Dirt: The flat era of fashion
Ana Kinsella on this depressingly boring era of posting on Instagram, and @ParisiensinParis, one of the accounts that combat it.
When I am numbed by all my phone can offer me, I dream of fashion blogs. Specifically, I dream of those that I loved years before, when I was a student: street style blogs, the pre-monetized version, often run by a single photographer who pounded the streets of their town looking for outfits to document.
For me, these blogs—with names like “Hel Looks” or “Stil in Berlin”—were a window. The clothing pictured was like an ephemeral gesture towards life in these cities. Browsing through them, I could compare and contrast each image with the perception of style I had gathered through my own life, in my own city. This was what personal style was to me in 2008: a cipher for something much broader, a glimpse into the lives of others.
Now the landscape of fashion content is barely recognizable. That type of blog is mostly gone, and in its wake, we have Instagram. When I browse Instagram looking for fashion content, I find hundreds of images of women in cool outfits, or classic outfits, or zeitgeisty outfits. These images might be taken on street corners, or on beaches, or in bedrooms. What they have in common is that they’re flat, like advertising hoardings. They barely even register now as images of individual people.
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Welcome to the flat era of fashion. Flat is what happens when consumers buy clothing on the basis of how it looks in two dimensions, in an image to be shared on social media. It’s also the result of designers designing this way, as many have been for at least ten years. Back in 2012, Comme des Garçons sent out a collection of literally flat, paper doll-like looks—each garment almost paper-thin when viewed from side-on. Style.com said the collection was a satire of the two-dimensionality of fashion journalism. Sure. But it was also a comment on how we were beginning to consume fashion in our own lives. When we dress to be photographed, we increasingly dress to be distributed as an image, and thus transformed into a kind of ad.
Flat is not an aesthetic so much as a mode of dress—a format that turns every outfit into content that can be consumed, every image into catalog. The flat era doesn’t care about your preferred style or look, since it eats every trend that brands and designers can throw at us. It likes It-items, must-haves, rare finds. It’s post-moodboard. Flat likes fast fashion. Not because of the price or the quality, but the speed at which new trends can be produced and disseminated. It likes novelty. It likes product. And it definitely doesn’t have room for personal style.
Let me be clear that I don’t believe personal style itself is dead in the flat era. I see it every day, when I commute through London and take in the outfits of my fellow Tube passengers. I see it also in the well-dressed, idiosyncratic women and men in my own life. But it can be harder to find on the street now, in part because the same few stores fill so many of our wardrobes. And online, it’s almost impossible. The street style slideshows published by Vogue and others during fashion week are now too arch, too knowing: fashion industry professionals and amateur style obsessives both dressing for the camera. On Instagram, the situation is even worse. When truly stylish people post uncontrived outfit photos or mirror selfies, the algorithm seems to bury them deep in the feed. Meanwhile, my Explore page boils fashion down into suggested tags like Aesthetic style or VSCO outfits or Minimal chic. Each one of these has a visual language of its own, but the effect is inevitably the same: people in outfits, styled and posed and shot in a way intended to impart a particular mood. These images are empty. Again, everything looks and feels like an ad, and much of it is one.
The impact of the flat era is obvious. Fashion itself is flattened. It’s stripped of its surprising elements and packaged into something more instantly recognizable, something that will reliably sell. The “sans serif revolution” of brand logos, whereby European fashion houses replaced their idiosyncratic typefaces with clean sans-serif fonts in the late 2010s, many of them designed by Peter Saville, is one symptom of this. Character is gone, because eccentricity is harder to duplicate and sell in bulk.
But Diana Vreeland was right when she said that the eye has to travel. There’s little room to do so in the Instagram feed, but bored on my phone one afternoon, I finally found some space. @Parisiensinparis is an account that posts anonymous pictures of stylish strangers spotted on the streets of Paris. In these images, well-dressed Parisiens walk down the street while looking at their phones, or pause on their Vélib’ bike at a junction. They don’t know the camera is there, so they give the impression of breezing through the frame, and through my screen, like a stylish ghost on her way somewhere more important. What @parisiensinparis provides, along with similar accounts from London, Turin and many more, is the same sensation that those early street style blogs had given me. That thing that is missing in contemporary fashion content: something less deliberate, stranger and more ephemeral.
I can also perform a kind of travel through these accounts. Flat is in essence a process of homogenization. Today it doesn’t matter where an influencer lives, because she dresses like she’s from the internet, and that’s all that counts. But on @parisiensinparis I can be reminded of how people actually dress when walking down the street in Paris, and when I am finished with that I can hop to similar accounts from New York, or Zaragoza, or Utrecht, or Ankara.
Here those subtle regional differences do exist, even if people the world over shop in Zara. In London, for instance, handbags are bigger, since the city itself sprawls and commute times are longer. In Milan there is more obvious luxury—designer shoes, buttery leather. In Utrecht there are outfits that can be worn on bikes and in Ankara, streetwear and pops of vivid color.
Wherever the accounts are based, the images show outfits in a genuine context: not posed for a camera, not put together for the engineering of profit. @Parisiensinparis, which describes itself as “anonymous, always,” favors rear-view shots to avoid capturing faces. Often we see bottoms clad in denim, legs striding elegantly away from the camera. Scrolling through its feed, I have the feeling I’m walking down the street, and nobody is trying to sell me anything. — Ana Kinsella
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