As readers of my blog know I am fascinated by mass behaviors and mildly obsessed with trying to ask simple questions that reframe how I/we normally think about those behaviors.
Recently I have been thinking about the human need for novelty and the destabilization impulse and using them as lenses through which to view collective, style-making behaviors, in particular fashion.
There are some qualifications that are worth making at this point. My thoughts have been formed largely from empirical observations. I don't read fashion magazines very often and I don't work in that industry. That said, my daring intellect isn't afraid to speculate in areas outside of my expertise.
I live in New York City, a very densely populated, fashion-conscious city and home to many parts of the fashion industry. Its is a perfect setting for observing the way people engage in fashion behavior.
Scales of differences in manners of dress
The differences in types of garments worn from one culture to the next shows us how broad the possibilities are for styles of dress. Yet within any single culture at any given time, most individuals stay within a narrow range of fashions. This range however, is not static, it is a process in constant flux. Although trend-based retailers have accelerated the pace, a review of history shows that evolving change in manner of dress is not a modern phenomenon.
From season-to-season and year-to year the styles, colors and shapes of the things we wear go through stylistic permutations. These changes are adopted en mass, collectively. This process can be described as migratory, a constant pacing of one another, a feedback loop in which each individual monitors and responds to the ongoing changes within the group.
Two years ago, women were wearing shoes with long, pointed toes in Manhattan. It was a noticeable shift when the "ballerina" style of shoes became so popular last year. I was shocked at how quickly the migration took place. It was as if New York women went running from one style of shoe to the next.
It would be easy to frame such widespread adoptions of style as mindless consumerism and that wouldn't be an entirely unfair criticism. (See my posts on: Non-Creative Consuming) Fashion retailers have gotten very good at organizing and focusing their efforts.
As effective as fashion's marketing machine is it is not infallable. Three or four years ago I remember seeing velvet blazers in all of the Fall fashion guides for men. Sure enough, when Autumn rolled around every store from the Gap on up through the fashion food chain had velvet blazers on their racks. You saw them worn on the streets that season, but judging from the heavy inventory in stores the industry seriously overshot on this one. Did they really think EVERYONE would buy a velvet blazer.
This Spring I saw shirts with ruffled fronts in most designer's lines but I haven't seen many on the streets. Where do all the rejected garments go. I'd love get a sense of the waste that is produced by this industry. (What has the greater "volume", the self-righteous fronting of fashion causes like Project Red and models in support of PETA or the waste generated from forced fashion trends that fail?)
Transgression and Destabilization
The fine balance between how narrowly we pace one another and our attempts to push outside the norms to differentiate ourselves is of particular interest to me. Few people are so unique in their style of dress that they stray very far outside of normative behavior. Most of us operate within the narrow consensus margins of this changing, stylistic flow. The more daring amongst us perform creative acts that deviate and innovate just outside of current boundries, stretching and puncturing the perimeter of current trends.
They few with an outstanding knack for style (creating unique and interesting deviations against current modes)are influencers within the process.
"Best dressed", "worst dressed" and "what's hot" lists function as positive and negatve behavioral reinforment. The wildly popular blog Go Fug Yourself is dedicated to monitoring and addressing uncomfortable deviations from the fashion mean. (They beat the piss out of people that make poor fashion choices.)
Chloe Sevigny, multiple offender and aesthetic outcast.
As is shown by the example of Chloe Sevigny (from Go Fug Yourself) it's doesn't take much to fall too far outside the current stylistic margins. Her maner of dress isn't really that extreme or outrageous. Simply failing to keep up with seasonal change is enough to take you outside of the play of cultural conversation. In the case of the "Tron Guy" his behavior is no longer considered fashion, it would be more likely described as costume. If it were not for the fact that his outfit has a point of cultural reference it would be considered bizzare, indicative or mental instability. Anyone pushing things that far would probably be sent home from school or work. Their behavior would illicit disciplinary measures.
Trends and trendspotting are all about riding the tension between what is in bounds and out of bounds and having some predictive insight into the trajectory of mass behavior.
I often describe stylistic behavior as those things we add to survival behaviors. We all need clothes for warmth and protection but we don't necessarily need "fashon", not for biological survival anyway. We create systems of support and predictable structure to meet our base needs and when those are in place, when life is good and things are stable, something happens. We get bored and we get anxious. So what do we do? We find ways to rock the boat, to stir things up to inject an element of destabalization and make things interesting again.
In the case of fashion it is easy to see how pacing and destabalization also allows for games of social interacton. By pacing we can establish a sense of connection, acceptance and belonging within the larger group. Destablization on the other hand, allows us to be defiant, differentiate ourself and play pecking order games with one another (who's hot/who's not).
I believe that the desire to create destabilization exists on a deeply rooted impulse level. Here are a few other examples:
Soap operas are an injection of metaphoric, emotional destabilization for people with boring lives. When there isn't drama in our lives we create it or seek it out.
Boardgames, particularly the ones for small children that involved phusical skills or dexterity (stability maintenance) often have "impending doom" as their narrative theme. Examples that come to mind include Operation, Don't Spill the Beans and Don't Break the Ice.
Tempting fate. The Jaws Game required players to carefully remove pieces from the sharks mouth until it inevitably slams shut.
This destabilization impulse borders on the self-destruction at times. Adolescent males provide plenty of examples of this on YouTube.
I was discussing these ideas with a friend and he said "yea, you can picture a guy a couple of thousand of years ago saying "I wonder what will happen if I throw this rock at those Visigoths?".... and bang! human history is changed forever.