‘When I was growing up and reading magazines, I didn’t see anybody that looked like me,” fashion blogger Aimee Song says in a video on her Song of Style blog.
Duke University Press, Nonfiction.
In 2008, she took matters into her own hands by posting a photo of herself online. Today she publishes nearly 200 outfit posts each year. A typical post shows the blogger’s outfit of the day, sometimes accompanied by a text description (a “style story”) that may include links to places online where individual items can be purchased. Blogs such as Song’s helped precipitate the now-ubiquitous “selfie” and “ootd” (outfit of the day) images that now dominate Instagram. These style blogs have completely changed the way fashion, beauty and identity are presented and consumed. In contrast to the big-budget images produced by the fashion industry, these outfit posts offer a glimpse at how everyday people engage with clothing.
With more than three million followers on Instagram, Song is considered to be one of the world’s influential “superbloggers.” Furthermore, she is Korean-American, which makes her success even more notable within a Euro-American dominated fashion industry that is often criticized for its lack of racial diversity. Other top Asian bloggers include U.K.-based Chinese-Britian Susie Lau of Style Bubble, New York-based Filipino Bryan Yambao of Bryanboy, and Los Angeles-based Japanese-American Rumi Neely of Fashion Toast.
The fashion press has lauded these individuals as proof of the industry’s growing acceptance of cultural difference and diversity. But are selfies by Asian style bloggers truly democratizing fashion?
In “Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet,” author Minh-Ha T. Pham — an assistant professor in media studies at New York’s Pratt Institute — explores the ascendency of Asian style bloggers, and examines the meaning of “Asian taste” in the early 21st-century. Her research looks at this new digital “creative class” of young fashion-savvy individuals and questions whether their use of blogging platforms enables them to move beyond old stereotypes about race. With the increasing prominence of Asian fashion workers (including bloggers, designers, models, photographers, editors and so on), is the fashion world finally moving away from established standards of taste and beauty?
“I wanted to see if race no longer matters,” Pham says, speaking via Skype from her home in Brooklyn. “Is this an instance where (the superbloggers) have become so influential and so popular that the fashion industry has become racially democratic? But then you start to see ways in which racial ideas and histories of racialization are still playing out, however subtly, and in ways that are often coded as taste.”
The notion of “taste” is a recurring theme in her book. According to Pham, “an analysis of the tastes of Asian superbloggers is also an analysis of the social reality that creates the conditions for their taste, as well as the cultural-economic context that gives value to it.” She views the meteoric rise of Asian superbloggers in light of so-called Asian century — the idea that the 21st-century will be dominated by politics and culture from the region. The popularity of these Asian superbloggers coincides with the exponential growth of Asian markets and the influence of “soft power” exports such as K-pop or kawaii (cute) culture.
Pham makes an interesting connection between elite Asian style bloggers and Asian garment workers: although they form two distinct labor groups from vastly different classes, they face similar stereotypes of race and gender. This is reflected in continuing notions of Asians as “model minorities,” “hard workers” and, particularly for Asian women, being “cute” and “accommodating.”
Another compelling case is Pham’s examination of the fashion blogosphere’s ideas about race, which are often disguised as matters of taste. She explores several cases of media backlash against Asian superbloggers, citing references to their tastes being described as cheap, gaudy and inauthentic in comparison to “real” fashion journalists.
Understanding the racial context of Asian’s “cheapness” is to recognize on one hand the historical context of cheap Asian labour and on the other the perception of Asia’s nouveau-riche having “cheap,” logo-driven tastes. These associations are examples of the coded ways in which racism subtly continues to play out in the fashion industry today. The danger is that on the surface these subtle ideas about race, may not appear to be damaging at all.
What is presented in this book is a deeply engaging and sophisticated discussion of the race and gender dynamics that affect Asian fashion labor.
On the surface, these blogs are not about race, they’re about fashion. But reading between the lines, they reveal the lived experience of racial identities and how those identities can be defined through fashion — through the construction of taste, the act of shopping, the experience of getting dressed and the presentation of individual style.
Toward the end of our conversation, I ask Pham if she believes in the possibility of a post-racial fashion industry.
“No, I don’t see that happening,” she says, “While we may not have imperialism by military force, we have it in other ways where taste and style — what is considered fashionable or beautiful — is often still controlled by the Western fashion industry, even in Japan I would argue.”
The idea of a world with a hegemonic, globalized standard of beauty is bleak.
“It is,” says Pham, “but it’s not absolute. These bloggers are making a difference … the nuances and subtleties of racial discrimination and micro-racial aggressions are being talked about in these blogs, and are being negotiated and — particularly with the superbloggers — are being challenged as well. All of that is important because they have the kind of platform that they do. That in itself is really powerful.”
Christine Wu is a fashion anthropologist and former lecturer at Parsons School of Design in New York. She is currently researching Japanese consumer culture at Tokyo’s Bunka Gakuen University.