Adwoa Afful is Bitch Media’s 2019 Writing Fellow in Technology
Whether for better or, more often, for worse, there’s no question that the fashion industry has been indelibly changed by blogging. The popularity of fashion and beauty blogs, which arguably hit its zenith in the early 2010s, helped create a more expansive view of blogging and shifted its public-facing image: No longer solely the purview of nerdy internet adopters and their chosen pop-culture fandoms; fashion and beauty blogging became a way to fill in the gaps of a notoriously exclusionary industry. For a generation of predominantly young women and nonbinary people of color, fashion and beauty blogging mainstreamed the internet in crucial ways. Young users learned—sometimes without even realizing it—the basics of both coding and writing; equally important, they developed an aesthetic and language outside of fashion’s normative standard-bearing magazines and retailers, one that centered more expansive views of beauty and style. And, in doing so, they forced fashion’s gatekeepers to redefine their own relationships to technology, and to trade the status of exclusivity for the potential of democracy.
Twenty years ago, the idea that people not intentionally working in the tech sector would eventually know the basics of website building, information architecture, and HTML might have seemed absurd: Fashion was fashion, tech was tech. The baseline skills in internet navigation and identity-building that even casual internet users employ today are leaps and bounds beyond those of the average web surfer of 2005 or even of 2014. And though fashion-adjacent e-commerce had emerged by the end of the 1990s in the form of eBay, Zappos, and Net-a-Porter, it was still in its infancy. There was no expectation that even the largest retailers would set up shop online, and no expectation that major brands—let alone fashion houses and individual designers—would have to build online identities for themselves.
That’s not to say that the advent of fashion and beauty blogging revolutionized the way society understands fashion and beauty themselves; in many cases, they were just as likely to perpetuate limiting, culturally reductive beauty standards as they were to amplify more inclusive aesthetics. Fashion bloggers in the mid-aughts, particularly those who chronicled “street style,” were often comely, connected young white women who, despite their industry-outsider status, still fit neatly within a high-fashion mold that projected wealth and label-consciousness. The biggest bloggers, like The Blonde Salad’s Chiara Feragni, claimed upward of 110,000 unique visitors per day; others, like Leandra Medine (Man Repeller), Scott Schuman (The Sartorialist), and Tavi Gevinson (Style Rookie), matched and in some cases even surpassed those numbers. They also tended to rely on established fashion brands to generate interest and revenue on which to build their own brand legitimacy.
But fashion and beauty blogging opened doors for writers, photographers, and enthusiasts of various genders, races, and sexual orientations—TommyTon, Bryan Yambao of Bryanboy, and Susan Lau of Style Bubble—and made big names of traditional fashion journalists of color like Franco-Senegalese fashion editor Julia Sarr-Jamois. There were group blogs and zine hybrids, like Toronto-based The Stud Magazine, that were created by and for gender-nonconforming and masculine-presenting folks; and a blossoming community of bloggers who served a much-needed desire for plus-sized fashion, including Lydia Okello (Style is Style), Gabi Gregg (GabiFresh), and Nicolette Mason.
In its own way, fashion and beauty blogging is as aspirational as traditional fashion media; the difference is that blogging—as well as visually focused social-media platforms like Instagram—allows us to conceive of ourselves as aspirational and offers the tools needed to become our own idealized visions. In her 2017 book (Not) Getting Paid to Do What you Love: Gender, Social Media, and Aspirational Work, Brooke Erin Duffy describes the “aspirational labor” of as a new iteration of a historically gendered labor: “([M]ostly) uncompensated, independent work that is propelled by the multi-venerated ideal of getting paid to do what you love.” And with the mainstreaming of fashion blogging came a kind of blogging bootstrapper myth, a promise that aspiring fashion mavens could, as Duffy writes, “rise above the din to achieve major success” with their own hard work and force of will.
Independent Fashion Bloggers, which was founded in 2007 as a resource network for bloggers seeking to grow and monetize their online presence, recently estimated the average startup cost for a blog to be $1,363.99. Because the fashion and beauty blogging communities are already saturated, costs have likely risen because of the amount of work and technical expertise that are now required for bloggers to stand out in a crowded field. There are also costs for the time and labor that go into maintaining and upgrading a primary website and a social-media presence on other platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr. Other costs include professional PR; photo and video equipment; and clothes, accessories, and cosmetics.
Once fashion blogging became established, using the basic templates of platforms like BlogSpot, Tumblr, and WordPress wasn’t enough. To be competitive, bloggers had to learn Photoshop and other photo-editing software as well as more sophisticated HTML code if they planned to update their site design beyond what BlogSpot and WordPress offered for free. By hiding the amount of labor and technical skill required to run a successful blog—or, more dangerously, suggesting that making money from one is easy—the blog-bootstrap myth is a decidedly mixed blessing. Some of the most successful fashion and beauty bloggers have gotten to where they are by monetizing self-made success with conventions like Beautycon that charge aspiring fashion and beauty influencers to shop while learning brand building from those who have made it.
In hiding the amount of labor and technical skill required to run a successful blog—or, more dangerously, suggesting that making money from one was easy—the blog-bootstrap myth is a decidedly mixed blessing.
Dr. Minh-Ha T. Pham, cofounder of the beloved fashion-research blog Threadbared, writes in her 2015 book, Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet: Race, Gender, and the Work of Personal Style Blogging, that bloggers of color who perform identity work “preemptively manage the negative and stereotypical perceptions others may have about them and to convey group belonging.” Identity work does not necessarily describe the labor of trying to assimilate into predominantly white blogging or fashion communities—rather, is describes creating inventive ways of navigating both. In this respect, fashion and beauty blogging is no different than any other form of hobby blogging being done by, say, comic-book obsessives, sports superfans, crafters, and more. As scholars Jean Burgess and Joshua Green write of YouTube communities, “social-media networks must be understood as ‘co-creative’ spaces where ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ media content, identities, and motivations are not so easily separated.”
Nostalgia for the early aughts is having a moment, and it can be tempting to fuzzily recall the recent past as a time when the internet was a much safer, more exciting place to be. But all the imprints of today’s internet were present then; what has changed is the level of collective naiveté and idealism about its potential to change our relationship to paid work. As Duffy writes, many “content creators…were motivated by the wider culture’s siren song to get paid doing what you love.” Many of the most successful blogs and bloggers of that era now pivot to careers in the industry they formerly peered at from the sidelines, or expand once-humble blogs into e-commerce sites or fully-formed media empires, leaving only a few carefully curated traces of their DIY beginnings. But as they do, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that their influence introduced countless young people to tech—and, in doing so, encouraged them to shape the internet to respond to their desires instead of waiting for others to fulfill them.