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Doing it for the 'gram: Is social media the end of fashion?

Monday 12th December 2016

Visiting fashion academics Dr Jana Hawley and Dr Andrew Reilly on selfies, seasons and saying goodbye to fashion as we know it.

Photo: Instagram

She stares back at you from the small filtered square, her face a winning combination of flirty and furtive. She’s wearing an outfit you haven’t seen before, and though it’s not a style you have seen before, but on her it looks lovely. You click the little heart, comment "BABE" and continue scrolling. You never think of the outfit again. Nor does she.

It's a moment of modern banality, yet Dr Jana Hawley of The University of Arizona and Dr Andrew Reilly of the University of Hawai‘i say this exchange, and the context in which it emerged, is more meaningful and significant that you might think.

In Wellington to present their paper Attention Deficit Fashion: A Framework for Understanding Micro-trends, at Massey University's The End of Fashion conference and exhibition, Dr Reilly and Dr Hawley argue that social media’s impact on fashion reflects and reinforces major changes both within the industry and in society as a whole.

We caught up with Dr Reilly and Dr Hawley to find out what these changes are, what they mean, and whether we are in fact seeing the ‘end of fashion’.


What is Attention Deficit Fashion?

Dr Reilly: The term describes the conceptual framework around the current social and industrial conditions that exist that have resulted in the rapid turnover of fashion trends.

Part of the issue with fashion today is what’s known as "fast fashion" and it's marked by cheap labour, cheap clothing, that brings out new styles every couple of weeks. The clothing is worn, if at all, one or two times and then discarded. But part of what fuels fast fashion is social media.

People are on Instagram, Facebook, all the other platforms, they only want to be seen in an outfit once, so there's what's known as "tagophobia" which is the fear of being tagged in the same outfit at different locations.

People will buy an outfit and wear it just once, or if they are taking selfies they don't want to have the same selfie with more than one outfit. So it's using clothes just once just for an image or a picture and then basically not needing them anymore so that of course contributes to waste and overconsumption.

Dr Hawley: We really think it's going to even be faster than a fad and that, what we call a micro-trend, is happening at such a rapid pace that it's basically meaningless. There is no trend, it happens so quickly that it's here and done within a matter of hours sometimes.

Dr Reilly: Where a fad might be across the country, or you would notice it, a micro-trend is something that's maybe limited to geographic region or to a specific demographic or specific network of social media users.

Are micro-trends restricted to social media or do they affect the way people dress day to day?

Dr Reilly: I would say so. The younger generation, since they're more likely to take selfies, they're more likely to be photographed or have their friends take photographs of them and post them online and they don't want to be photographed in the same outfit. So they are looking for what’s hot, what’s new, but wear it once.

How is this felt in the fashion industry at large?

Dr Reilly: I think we're just at the beginning of it, because the fashion industry is going through a major significant change from what it was originally known as. Originally the designers and the manufacturers were the trendsetters.

We started to see that start to change in the '60s where the youth started to be the trendsetters, and now the consumers are the trendsetters. They decide what they're going to buy and what they're not going to buy. They have so much power based on whether they like something or not.

And there are collaborations between brands, companies and style tastemakers to encourage people to wear their clothes so that their followers will see them, and then their followers will end up buying them. So the industry has tapped into using their consumers as advertising tools.

Does this change the way fashion seasons and collections are distributed?

Dr Hawley: I don't think we have seasons anymore, I think it’s constant.

Dr Reilly: Years ago it was two seasons, and then you had four and now if you look at all the different seasons there's fall, there's spring, summer one, summer two, resort, cruise, cruise two - they keep coming up with all these new names for seasons that every week it seems like there's a new season.

Dr Hawley: I really don't think we can use the word seasons anymore because it truly is constant change. And when you bring out new lines so quickly, consumers cross over those lines and so it gets very mixed up in interpretation. How you interpret what comes out this week, pairing it with something that comes out in two weeks, becomes the micro-trends that we're seeing.

Is this driven by celebrity culture?

Dr Reilly: I think we did see that at first with examples like Kim Kardashian, who became known for being famous and has parlayed that into a career. Now with internet fame there's what’s called insta-fame. You can trend or become viral and all of a sudden have a following. You can become a celebrity in your own time and wield a significant amount of influence.

Are micro-trends a passing phase or the future of the way people consume fashion?

Dr Reilly: I think this is here to stay for some time, people aren't ready yet to give up fashion. They still want to have what's new, what's hot, what's on trend, that's a social issue right there. So I don't think we're going to see the end of style or the end of manufacturing.

Dr Hawley: What I would say could drive consumption is that climate change might finally resonate with enough people that we change it. But that's going to be a ways down the road because fashion still plays too much of a power.

How does this affect luxury brands?

Dr Hawley: I think that you'll have different markets, socioeconomic markets, and so the high-end fashion will still hit for those people who have the means to purchase. But even then that’s been democratised.

Dr Reilly: I think what you see now is that you have middle class or working class people who will save up and buy a very expensive luxury purse, but then their wearing it with flip-flops.

Is this the end of fashion?

Dr Reilly: Well no, I think it's a condition. It depends on how you look at fashion, but I think it's a change to fashion as we have always known and experienced it: that it's sped up, who has power and control over trends has changed, and there's just a ravenous desire for the new and the latest now.

Part of it I think, when we go back to Attention Deficit Fashion, is people's attention and time span is much shorter now. One study showed that people's attention spans are now eight seconds long and so if you look at how that relates to social media you have Twitter which is 140 characters, Snapchat where the image lasts for 10 seconds. You can be bombarded with images for a short period of time and I think that follows over into people's attention.

Dr Hawley: It's also exacerbated by the cheapness, the low cost that you can now get fashionable goods. Not well made - they're truly disposable clothing. But if you don't have to pay more than $10 for something people don't care and that contributes to the issue of sustainability as well.

Does the desire for constant renewal override consumer concerns about ethical clothing production or climate change?

Dr Hawley: For some but not most.

Dr Reilly: You know what's funny, when I do talk to people or students there's a disconnect. People do say they're concerned about sweatshops or concerned about the environment and sustainable clothing but when it comes time to purchase it, it is the price and the style that drives them. I think if you go into a room right now and ask "do you know where that shirt was made that you're wearing now", most people wouldn't know because they didn't check when they were buying it. They looked at "alright, I can afford it, I like the style and it's easy to take care of."

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

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Katie is a journalist at The Wireless.
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