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In February — a lifetime ago — I was in Europe for fashion weeks, and a friend DMed me: “Why do you have paparazzi shots of yourself?”
I had to laugh. For people who don't follow fashion, street style is an alien, and inherently confusing, phenomenon. Sometimes it takes someone else’s perspective to realize how ridiculous something is. For the uninitiated, it’s probably alarming and confusing to see swarms of photographers outside of fashion shows, blocking traffic to snap the perfect shot of a wildly dressed person as she crosses the street. Even for the indoctrinated, it’s a lot.
It is hard to remember a time when this part of the fashion world wasn’t so ubiquitous and pervasive, but before the mid-2000s, street style as we know it didn’t exist. The New York Times had spent several decades publishing Bill Cunningham’s work, famously featuring stylish New Yorkers going about their everyday lives, but street style that was specific to fashion week’s attendees had been relegated to a few pages in print magazines. With the rise of online media, though, street style took off in a new way, thanks to a few bloggers — The Sartorialist and Street Peeper, most memorably — who carved out a specific online niche photographing cool people on the sidewalk. By 2006, the most well-known street style bloggers were noticed by brands, who flew them around the world to fashion weeks to capture the glamorous and often chaotic process of arriving and departing from a fashion show.
This is one of the best examples of the way old-school fashion media — and then the fashion industry at large — was flipped upside-down by digital. With access to once-exclusive events at their fingertips, outsiders became insiders, and then they became stars, eclipsing the old guard.
And then, in 2009, Dolce and Gabbana put street style photographers in the front row: a declaration of the importance of not just those individuals, but of their work. Fashion media took notice. Soon, magazines were hiring their own street style photographers, rolling out slideshows and galleries filled with fashion’s most beloved figures crossing the street, hailing cabs, and battling the elements, often with puzzled onlookers in the background. In 2011, Phil Oh shot his first fashion week for Vogue, a gig he still has.
As part of the democratization of fashion — when influencers and bloggers were invited to shows and fashion month became as much, if not more, about the people attending as the work being showcased — street style marked a shift; personal style became more interesting than runway style, which so often felt editorial and abstract (not to mention showcased on such a singular body type) and totally out of reach.
The proliferation of street style was, ultimately, positive; this type of content allowed women who didn’t look like runway models (i.e. tall, thin, and young) to have a presence in fashion month coverage, and along with that, allowed for readers to see people who look more like themselves. Refinery29 was part of that shift — one of the things this site was known for in its early days was its street style, as part of a rebellious spirit that declared fashion to be for everyone.
But not everyone was thrilled with the change. “Today, the people outside fashion shows are more like peacocks than crows,” fashion critic Suzy Menkes infamously lamented in the NYT in 2013 in an article that roundly blasted the institution of street style for turning editors into spectacles. Mourning the 1990s, an era when fashion editors showed up clad in all-black for shows as though they were attending a funeral, Menkes condemned the fact that people were now getting dressed specifically to get noticed, saying that there was a difference between true style and simply showing off. She asked — in a hilariously out-of-touch line that clearly speaks to a generational difference — “If fashion is for everyone, is it fashion?”
The answer to that question, for a lot of people, was a resounding “YES!” In 2014, Refinery29 published a NYT bestseller called Style Stalking. “Get set to build your best ever wardrobe featuring the hardest-working looks from around the globe with Refinery29—the world’s leading style destination—as their editors break down the essentials of the everyday chic, straight from the street,” the synopsis reads on Amazon. Fashion was becoming more for everyone than it had ever been before.
Suddenly, it became standard for editors to give photographers lists of people to shoot, so that dozens of cameras were all competing to grab what was, in essence, the same shot of the same well-known influencers wearing the same outlandish, if formulaic, outfits — a far cry from the emphasis on originality that inspired street style in the first place. Which also means that Menkes’s 2013 article was more prescient than street style fans would have liked it to be; it signaled the beginning of the end. In an oral history of street style, photographer Phil Oh recalled to Vogue, “When the Suzy piece came out, the mood changed overnight. All of a sudden people were like, ‘Oh, no, street style has become too much. It’s so manufactured. It’s so fake. Oh, my God, it’s so over.’”
I was a 24-year-old beauty assistant at Refinery29 in 2013, attending my first fashion week. As a young person who, admittedly, knew nothing about fashion before I dove headfirst into the industry, street style photography was terrifying. “Street style is bad,” I remember saying to a colleague while walking into a show. I had just passed by a well-known street style photographer, and watched as he assessed me — and then put his camera down, turning away.
That turned out to be a not uncommon experience for me, even when I had titles like fashion director and editor-in-chief. And it wasn’t just me — many industry friends I talked to about this story immediately said things like “street style is awful and I hate it” as soon as I brought it up. Of course, it will always feel bad — like a personal rejection — when someone looks you up and down and then turns away. But, really, it’s just business.
Most people who are street style stars are wearing borrowed clothes to fashion week, some because they’re getting paid to, and others because it increases their chances of being photographed. Some are dressed by the brands of the shows they are attending, which is an interesting marketing strategy because it not only increases the street style opportunities, thus spreading images of the product to more places, but it creates a public allegiance between the brand and the person. (Full disclosure: I, too, usually borrow clothes.) This is an added, weird layer to what street style has become. It used to be about personal style, and now it’s about… brand relationships. So, money. Lots of it.
And where there’s lots of money involved, there’s always going to be an underlying, complicated power structure. Because, while street style does indeed act as an ongoing reclamation of personal style, street style photographers and the editors who select which photos to run all act as gatekeepers, making street style feel like an insider’s club for popular people only.
At its best, then, the vibe is extremely middle school. At its worst, street style upholds the kind of racism and fatphobia that has long run rampant in the industry. In 2018, Lindsay Peoples Wagner (now the editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue) published a story on The Cut headlined, “Street Style Is Killing Itself With Its Narrow Focus On Thin White Women.” Of The Cut’s 300 street style pictures that season, she counted 29 men and women who were not white. “This season the lack of inclusivity in street-style photographs was so blatant it felt cruel,” she wrote.
But perhaps street style’s true killer can be summed up best in one word: Instagram. As street style stars took to reposting their own images from magazine slideshows, a not-so-subtle kind of humble-brag to illustrate their influence, and street style galleries went from magazine features to popular social media marketing tools, trends popped up that seemed to specifically cater to Instagram — bold and graphic prints, statement coats, sneakers. The louder an item, the better it’ll look on the feed, and thus the more likely it is to get photographed.
Other fashion lovers who might not have been photographed at all began to recreate the aesthetic of street style on Instagram, posting their own fashion directly to their feeds, not waiting for a well-known photographer to bless their outfit with a snap. Influencer photography began to look a lot like the street style photography that was coming out of digital women’s media, complete with cobblestone streets, halted traffic, and golden-hour light — with or without a fashion show to go to.
So while digital magazine-driven street style photography upended the hierarchy of runway photography, Instagram culture stepped in to upend that. With the power to create and curate their own images at their fingertips — images that would compete in personal feeds right above and below images from magazines — people soon realized that they didn’t have to wait for a pro to document their look.
One year ago, Vogue published a timeline of street style trends from the 2010s onward. “We’re only halfway through the year, but so far 2019 has been ‘peak’ everything: peak maximalism, peak influencer, peak celebrity, even peak minimalism as a reaction to all of that,” it reads, concluding: “The streets of 2019 are more varied and diverse than they’ve ever been; let’s hope 2020 can keep the good vibes going.” Which, oof.
Fashion month, as we knew it, is over. The world has changed. Many runway shows are turning to the digital space, curating live-streamed attempts at recreating the feel of a fashion show. But that leaves out street style, which, for many, is the most visible — and most vital — part of the whole thing. So what happens to street style in a digital season? What is the next iteration of this storied institution?
Tyler McCall, the editor-in-chief of Fashionista, pointed out to me that the tradition of showgoers borrowing clothes from brands in order to be seen has continued in the quarantine era. It just looks a little different. “During the couture shows, a few influencers I follow still got dressed up in clothes from brands to post about livestreams — which I get, everyone still needs to get paid,” she said, adding, “It's not quite the same when you're sending clothes for influencers to wear watching your show from the couch instead of the front row.”
It might not be the same, but maybe that’s a good thing. For one, self-documented style is inherently more empowering than allowing street style photographers to evaluate whether your outfit is worthy. I mean, literally: by taking a selfie and posting it, the power to show your style is in your hands. There is absolutely no need to rely on street style photographers to deem it worthy. And influencer culture, the epitome of the aforementioned spirit, was already eclipsing the days of editors dictating trends (though, the question of who influences us post-pandemic lingers). But, more than that, this season’s shift from street style to screen style — even though the pandemic didn’t give us much of a say in the matter — hopefully marks the end of the “circus” era of fashion week and the dawn of a new one that re-centers personal style above peacocking and marketing tactics. Even if that style is taking place on the couch.