite of the negativity, Instagram might not be all that bad. Body positivity content, such as Billie Eilish’s movie, is what we can actually see emerging on Instagram. As highlighted by fashion Psychologist  Dr Aurore Bardey, “social media is changing – Instagram is where we can find diversity and representation. Whatever body type you have, you can find yourself in social media”. She underlines that Instagram is actually the most inclusive platform. The diversity we can see grow on social media decreases the negative aspects of social comparison. In some sense, Instagram has brought democracy to representations of beauty. With such a revolution of accepted beauty ideals, Instagram is where we can find a sense of belonging. In the end, it can actually have a positive effect on body image.

The antidote

When talking about presenting an inclusive and diverse image of the female and male body, most of the fashion brands have a long way to go in how they promote themselves on social media. 

When I asked Dr Bardey what advice she would give on the topic of lockdown and body image, she proposed trying out sustainability as an approach to daily life. Sustainability not only in the sense of material consumption but also the consumption of information and how we spend our time. It is the perfect time for reflection because we, in a sense, have to take a break from fashion. It is an incredibly fast-paced industry, now making an obligatory pause. Usually, trends on and off Instagram are incredibly short-lived. Therefore we are used to everything changing, always wanting something or simply wanting more. Thus, by valuing the time we have now, we can spend it more positively.

If the choice is to use social media, we can decide how to consume it. As Profesor Laurie Santos from Yale explains, the clue lies in what are the reference points that we’re letting inside our head. Are those the ones to which we will be making upward social comparisons that will make us feel dissatisfied? Perhaps, we could curate the information around us by allowing the information that is getting in to be more accurate and more representative of real people’s bodies, real people’s experiences. As she underlines, it is hard to stop information after it gets into your head, but you can choose what you allow to get in.

Any way you choose to spend your time in the lockdown is okay. It is not anyone’s right to dictate what you should do or how you should feel but if you’re feeling jealous or ‘not good enough’ it’s time to evaluate the content you’re consuming. Curate a feed that actually makes you feel good about yourselves. I mean, you have the time.

When you read the term ‘fashion influencer’ who do you think of? @Melissaswardrobe? @Charlotteemilysanders? @Jeffgoldblum? Yourself? Accessibility to fast fashion and high-grade cameras have aided the rise in fashion influencers making a career on platforms such as Instagram and 21 Buttons – tools that have helped produce style icons as young as 11 years old. Although such fashion influencers play a pivotal role in providing us with endless bouts of inspiration, research has found that their success and quadruple digit likes can sadly also inspire feelings of envy.

Why them and not me?

They main appeal of Influencers is that they are more alike their audience than traditional celebrities. They’re more like us and while their reach and engagement rates are impressive they’re also accessible. It seems that an iphone, a few editing apps and a keen interest in style can put the instafamous lifestyle within anyone’s reach but many people simply can’t achieve the same level of success. When conducting my own research, I found that many young women secretly adopt the attitude of ‘why them and not me?’ and other studies have found similar results. If you’ve ever had a green eyed moment, don’t worry, you’re not alone – a classic psychology theory called social comparison explains how we’re all susceptible to this phenomenon. 

Our increased activity online has resulted in many of us engaging in ‘upwards social comparison’ – meaning that when we see another person who we believe to be in a better position than us, whether that be in terms of style or wealth or in any capacity, we instinctively compare ourselves to them. So, instead of feeling inspired by a post full of the latest ‘#gifted’ designer garms, we become consumed with the need to make our lives more Insta-worthy. This comparison becomes even more complex when influencers create compelling content feature fast fashion finds. For example, while influencers such as @naomigenes and @missjosline have continually shown that you don’t have to wear expensive clothes to be stylish, their ‘balling on a budget’ posts  can unintentionally create feelings of hostility among their followers purely because they are very likely to own the same outfit on but only receive 60 likes compared their 60,000.

Research suggests that comparison is at the root of envy inspiring feelings of inferiority which may be linked to low self-esteem. Most research into social media activity has found envy via these negative social comparisons to be a causal factor of depression (Lee, 2014). This is even more worrying when the comparison comes in the form of carefully constructed and edited photos full of achievable looks because when the comparisons standards are high, they can result in higher levels of envy and ultimately, depression. Furthermore, in 2016 research found a positive association between social comparison by way of social media body image dissatisfaction in women.

The online world creates a compelling venue for new influencers through which we can all receive guidance and be inspired by show-stopping looks. To maintain what should be a healthy relationship between you and your favourite influencers I suggest cutting back on the screen time just a little bit. Not only is it bad for your wellbeing but the green with envy look suits absolutely no one.

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.