The Rise Of The Self-Appointed Fashion Police

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The biggest news that Richard Quinn — the young British designer known for floral prints and all-over bodysuits — has to share this year is that the Queen attended his London Fashion Week show in February. However, the drama of that moment was almost eclipsed (in fashion industry Instagram circles, at least) when the designer found himself at the centre of an online copycat scandal. Instigated by the now widely-known account @DietPrada, the post drew supposed comparisons between Quinn's work and that of Demna Gvasalia’s at Balenciaga.
From industry insiders to fans; everybody had an opinion. Especially, Diet Prada. Launched in 2014 and run by designer Tony Liu and design consultant Lindsey Schuyler, the social media account — whose Instagram bio reads "ppl knocking each other off lol" — acts as a new kind of fashion police, "calling out" copycats and sharing straight-up, unfiltered thoughts. The sort of thoughts you might think and say to your friends in private, but not necessarily commit to print, online or otherwise.
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But long before Diet Prada was policing fashion’s deep waters, there was Joan Rivers’ acerbic red-carpet commentary and her Fashion Police TV show. (The Diet Prada duo say they’ve been told it’s as though they’re continuing Joan’s work — the comic died in 2014.) Before Rivers, there was Richard Blackwell (better known as Mr. Blackwell), who was responsible for the satirical, tongue-in-cheek annual worst-dressed list, which made its debut in 1960 and was released the first Tuesday of January every year.
Before that came American fashion and PR guru Eleanor Lambert’s International Best Dressed List, which launched in 1940 and would go on to be known as the Vanity Fair Best Dressed list once the publication became its keeper in 2002. And somewhere between all of this, there have been countless other self-appointed arbiters of style — think the What Not To Wear franchise back in the '00s to the more recent rise of bloggers. The history of the fashion police and its call-out culture — from good to bad — goes way back.
"I think of 'fashion police' as implying a hypercritical approach. It’s criticism, it’s sneery, it’s scolding," says Brenda Polan, a fashion journalist and author who was formerly the fashion editor and women’s page editor at The Guardian. "There is a value judgement in there about current-ness. Are you up with the latest idea?" The earliest reference Polan can personally recall is in novels. It’s true — just think of a Jane Austen title and there's likely a snide remark about a two-decades-old outfit worn by one of the more comical or dowdy characters; something and someone to be made fun of.
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And that’s exactly what Mr. Blackwell managed to build a second career upon. A former actor, he was a fashion designer before he unleashed his first style critique on Hollywood’s leading ladies. Of Barbra Streisand, he once said: "She looks like a masculine Bride of Frankenstein," as well as: "What can I say? Yentl’s gone mental" — a reference to the title of a film she starred in. Meanwhile, he described Lindsay Lohan as going "from adorable to deplorable" and said of Björk: "She dances in the dark — and dresses there, too."
Mr. Blackwell’s premise was not to be entirely mean but to say things he thought we thought, and it was directed as much (if not more) at the designers as it was the women he called out. As noted in his obituary in The New York Times, Mr. Blackwell reportedly told The Los Angeles Times in 1968 that designers were forgetting that their job "is to dress and enhance women" and concluded: "Maybe I should have named the 10 worst designers instead of blaming the women who wear their clothes." A position that is more in line with Diet Prada’s current MO.
"I’m young and only know the basics in fashion history, so [Diet Prada] gives a little background and context to relatively exact copies of key historical pieces, or that’s how it comes across," says illustrator Megan St. Clair Morgan, 22. Deborah Lyons, a London-based designer, agrees that it’s important to have people calling out knockoffs, especially when you’re a small business and at the mercy of bigger brands. "We have a responsibility if we have pretensions to be proper journalists," she explains. "You have to call out designers who do clothes that are ugly or make women look ridiculous. You should police fashion in that you should be able to criticize trends in fashion, the clothes, and the producers of the clothes."
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But who gets to elect themselves as fashion’s so-called voice of reason? The 'criticism' of fashion has become increasingly democratic, and nothing has propelled that change more than the internet, where hot takes can be chucked out as readily as knowledgeable opinions can be carefully curated. "It has a lot to do with the format," Lyons says, noting Instagram’s one-line quest for attention; it’s one-tile titillation. Historically, Mr. Blackwell would gather press and TV cameras outside his mansion (how fabulous and old-school fashion) for the grand reveal of the worst-dressed list. But with time, it became an email instead.
Meanwhile, Joan Rivers was widely credited with revolutionizing red carpet commentary. In the '90s, she presented pre-awards TV show segments for the Golden Globes and the Oscars, and made the red carpet a space for public opinion and fashion judgement, broadcast direct to your living room. "What are you wearing?" became something of a catchphrase. "I just remember how funny she was," Lyons says. "Our industry has less humor now than it did."
That seems to be a difference between the fashion police and the fashion press — the former is geared more towards entertainment. "[With] Joan Rivers and her daughter [Melissa], it was witty but you felt guilty laughing about it," Polan says. It's not right but we’re all guilty of what-does-she-think-she-looks-like moments. Now, with a tap of a 'like' or 'publish' button, we can so easily make that judgement public. And even, in the case of Diet Prada, a viable profession.
Where we previously relied on more old-school methods, the all-enveloping digital and social media revolutions we’re experiencing have facilitated the rise of the self-appointed fashion police. As such, more independent voices have come to the fore. "I think we’re in a moment where having an opinion, and being confrontational and open on issues you’re experiencing, is seen as a good thing," says St. Clair Morgan, "and [that situation] allows things like [Diet Prada] to grow."
"[It’s] part of the fun of fashion," Lyons says. "To be stupid and ridiculous, to make mistakes and to push boundaries." A part that is, perhaps inevitably, met with ever-regenerating editions of the fashion police. For this is fashion, after all, and the next feather-ruffling iteration is always, always just around the corner.
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