Thursday, October 11, 2007

When Everyone's a Style Critic

The New York Times had an interesting story recently about the proliferation of style critics. You know, the people who fill our makeover shows, red carpet commentaries and tabloid "best and worst dressed" lists with snappy remarks about who or what is "hot" or "not" this week. Many of these critics are hired on the basis of their comedic abilities, not their knowledge of fashion, and generally seem to prefer witty insults over serious criticism (even Tim Gunn falls into this trap on his new show). This focus extends from "girl on the street" makeover shows like "What Not To Wear" all the way to television shows, blogs and magazines devoted to breaking down the best and worst dressed stars at the Oscars.

And of course, there are those of us bloggers, regular people willing to share their take on the style scene, who often are not ashamed to admit that they have no experience in the fashion world. With the popularity of blogs and online forums devoted to the fashion industry, street style and celebrity fashion, we're all critics.

But does one need qualifications to write about fashion? Obviously if you're applying to be the next Cathy Horyn it's a necessity, but for everything else, what makes someone qualified to be commenting on another person's clothes? The NYT article suggests that the person doing the criticizing should have a solid sense of style and dress well, but if style is subjective, it's hard to use that as the test.

I have mixed feelings about the explosion of fashion criticism. One the one hand, I think it's great that more people's views are being represented, particularly those of the people who actually wear clothes on the street and must be creative in styling themselves, often on a budget. Regular people are elevated to style stardom after being featured on "The Sartorialist" or New York Magazine's "The Look Book," not to mention the hundreds of blogs that document the party scenes in various cities.

On the flip side there's a snarky and often mean-spirited attitude that permeates discussions of style. As much as I love "What Not to Wear," I often cringe at the insults Stacy and Clinton make at the "before" pictures of the women. Red carpet and tabloid fashion critics are the worst though, ripping stars to pieces for every fashion misstep. It's a way of humanizing the rich and famous, but I think it's had a negative effect on fashion.

More people than ever are paying attention to what they and others wear and I haven't decided yet whether this trend has been positive or negative. I can see it leading to an increase in people's willingness to take fashion risks (they see interesting style combinations on blogs and have the courage to try new things) and realizing the importance of controlling how others perceive you through how you dress. But I can also see it making people more conservative, lest they attract negative attention for their style. I think celebrities fall into the latter category, since landing on a worst dressed list can really hurt an actress's career, while being known as a style icon (even Jessica Biel is being called one these days) can boost their fame.

What do you think about the rising popularity of fashion criticism and commentary?


Anonymous said...

I'm unsure how one could regulate fashion criticism or commentary, but I certainly wish it were possible. I find myself thinking, "Who died and made you Coco Chanel?!?" on ever-more-frequent occasions these days. I'm somewhat bemused at the notion of our local newspaper featuring a "style" column. It's basically just a 'what's-on-sale-in-our-town-this-week?' notice. This week's article was entitled Shoes Make The Outfit. Well, I agree, but I didn't really want to read a laundry list of shoes available at local shops for $40, $32, or, my favorite, $24.99. Not a word about real, honest-to-Goodness, gorgeous shoes. Not even a quick word about the inspirations for these cheap knock-offs. Sheeesh! There outta be some kind of standard, but who's to pronounce such judgement?

Arlene said...

Love your blog!

Also a fan of "What Not to Wear," as well as an occasional cringer at the cruel "before" remarks, as well.

I've been wondering in general why style critics limit themselves to savaging fashion victims.

Why no snarky cracks aimed at retailers who merchandise in a way that shoppers clearly hate--choatic and precious are two adjectives that come to mind.

Let's not stop there. How about the manufacturers? The "sizing system" is either a joke or a nightmare, depending on how much time you have to shop.

Thus, fashion seems to strike many WNTW victims as completely hostile and inaccessible, and really, we can see why. I am sad that these actual problems are never addressed.

While the stylists are correct that pajamas and sweats are bad presentation for public wear, I find it hard to "blame the victim" after some of my own frustrating mall excursions.

tmp00 said...

I don't mind something from someone like Tim Gunn or Cojo who have some connection to the fashion world. What I do mind are people who have no connection at all and are hired for the snark. But then again, if I am sitting through "E!'s 50 Most Hideous Fashion Disasters" I suppose I am getting what I deserve...

Meg said...

I do like shows like What Not to Wear. Sometimes they go too far, but the people on the shows do desperately need help. It goes too far, though, when it stops being about the clothes gets really personal.

I do consider myself a style critic to some degree, but I do try to not get too snarky. Some days I'm nicer than others, though.

I'm pretty forgiving of people who try to dress up but it doesn't quite work. At least they tried. What I'm less forgiving of is people who don't try... the people who show up to class in pajamas, wear Crocs to Broadway shows, and go to weddings in gym clothes or wife beaters. That's just tacky.

I also try not to judge people by their clothes. In person, I really do give people the benefit of the doubt (too much, my friends would say). If I say something about someone's clothes, I do try to keep it about the clothes and not make a personal attack out of it.

At the same time, though, my own blog is about how what we wear sends a message to others, so I do feel the need to point out what messages they're sending and how they're likely to be judged by others. It's a fine line, though.

Deja Pseu said...

I think to some extent what we're seeing is the democratization of style. No longer are the dictates handed down from on high from a handful of "experts." On the other hand, who are you to believe?