Popped up: How influencers are stealing power from fashion magazines

Three figures wearing wildly different styles of colorful clothes in front of a light red background
Graphic by Annie Wu

As I reach into my closet for an outfit, I think about what inspired me to buy each piece. I choose a green button-up corduroy dress, which reminds me of the 1970s. I follow vintage fashion lovers on sites like Pinterest and have slowly implemented garments that matched those aesthetics.

But Pinterest isn’t all that motivates my wardrobe — I have numerous points of inspiration that have influenced my clothing, many of which I’ve discovered on both Instagram and Facebook. These include the uber-online Everlane, Los Angeles Apparel and ThredUp. Social media’s influence on fashion is something I noticed when I learned more about the history of fashion and its industry.

Last summer, I interned at a museum’s department of photographs, where I spent hours sifting through archives of iconic fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. As I scanned early 2000s issues, I noticed how many of the garments worn by models were also worn by featured celebrities, and that much of these same types of outfits and silhouettes appeared on-screen on famous shows and movies like “Sex and the City” and “Clueless.”

Back then, fashion magazines still had a firm hold on “what to wear” (or not), and much of what both celebrities and everyday people wore pointed back to the mainstream established by fashion magazines. 

Pre-social media fashion was widely influenced by magazine’s fashion editors who projected upcoming fashion trends based on what they saw on the runway. This meant that major fashion publications had a large say in what was going to be in style for an upcoming season.

Now, print magazines have less reach. The age of Instagram, Twitter and YouTube has loosened this defining grip once held by the fashion magazine industry over the mainstream and ushered in a greater prominence of many different avenues for personal style. 

Now, users can present their own selves and define their own style — they can make themselves into a new form of celebrity or fashion influencer on their own terms. 

This new form of celebrity has a different relationship with fashion. Rather than dressing in line with what a fashion magazine defines as good style, like earlier film and television celebrities (recall the iconic-but-homogenous 1990s fashion of Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox in “Friends”), individual style is used to garner unique attention and build a character and persona. 

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Influencers are rewarded for individualism — the more non-mainstream and individual style, the more of a place you have as an influencer or social media celebrity. 

For example, Barbie Ferreira, a model and body-positivity advocate, posts eccentric size-inclusive looks — nothing that likely would have graced the cover of a 90s Vogue — to an Instagram audience of 1.6 million. Billie Eilish’s bold and baggy style propelled her to the status of a style icon — an Instagram post of her neon green hair and stacks of chain necklaces has more than 10 million likes. 

But what does all this mean for the stylistic choices of non-influencers? It means that, increasingly, the everyday person now has more to choose from in terms of the trends they themselves want to follow. 

Turning to my high school-aged sister, this phenomenon became very apparent to me. 

After introducing me to countless fashion influencers like bestdressed and showing me what a VSCO girl is (which I am still not entirely sure I understand), I can see that there’s a lot of inspiration that people can relay into their own personal style choices. Social media users now have the autonomy to flood their feed with any given style they choose, whether that be something like VSCO, softboy or a minimalistic or monochromatic style.

Without a dominant instruction on what is “good fashion,” there’s a greater chance that more diverse bodies and voices are celebrated both online and in fashion. Namely, I think of something that’s specifically lost, perhaps for a good reason: the “Who Wore it Better” section, where images of celebrity women are put up against one another and rated on who looked “better” in a given silhouette or garment.

This sort of comparison not only undermines the notion that beauty is subjective, but also enforces a norm where it’s okay to numerically rate someone’s appearance — which implies that there are certain physical qualities that lead to someone earning a “higher score,” or being intrinsically “better.”

A decline in the influence of fashion magazines has prompted an increase in choice when it comes to personal style, which in turn has fostered increased diverse discourse on beauty. This new shift away from one clearly defined fashion mainstream gives people a greater degree to define and explore themselves through what they wear.

Hannah Avalos PO ’21 is one of TSL’s pop culture columnists. She’s an English major and recent transfer student who loves creative writing, picking out which earrings to wear and finishing the books she starts reading.

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