I started going through some old designer things of mine during the past week. Both because it's the restless warm-up phase of the 15-year excitement cycle, when people want to dress to get noticed as they emerge from their shells, and to do some spring cleaning / inventory. Not to mention wanting to take part of the 2000s revival -- and not by looking y2k, but the just as ubiquitous "edgy" "chic" of the time.
It just made me realize how, like so many other cultural domains, fashion died off during the 2010s and is basically non-existent during the 2020s. That does not mean people have stopped wearing clothes, taking part in trends, displaying themselves to others, etc. Just like it's not as though people have stopped telling and listening to narratives (high or low in status).
However, the cultural production of fashion has ceased to exist, and it's entirely an audience without a team of creatives making stuff for them. Who are the designers of the 2010s and '20s? No one who was not already a somebody from fashion's heyday of roughly the 1980s through the 2000s. Who are the models -- and supermodels? What are the must-have perfumes and colognes? Who are the photographers? Who are the editors and other curators and directors? What are their outlets? Who are the critics and commentators? Where does the audience actually congregate to browse and buy their stuff? Where else in the culture is fashion the focus -- movies about it, TV shows about it, songs about it?
None of those things exists right now, and looking back, have not existed since about the same 2010 cut-off point for the current and perhaps indefinite cultural Dark Age. And yet the culture was all but saturated in fashion during the 2000s.
More on the specifics below, but first let's complete the overview.
The 2008 financial crisis and recession dealt a decisive blow -- though not in terms of the drying up of funding for some domain like fashion. The central bank printed up $4.5 trillion under Obama, and trillions more under Trump, handing it out to the clueless rich to gamble on or fund their pet projects, and bail out those who lost on their investments earlier.
That removes a tiresome explanation from the list -- that after the Great Recession, luxury became taboo, became unaffordable, etc. No it didn't -- luxury purchasing soared under Obama, as the rich were bailed out by the central bank. Look at how many upscale supermarkets there are, upscale coffee shops, upscale movie theaters, upscale everything.
It's not for want of funding, nor tapped-out consumers, that the would-be culture creators have stagnated. It's something larger, like the disappearance of institutional trust and cohesion, as the 2008 crisis was not just any old recession, but left the elites with the sense that the whole societal project was over, and now it's only a matter of sucking dry whatever is left rather than creating entirely new things.
During societal disintegration, there's not enough camaraderie left to fuel collaborative efforts like cultural production. Society disintegrates from the top, as the elites war against each other for status, and cultural production is an entirely elite affair. Folk culture evolves slowly over time, but the deliberate crafting of narratives, images, and so on, for an audience, belongs to the elites. And the masses like it that way -- they scoff at bad art because "my kid could have made that". They look up to the cultural creatives as a group gifted with some degree of talent and resources, so let's see what you've made out of it -- wow us, knock us over, don't make us make it ourselves.
That suggests that the Dark Age may last for quite awhile, since the American (and broader Anglosphere) elites are only going to get weaker as the Anglo empire has reached its peak of territorial expansion, material exploitation, and downstream effects like cultural influence. Now the only question is how wide the Dark Age will cover -- will it cover pop music too, with every new hit song being some channeling of a style made before 2010? Or are songs less demanding than movies or fashion, so that they will be relatively spared by the Dark Age? Time will tell.
Food seems safest, as it doesn't require lots of collaboration or creativity (in the sense of making something distinctive and original). Food is about familiar faves, whether your own or from another culture, not about conceiving and implementing a truly new creation.
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It shouldn't have to be said, but all of this is objective analysis of a state of affairs, not subjective appraisal of whether you like it or not.
Perhaps the easiest way to detect the death of fashion is from other cultural domains that treated it as their subject (a still-alive subject, not a history, documentary, etc.). During the 2000s, there were multiple hit reality TV shows, running several seasons each, that were about fashion and style -- What Not to Wear, How Do I Look?, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Project Runway, Blow Out, Shear Genius, and America's Next Top Model. Designer Isaac Mizrahi had his own talk show. There were iconic movies such as Zoolander and The Devil Wears Prada (adapted from a hit novel of the same decade).
Songs about the industry appeared earlier in the heyday, circa 1980 -- "The Model" by Kraftwerk, "Fashion" by David Bowie, "Girls on Film" by Duran Duran, and two songs from the '90s called "Supermodel" (one by RuPaul, and another by Jill Sobule for the Clueless soundtrack).
These other cultural domains stopped referring to the fashion industry during the 2010s, because it had died, and they're not about to start referring to it again anytime soon, since it's not coming back from the dead.
The life of the cable TV channel the Style Network encapsulates the broader trend: it was spun off from E! in 1998, was re-branded away from fashion in 2008, ended operations altogether in 2013, and its successor the Esquire Network itself bit the dust in 2017, with no further replacements. There cannot be a viable TV network about a sector of culture that no longer exists, unless it's a historical channel.
The death of models has been discussed for at least a decade now. Here is an old post of mine looking at the generational aspects of its decline, whereby Gen X-ers were the most suited to being models, whether they were teenagers or 30-somethings, and across various time periods from the early '90s to the late 2000s. Millennials never took over. The last two supermodels were Gisele Bundchen and Alessandra Ambrosio, born in 1980 and '81.
Emily Ratajkowski is not a model, but someone who could've been a model if she'd been born 10 years earlier. She is that hot chick from the "Blurred Lines" music video, who has appeared in the zombie runway shows for zombie fashion brands, and zombie publications like the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.
For awhile now, pop culture celebs have taken over for models -- actresses, singers, hot chicks from music videos, etc. They've so run out of ideas, they've reduced themselves to getting politicians like AOC on magazine covers, and resorted to generic libtard journos blabbing about her white capelet as though they were visually talented and specialized in fashion rather than politics.
The last widely popular, original designer movement was, for lack of a better term, "edgy minimalism" from the 2000s, with or without a "rocker" spin on it. I didn't pay much attention to women's fashion, but for men it was Hedi Slimane at Dior Homme, Ennio Capasa at his own Costume National, Neil Barrett, John Varvatos, Tom Ford, and a few others I may be forgetting. This was not only a movement within fashion, it cross-fertilized with the music domain to craft the personas of rock band members, and movies (not typical projects like dressing someone for an awards show, but re-inventing James Bond's look for the new Daniel Craig movies).
Related was the edgy, though less minimalist, look of the Affliction t-shirt craze, which also cross-fertilized to enhance the personas of MMA fighters and rock band members of the 2000s.
I mention this movement because it was the last to rely on straight men as the audience, not just a narrow niche of gays. Of course, gays did not kill fashion -- rather, once fashion was already dead, gays colonized the ruins and used it as a way to signal to each other that they're gay while out cruising. Wearing a skinny black tie in 2005 didn't mean you were gay -- it meant you were into rock bands like Franz Ferdinand and the Bravery.
Even more appealing to the dreaded toxic masculinity of straight white men was American Apparel during its late 2000s heyday. You could wear that stuff and not look gay -- you were taking part in the '80s revival. You looked like you were part of the hipster sub-culture, not a gay cruising sub-culture. Then there was the girls' clothing -- I don't know what guy wasn't thanking God for those shorts back in 2008. Not to mention the endless models and the porny-polaroid look of their ads. Name anything as iconic since then...
Relating to porno chic, as well as the still existing role of "model", there was the heyday of the website Suicide Girls in the second half of the 2000s. They were not influencers, it was not a social media site, not a porn site, and although not connected to a specific designer or design house, the site did rely on the alt style of the pin-up models for their branding (when you could just search a million porn sites for naked girls of no particular cultural identity). Girls could look at the site for style inspiration, if they were into the alt / goth / punk sub-cultures.
I touched on the importance of thriving scenes having both male and female, and primarily heterosexual members, in the post on the death of sub-cultures.
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Finally, there is the matter of what is going on today, and how is it qualitatively different?
Quite simply, there is no team of cultural creatives producing fashion anymore. No more designers, models, hair and make-up stylists, photographers, layout editors, publishers, public events or spectacles, stores (IRL or online), and cross-fertilization with other cultural domains. Other than that, it's the same!
What this means is there's nobody within the elites who are making fashion, so it's up to the masses to carry out those various functions themselves. But they have no specialized training, and most of them lack the basic visual skills necessary. The outcome is what you would expect if you asked readers to write their own books, or drivers to design and make their own cars.
The abdication of their role as culture creators is just one more aspect of the elites screwing over the masses these days. Some creative types would love to make it happen still, but by and large the tone is callous and dismissive -- the glory days are never coming back, and letting everyone fend for themselves is rationalized as liberating, democratic, and DIY, when it's really disempowering, elitist, and no-one-does-it-at-all because it's not within their abilities.
These days, fashion participants are just about exclusively female, with some token gays and trannies thrown in for wokeness points. Straight guys have no rock band members, MMA fighters, or cool actors to take their cues from, to aspire to, and to want to otherwise culturally affiliate themselves with.
They buy their items from online mega-marts like Amazon, AliExpress, Etsy, Ebay, etc., rather than a store focused on their particular group. And certainly no boutiques dedicated to just one brand. These online stores remove any sense of fashion being part of a physical, social scene that connects culturally similar people.
There are still teams of designers somewhere thinking up the items, and manufacturers making them. But most of it is recycling previous eras rather than trying to do something original. And its approach is more one of fan-service to a fandom, rather than creating something just to create it that way, and relying on customers to appreciate it and buy it.
Hot Topic is a textbook example of that 180-degree shift in approach -- during the 2000s, the customers took their cues from the merchandise that was curated within the stores, then during the 2010s it turned into a fulfillment center for your geek merch of choice, depending on which fandoms you belong to.
There are no models who work as models -- i.e., separate from the target audience of consumers. There is no specialized photography, no set dressing for an ad campaign, and really no ad campaigns at all. There are still images of the item by itself, not on a person, and you imagine what you'd look like with it on.
If you see it on a real-life person, it's probably from another member of the fandom, who has uploaded videos to TikTok or some other site. But the audience cannot put on its own show, so these are not models. It does keep alive the part of fashion where the "end-users" wear the items and display them for others to see -- which, however, was never part of the cultural elites' job. The consumers are still around, just not the culture makers.
Naturally the cameras, microphones, lights, set dressing, editing, etc., are pretty lo-fi since it's the teenagers using their own smartphones, not professional equipment used by trained technicians. So that's not an ad campaign, not even a guerrilla campaign. That all belongs to the part of fashion that happens after it's produced.
There is no over-arching vision for the end result, since there are no designers, tailors, manufacturers, etc. This leads to what is rationalized as eclectic tastes, but is really the consumers jumping from one trend to another based on their daily mood swings. It's not following a cohesive fashion movement, and it's not wearing the uniform of some sub-culture (you can never dress as The Other on a regular basis -- only for blackface value).
In fact, one popular trend on TikTok is the girl trying on 7 outfits from mostly unrelated styles, as the song lyrics say, "Wear this on Monday, wear this on Tuesday..." throughout the week, randomly bouncing from one style to the next.
Again, how can we expect the outcome to be any different? It's not their fault -- they're not the ones who are supposed to design, produce, market, sell, and brand the items, with links to other cultural domains like music or movies. They're just supposed to carry out the functions that the audience or end consumers do -- buy stuff, wear it, display it, etc., which they are in fact carrying out.
By the time things have devolved into individual consumers being tasked with those roles, rather than the cultural creatives doing what they're supposed to, fashion as such is dead. People trying on different looks for others to see, is not fashion as a cultural domain, any more than people telling stories to each other constitutes narrative art.
With no creative, original impulse left at the elite level, perhaps these flailings at the mass level will lead them to fossilize into new folk dress styles. They are not to be altered, and nothing new needs to be created, because that has already been done long in the past, by people we may not remember. Minor details may cycle, like hemlines or degree of color saturation, but the fundamental look will be set in stone.
In the meantime, though, we are living in an era of profound uncertainty and anxiety, as the elites have abandoned the common people and left them to their own devices.