At New York Fashion Week models, bloggers, and photographers are always on.
It’s easy to hate the bloggers. At New York Fashion Week, the premier semi-annual industry event where brands display their wares six months before they hit the stores, they often show up in packs (Figure 1). They strut down the sidewalk, clutching handbags and smartphones, hair streaming behind them, sleeves swaying in the breeze, while dozens of street style photographers crouch down to get shots of them (Figure 2). Bloggers—now often referred to with the more expansive and ambiguous title of “influencers”—are an annoyance to many industry insiders, their look-at-me antics distracting from the “serious business” of fashion. But at Fashion Week, bloggers no longer stand out. They are not anomalies, but prototypes, embodying and exemplifying the way the labor of fashion is done today.
The labor of fashion doesn’t just happen in studios, boardrooms, sweatshops or on runways. It happens on the sidewalks too, in the way people cultivate personae, perform their enthusiasm or indifference. It is work to put together just the right ensemble, to learn how to take cinematic drags from a cigarette (Figure 3), or to walk in syncopated slow motion past the photographers (Figure 4, Figure 7). When these things are done well, they don’t look like labor at all. They look effortless, as if a person were just being themselves.
But it’s no longer enough to just be glamorous; you need quantifiable measures for your glamour. You need likes, followers, “engagement.” That’s how people get gigs now. That’s how they build their “brand.” So, models photograph each other for their Instagram galleries and take endless selfies backstage (Figure 5). Magazine editors text their house photographers to make sure they get a shot of them as they exit the shows. Even the photographers show up in big-name streetwear brands, just in case they end up on someone else’s social media feed.
Because every moment is a potential photo opportunity, and so much of fashion labor is about being photographed, there is no down time at New York Fashion Week. There is no offstage. Everyone is on. All the time (Figure 6, Figure 9, Figure 10).
Between around 2010 and 2014, there was a popular genre of Internet fashion photography called “models off duty.” It featured models off the runway, in their street clothes, apparently just going about their daily lives. But the name was always a misnomer. Models are never off duty: being photographed “off duty” is part of their job.
Sure, it gets exhausting (Figure 8), but it’s just how it is. There was a time when the blog’s democratization of fashion felt liberating. “Anyone” could pick up a laptop to join the chorus of voices contributing to the discourse that is fashion. Now, contributing your voice—not to mention your image and your body—is mandatory. You aren’t just a stylist anymore. You aren’t just a designer. You aren’t just a temp running errands for an editor. You are an influencer in the making. So be seen. Be heard. Blog as if your career depended on it. Because it does (Figure 9).
This photo essay documents those acts of labor on the sidewalks of New York Fashion Week. And it documents how influencers themselves are documenting it. Taken over eight seasons, or four years, of Fashion Week, I hope these images capture something of what it’s like to be always looking over your shoulder, wondering if there’s a camera there. Because for the Instagram generation, especially those who work in fashion, this is not an unusual feeling. It is the status quo. For those of us who dwell in the public privacy of social media, the imaginary photographer is a continuous presence, looming in the background of our lives.
Brent Luvaas is associate professor of anthropology at Drexel University. A cultural and visual anthropologist, he is the author of Street Style: An Ethnography of Fashion Blogging (2016) and DIY Style: Fashion, Music, and Global Digital Cultures (2012). Follow his current project on digital street photography on Instagram at @streetanthropology.
Cite as: Luvaas, Brent. 2017. “The Continuous Labor of Fashion.” Anthropology News website, September 8, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.603