photo of Tina Craig, from the Wall Street Journal
The fashion blogger pose. Some of you are already snickering and others are drawing a blank, but if you have a Facebook account, ever shopped on Etsy, ever followed or created a fashion-related Pinterest board, or flipped through the Style section of a major newspaper recently, chances are you’ve seen one.
While there is no single definitive fashion blogger pose, there is a loosely bound set of gestures and postures idiosyncratic to fashion bloggers and their subjects. Some of the most recognizable body stylings include vulnerable-looking stances, oblique glances, and a single hand on the hip (the teapot), or both hands on hips (the sugar bowl).
These conventions pepper the pages of street-style and personal-style blogs, but you’ll also find them in other spheres of social media and traditional media. Seeing Facebook photos of friends, family, or colleagues striking a fashion blogger pose? This happens more times than I can count, which suggests that fashion blogger poses have become part of the everyday body language of social media users.
But where do fashion blogger poses come from, and what do their aesthetics mean? For all their ubiquity, no one’s really bothered to find out -- largely because (as I argue in my book on race, gender, and fashion blogs), they’re widely viewed as trivial aesthetics, performed by a class of trifling “girls,” engaged in a superficial cultural sphere. (Even if you mock these poses lovingly, you’re tacitly endorsing that dismissive perspective). And yet these aesthetics are not trivial at all when we consider how their kinesthetics reflect the social and economic worlds from which they emerge and in which they circulate.
We can thank British Chinese blogger Susanna Lau (aka Susie Bubble) for first striking the pose. She’s not the first ever personal style blogger; that title belongs to Bryan Yambao, a queer Filipino man who began blogging in 2004 under the nom de blog BryanBoy. (He has a brand-name pose, too.) But traces of Lau’s signature pose are everywhere. “The Susie Bubble” is characterized by a cross-legged or pigeon-toed (feet turned inward) stance, one or both hands placed on the front of the hips, and eyes directed anywhere but at the camera (what I call the “elsewhere gaze”). While some bloggers openly attribute their kinesthetic style to Lau, many others quote all or part of her pose without acknowledging (and perhaps without knowing) their aesthetic referent.
The elsewhere gaze is one of the most distinctive and recurring features of fashion blogger poses. Tracing its history leads us to an early post on Lau’s Style Bubble blog. In this 2007 post, she confesses, “Let’s just say me and my looks aren’t exactly best friends. Being taunted for being ugly at school didn’t help.” The racial significance of this statement becomes clearer in a later blog post, in which her eyes as well as most of her face are crossed out. In fact, her eyes, the visible sign (and stigma) of Asian difference, are almost always hidden. As she explains it, her blog is “an open invite to view my love of fashion and how I express that in my style.” However, she implores in the same post, “‘Look at the outfit... not the face...’”
In the early days of her blog, the camera Lau used (in front of a mirror) was always positioned in front of her face. (BryanBoy, by contrast, always positioned his camera by his chest, leaving his face fully visible.) Later, in photos using a tripod, she digitally inserted X-es over her eyes. By 2007, when her boyfriend and fellow fashion blogger Steve Salter (Style Salvage) began photographing her, she found more creative ways of hiding her eyes with her hair, accessories, and eventually that elsewhere gaze. These strategic positionings made certain that we could gaze anywhere but her face.
photos from Style Bubble
My point isn’t that the elsewhere gaze is intrinsically “Asian.” But born out of an experience of racial ambivalence, Lau’s bodily discomfort shows that race hasn’t disappeared from the social media universe; it has instead materialized as aesthetic style and practice.
To be sure, Lau’s demurely downcast gaze has a racial history that precedes her and the invention of the fashion blog. It has long been a part of the visual idiom of Orientalist femininity, reiterated countlessly in the Lotus Blossom/China Doll/Geisha stereotypes. Yet within fashion bloggers’ “vocabulary of movements,” this same aesthetic of femininity may not mean the same passivity. Consider that, in the current historical moment, “feminine” skills of communication, care and consumerism are what’s crucial to social media economies. What this aesthetic may be performing, then, is a surprising symbolic inversion of power.
But it’s not just women who are becoming ever more important in new global economies. In the current fashion media complex, Asians are being recognized as influential producers and consumers of fashion. In the last ten years, we’ve seen a near-constant stream of stories about Asian luxury consumers. As huge economic challenges in the US and Europe greatly diminished the economic power of traditional luxury markets in the West, the fashion industry turned to sites of massive economic growth in China and India, but also in South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Hoping to “boost their brands in a region that has become the fastest growing market for luxury goods,” companies like Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Jimmy Choo launched IPOs in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Across the fashion spectrum -- from Gucci to Gap, Louis Vuitton to Levi’s -- companies have opened hundreds of stores in China since 2009, while closing as many in the US. The luxury fashion consumer that the New York Times insists is “the rest of the world’s . . . best hopes for future economic growth” is Asian (and tacitly, female). (As of December 12, 2012, that hope seems to have been realized. A Bloomberg headline declares, “Chinese Shoppers Overtake US as Top Luxury Buyers.”)
The rising influence of Asian luxury consumers has also increased bookings of Asian models. As Ivan Bart of IMG Models Worldwide explains: “It comes down to getting consumers to come to your brand. You have to have faces that reflect the consumer.” And like Asian models, Asian bloggers are fast becoming the face of the ideal consumer. Bloggers like Lau and Yambao are the new style ambassadors -- and authorities -- of fashion. Their styles of embodiment -- far from expressing passivity and powerlessness -- are today the corporeal expressions of knowledge, power, and expertise in fashion.
Today, elite Asian fashion bloggers are recognized and respected as influential figures and style authorities. From Fendi to Forever 21, giant fashion brands have repeatedly turned to Lau, Yambao, Rumi Neeley, Phil Oh, Tommy Ton, and others for blog coverage, advertising campaigns, product and window display design collaborations, and publicity appearances. Recently, Helmut Lang named Lau and Oh as “new influencers” in its newly launched Guest Blogger Series. The buzz that elite bloggers can produce about a fashion collection or fashion product translates into direct sales.
This is not how expertise and power traditionally “look” in body language. Unlike masculinist power stances that are typically wide and imposing (designed to take up more physical and social space), the tapered stances of fashion bloggers create the illusion of a smaller body. Placing their hands on the front of rather than square on the hips (as is typical in the masculine power stance), bloggers highlight the triceps and accentuate the clavicle for the visual effect of slender arms and a thinner body. In making the body look smaller, more toned, and (implicitly) younger, fashion blogger poses do abide by dominant standards of feminine beauty. But even while fashion’s fetishization of feminine smallness continues to trouble women’s relationships with their bodies, it would be a gross oversimplification to see fashion blogger poses as merely the self-oppressive acts of young women.
image from Flash Fontanelli
Fashion bloggers create spaces for dialogue that are crucial for doing business in today’s “thank you economy,” one in which “[t]he ability to digitally listen, respond and nurture a one-to-one relationship with the consumer is going to transform the way companies do business. Success will come through ‘outcaring everyone.’” Body language is part of this. Hands on the front of the hips create a welcoming stance, since the body naturally leans forward into the camera, inviting digital dialogue. Describing the significance of social media’s new role in the industry, fashion journalist Suzy Menkes says, “the world changed when fashion instead of being a monologue, became a conversation.”
Today, elite Asian bloggers are key participants in this conversation. Their influence is visible in the global popularity of poses like the Susie Bubble and the BryanBoy. And while these personal brands suggest that Lau and Yambao’s social influences are unique or exceptional, understanding the racial moment of their popularity reveals the structural conditions that make their influence possible. (For more on that, see here.) In the Susie Bubble and all its iterations, we see new relations of race, gender and expertise in the global economies of fashion being enacted.
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Minh-Ha T. Pham is an assistant professor in the History of Art & Visual Studies Department and the Asian American Studies Program at Cornell University. She’s completing a book that examines personal style blogs and the political, social, and aesthetic arrangements of race, gender, and expertise in social media’s economy of "DIY capitalism." Her writing has been published in a wide array of forums, from academic journals to popular and political magazines, and her research has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Nation, NPR, San Francisco Chronicle, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Hyphen, and WNYC. She is a blogger for the Huffington Post Style section, cofounder of a research blog on the politics of fashion called Threadbared, and curator of a digital archive of the fashion histories of US women of color called Of Another Fashion.
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