critiquing the hierarchy:

the new boundaries of democratized fashion criticism

ACADEMIC

APRIL 2019

FASHION

plein-fat-shaming (1).jpg

As the world digitizes and globalizes, all facets of the fashion industry, including fashion criticism are changing. The increase in online platforms provides a space for anyone to become a fashion critic in 2019, despite their education and access to the fashion industry, and it is necessary to analyze how this reshapes the way fashion criticism is mediated and constructed today. 

As new spaces open to provide platforms to aspiring critics, there is also space for fashion criticism to cover a variety of other topics in connection to fashion. Fashion writers are now implored to discuss more than the artistic and aesthetic values of fashion collections, expanding their criticism to be more meaningful. Because of this, we must look to upcoming fashion critics who are honing their craft within this new world of criticism to adeptly uncover the way the industry is shifting. While focusing on this topic, this research will profile newly developing fashion critic, Alexandra Mondalek to trace how fashion criticism is reborn in a digital world, through the path of her career.

 

Mondalek’s work is exemplary of the ability for critics to connect fashion to topics that traditionally went unspoken for in major publications, as she possesses more agency in intersecting the criticism of a brands design alongside their lack of social responsibility. As the fashion industry is increasingly shaped by influencers and Instagram stars in the age of social media, Mondalek’s work criticizes the impact of this phenomenon, discussing it alongside major designers that would typically be covered. This is an important new shift of analysis of fashion, as while it may not align with fashion criticism in a traditional sense, influencers and their work do shape the fashion industry today and must be recognized in the criticism cannon.

 

Additionally, the precarity experienced by young freelance writers on small web platforms can influence their work as they experience risk in honestly criticizing designers while not employed and protected by powerful publishers. Mondalek recently discussed the treatment of young freelance critics after being publicly and personally attacked by designer Philipp Plein due to her publishing an honest review of his show[1]. Ultimately, it is necessary to understand how the digital environment of new fashion criticism alters critics agency to be sincere in their work, and what this new environment can potentially subject critics to. Through the analysis of Mondalek’s work in the context of democratized fashion media, it is evident that this new fashion criticism environment shifts power from traditional elites such as major publications and fashion houses and opens the door to address social issues through the practice of criticism, reshaping the values and systems of the fashion industry at large. Ultimately, the new environment of fashion criticism destabilizes the traditional values of the fashion industry as well as the position of the fashion critic in turn.

 

Although it is evident that the increase in platforms for critical voices to be heard leads to a multiplicity of new writers criticizing and discussing fashion, it is necessary to first define who power is being shifted to, and who is given proper authority in new fashion criticism. When considering criticism from a historical perspective, one must look to art as fashion criticism has little history to analyze. In the context of art history, authority has revolved around taste which according to Lawrence Alloway’s discussion of Roger Fry and Clement Greenberg, was an attribute of the wealthy elite only[2]. The discussion of taste has been central to fashion criticism in the past, however for the new generation of fashion critics and their readers, valuable criticism hinges less on taste and more on social criticism and change. Ultimately, this new focus removes power from the fashion elite to critique and shape what is considered fashion, and instead passes off this role to those willing to evaluate social structures through the lens of fashion. In effect, this phenomenon diminishes the hierarchy of fashion criticism as there is increased importance on the critique of power structures and normative values of fashion.

 

According to Guy Trebay[3], long-time fashion and culture critic, the profession of fashion criticism is still fresh and continues to develop even today. Yet, it is already obvious that the practice of fashion criticism has undergone many different shifts since its recent inception. While it was very fashionable to discuss the relationship between fashion and art within the realm of criticism during the 1990s, as is exemplified by critical fashion pieces being featured in prominent art magazines such as Artforum[4], today critics are focused on connecting fashion to tangible social issues that affect facets of identity and everyday life. The work of Alexandra Mondalek is only one example of new fashion critics writing today who connect fashion to social issues. Her article reviewing the latest updates to Karl Lagerfeld’s eponymous brand focuses heavily on the issue of body inclusivity[5] which is not only a major problem within the fashion industry, but also a widely impactful social issue that circulates mass media today.

 

Kyung-Hee Choi focuses heavily on the connection between fashion criticism and social issues in her work “An inclusive system for fashion criticism”. The author states that “fashion is a product of social discourse that embodies the symbolic values of a variety of individuals and groups within a society and changes or reinforces their values.”[6] implying that effective fashion criticism must be responsive to the social values that have shaped current fashion. As it is evident through the rise of political and social discourse and activism in today’s society, these issues encompass our every activity and interaction today, not excluding fashion.

 

The contemporary connection between fashion criticism and social issues is clearly attributed to the way social attitudes of an era influence the central focus of criticism. The interest of the concept of “taste”, as described by McNeil and Miller in their introduction to Fashion Writing and Criticism, during the Enlightenment period in France deeply shaped the way criticism was conducted and constructed, focusing on aesthetic taste[7]. In the same way, interest in social issues has been heightening in the second half of the 2010s, leading to the inclusion of a social critique in all forms of art criticism, including fashion. While Mondalek’s article concerning Lagerfeld’s newest collection does discuss the aesthetic value of the products, this discussion is centralized around a prominent social issue that deeply impacts the fashion industry as well as its participants. Ultimately, this emphasis on the social responsibility of fashion designers asserts that in contemporary fashion criticism, the social impact of clothing is intrinsically connected to the overall value of the material objects themselves.

 

This prominence of social issues in the realm of criticism lends to the fact that major problems in the fashion industry, such as garment accessibility and inclusion of plus-sized clients, are being debated on a global stage. This type of criticism then works to eliminate the hierarchies imbued in the fashion system relating to body type, as well as race issues and social class which Mondalek discusses in her critical article regarding Plein’s recent collection[8]. Criticism featuring a socially critical aspect therefor destabilizes the hierarchies built into the fashion system that disadvantages the vast majority of those who participate in fashion. Granata emphasizes the necessity of criticizing social issues within fashion in her article “Fashioning Cultural Criticism” as she outlines the ways in which storied critics Lois Long and Louise Norton focused their own criticism on the way fashion and clothing impacts the advancements of women during early decades of feminism in the twentieth century[9]. Additionally, Granata highlights the deconstruction of gendered fashion through criticism, stating “Spindler’s articles tackled fashion’s role in negotiating shifting gender norms, often criticizing designers whose work arches back to baby doll fashion…”[10], which asserts that fashion has agency to challenge social constructs, and discusses how criticism can affectively undercut these constructs. In the same way, Mondalek tackles contemporary problems of body inclusivity and wealth inequality in the industry today, empowering those at the bottom of the hierarchy of the fashion system and contributing to its democratization.

 

The inclusion of social issues within critical fashion pieces is not the only symptom of the democratization of fashion criticism, although it is extremely central. As fashion criticism opens to new voices and perspectives, the coverage by these new voices lends power to new actors in the fashion system, who then impact it. Crystal Abidin explores the impact influencers have on the contemporary fashion system in her research “Visibility Labour: Engaging with Influencers’ Fashion Brands and #OOTD Advertorial Campaigns on Instagram.”, explaining how many influencers have managed to outgrow even social media, creating their own influential “brick and mortar holdings”[11], which tangibly impact the fashion market and shape trends in a traditional and non-traditional way. In the case of criticism today, newer critics are very receptive to the impact of fashion influencers on the creation of the fashion imaginary, and solidify their value through the inclusion of influencers importance in their writing.

 

Mondalek references the powerful role of the influencer in fashion in several pieces, most notably describing their strong economic power in the changing fashion economy[12], as well as their ability to implement shifts in fashion through their support of sustainability[13]. The critic frequently connects influencers to their potential in changing the fashion system by promoting sustainability in their own work. She also describes the new ways we reinterpret the concept of fashion in influencer-led online environments, asserting how power is shifting within the system. The concept of the influencer and Mondalek’s new digitized world of criticism have come into being around the same time, complimenting each other as both figures illustrate the ability for former outsiders to access the discourse of the fashion system on their own terms, destabilizing the strict hierarchy of fashion. This critic’s coverage of influencers cements their positioning within the contemporary fashion industry as important and worthy of criticism by representing them in fashion publications in the same way that a designer presenting their collection is traditionally discussed in media. Evidently, by consistently featuring influencers within her critiques, Mondalek highlights the changing scope of who creates fashion today.

 

Although it is evident that the democratization of fashion criticism has positive aspects as it invites many perspectives to write about fashion, this new model also alters the role of the fashion critic. In her interview with Sarah Scaturro for Fashion Projects Lynn Yaeger, a longtime fashion writer, states in reference to the growing number of fashion writers “I like it intellectually and politically. Yet because it is my own professional career, it’s a little but daunting to have everyone filing for free all day long on the subject that I’m writing about. Obviously I like to get paid.”[14], which speaks to a shift to precarity recognized by a powerful critic. It is noted that Yaeger appreciates the inclusion of a multiplicity of voices within fashion criticism, but this openness comes at a cost. Following Philip Plein publicly harassing Mondalek due to her negative review of a recent fashion show, the critic addressed her own disposability in her line of work through writing a piece about her experience, criticizing the treatment of lower-level fashion critics free-lancing on digital platforms[15].

 

The issue of disposability is a growing problem within the creative industries at large, including fashion writers and critics. Lauren Bridges’ work concerning the precarity of roles in the general publishing industry highlights the shift towards unstable working conditions in recent years. The author asserts that “flexibility has become the normal mode of work in publishing, especially among female editors.”[16], concluding that while the publishing industry had been a balance between freelance workers and stable employees in the past[17], precarious work has overcome permanent positions, restructuring the traditional work environment. While Bridges did not specifically discuss fashion critics it should be noted that the author found a distinct connection between female workers in publishing and that fashion criticism is considered a female field. As noted by Granata, the fashion critic has been socially viewed as a feminine career since its inception[18], therefor it can be concluded in reference to Bridges’ research that as the majority of fashion critics are women, and that the fashion critic is undervalued due to a connection to the feminine realm, fashion critics are faced with a particularly high rate of precarious free-lancing in their industry.

 

Bridges continues to highlight how precarity in the publishing industry is a growing issue[19], which can be related to the expanding professional access to the fashion industry as well as stagnant permanent critic positions at powerful digital publications. Despite the fact that this phenomenon allows for new voices like that of Mondalek to publish pieces of fashion writing that present new perspectives and critique from a relevant, political point of view as highlighted by Yaeger in Scaturro’s piece[20], this places fashion critics at risk. As the pool of fashion critics grows larger in the online critics today are faced with greater competition to publish pieces and are easily replaced if they receive negative reaction towards their criticism. After publishing her own negative review on Philipp Plein’s collection, this critic wrote follow up articles[21] and posts in order to secure her positioning in the public eye as a victim and prevent limitations on her own career in the industry. Designers are still connected very closely to the content published about their collections, as explained by Monica Titton in her work “Fashion Criticism Unravelled”[22], and therefor continue to exert power upon critics in this democratizing industry in order to ensure their own success. Ultimately, as the landscape of criticism democratizes, the issue of disposability of the fashion critic worsens as a negative consequence of increasing access to fashion criticism, leading to a destabilized industry.

 

Despite more fashion writers entering the industry, the number of secure fashion writing positions at well-respected and long-lasting publications such as the New York Times has not increased to match. For this reason, many new critics, such as Alexandra Mondalek publish much of their work on smaller media websites that welcome uncontracted freelance writers who look to gain financial security within their precarious work environment. It is noted that the majority of Mondalek’s fashion writing, are published on the pop culture fashion website fashionista.com. Fashionista.com is a website which began originally as a blog, eventually growing into a publication which targets young women. This publication utilizes an accessible voice[23] and frequently references “low brow” culture, such as popular celebrity gossip.

As Mondalek’s work is primarily featured on the accessible, pop-culture focused fashionista.com, it is associated with vapid femininity reasserting the concept that fashion criticism is an uncultured practice of women as discussed by Garanata[24]. While fashion criticism has recently gained validation through fashion critic Robin Givhan’s winning of the Pulitzer prize for her work in the field[25], new digital criticism featured on these platforms is still attached to these negative stereotypes. However, Mondalek’s informed and socially aware criticism asserts that criticism on pop-culture websites does not lack worth and still comments on fashion from a critical and relevant perspective. Essentially, while fashion criticism on platforms such as fashionista.com can be perceived as delegitimizing for the field of criticism, it is evident that online audiences in the new realm of criticism still demand intelligent critiques on fashion that relate to contemporary social issues.

 

The fashion industry has always rejected tough and honest criticism, as is obvious through the experience of critic Cathy Horyn outlined in her article “My Invitation Isn’t in the Mail”[26], and freelance fashion critics are offered even less protection in an industry that is unwelcoming to their profession. Although the phenomenon of fashion critics being banned from shows is not an invention of the new criticism environment, without the support of large-scale publishers behind them freelance fashion critics must engage in pointed self-preservation in their work. As discussed previously, many new fashion critics are implored to work at smaller pop-culture focused publishers such as fashionista.com. Small online publications do not possess the same respectability as traditional publishers, and therefor lack agency in protecting their writers and accessing prominent designers. Because of this, when critics publish negative criticism as Mondalek had on fashionista.com regarding Philipp Plein[27], these critics must protect their own careers in the face of job insecurity. In the case of Mondalek, this critic engaged in her own campaign separate from fashionista.com highlighting the problematic aspect of Plein’s negative comments[28] in order to assure her continued access to the industry which has always negatively received critics, and appeal to her audience by drawing on a popular social issue in fashion.

 

It is evident that the structure of the fashion industry is shifting in the new millennium, altering the practice of fashion criticism with it. As fashion criticism opens to a variety of voices which interpret fashion through social issues and include new fashion creators such as influencers in their critiques, an increasing number of critics are experiencing precarity in this new system. Additionally, while critics lose employment stability in this online system, they face greater consequences in critiquing honestly, as they lack protection from being blacklisted in the industry as freelance writers. However, as fashion becomes more democratic through the digitization of fashion criticism, critics have agency to destabilize longstanding hierarchal structures within the system through their criticism. Yet evidently, critics themselves face career destabilization, resulting in an increasingly shifting fashion system overall. Ultimately, the new world of fashion criticism features a shifting intersection of power dynamics, disrupting the hierarchy of fashion employment, including the position of the critic themselves.

 

Notes

[1] Alexandra Mondalek, “A Designer Fat-Shamed Me On Instagram After I Criticized His Show,” InStyle, February 13, 2019, https://www.instyle.com/awards-events/fashion-week/philipp-plein-fat-shamed-instagram.

[2] Lawrence Alloway, “The Function of the Art Critic,” in Imagining the present: Context, Content and the Role of the Critic, (Routeledge, 2006), 203

[3] Jay Ruttenberg, “This Is Not a Fashion Critic,” Fashion Projects no.4 (2014): 20.

[4] Richard Martin, “Say Chic” Artform, December 1995, 94-95

[5] Alexandra Mondalek, “Why Karl Lagerfeld Paris Needs to Reach its New Plus-Sized Customers.” Fashionista, May 15, 2018, https://fashionista.com/2018/05/karl-lagerfeld-paris-stitch-fix-plus-size-clothes.

[6] Kyung-Hee Choi and Van Dyk Lewis. “An inclusive system for fashion criticism,” International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education 11, no. 1 (2018): 18.

[7] Peter McNeil and Sanda Miller, “Introduction,” Fashion Writing and Criticism, (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014), 3.

[8] Alexandra Mondalek, “Philipp Plein’s Fall 2019 Show Was Just as Tragic as the Kanye West Scam that Surrounded It,” Fashionista, February 19, 2019, https://fashionista.com/2019/02/philipp-plein-fall-2019-review

[9] Francesca Granata, “Fashioning Cultural Criticism: An Inquiry into Fashion Criticism and its Delay in Legitimization,” Fashion Theory 21 (2018): 9.

[10] Ibid, 12.

[11] Crystal Abidin, “Visibility Labour: Engaging with Influencers’ Fashion Brands and #OOTD Advertorial Campaigns on Instagram,” Media International Australia 161, no. 1 (2916): 87.

[12] Alexandra Mondalek, “A Primer on the Many Ways Influencers Dominated the Fashion and Beauty Industries in 2018,” Fashionista, December 20, 2018, https://fashionista.com/2018/12/instagram-influencers-marketing-collaborations-fashion-beauty-2018.

[13] Alexandra Mondalek, “How Designers, Consumers and Influencers Play a Role in Making Fashion Sustainable,” Fashionista, June 18, 2018, https://fashionista.com/2018/06/fashionistacon-2018-sustainable-ethical-fashion.

[14] Sarah Scaturro, “Fashion Criticism as Political Critique,” Fashion Projects no. 4 (2014): 49.

[15] Alexandra Mondalek, “A Designer Fat-Shamed Me On Instagram After I Criticized His Show”.

[16] Lauren E. Bridges, “Flexible as Freedom? The Dynamics of Creative Industry Work and the Case Study of the Editor in Publishing,” New Media & Society 20, no. 4 (April 2018): 1315.

[17] Ibid, 1304.

[18] Granata, “Fashioning Cultural Criticism”, 10.

[19] Bridges, “Flexible as Freedom?”, 1314.

[20] Sarah Scaturro, “Fashion Criticism as Political Critique,” 49.

[21] Mondalek, “A Designer Fat-Shamed Me On Instagram After I Criticized His Show”.

[22] Monica Titton, “Fashion criticism unravelled: A sociological critique of criticism in fashion media,” International Journal of Fashion Studies 3 no.2 (2016): 214.

[23] “About Fashionista.” Fashionista.com. Accessed 30 April, 2019. https://fashionista.com/page/about.

[24] Granata, “Fashioning Cultural Criticism”, 10.

[25] Ibid, 2.

[26] Cathy Horyn, “My Invitation Isn’t in the Mail,” New York Times online, last modified 13 March, 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/13/fashion/shows/13banned.html.

[27] Mondalek, “Philipp Plein’s Fall 2019 Show Was Just as Tragic as the Kanye West Scam that Surrounded It”.

[28] Mondalek, “A Designer Fat-Shamed Me On Instagram After I Criticized His Show”.

 

References

Abidin, Crystal. “Visibility Labour: Engaging with Influencers’ Fashion Brands and #OOTD Advertorial Campaigns on Instagram.” Media International Australia 161, no. 1 (November 2016): 86–100. doi:10.1177/1329878X16665177.

“About Fashionista.” Fashionista.com. Accessed 30 April, 2019. https://fashionista.com/page/about.

Alloway, Lawrence. “The Function of the Art Critic.” in Imagining the present: Context, Content and the Role of the Critic. Routledge, 2006.

Bridges, Lauren E. “Flexible as Freedom? The Dynamics of Creative Industry Work and the Case Study of the Editor in Publishing.” New Media & Society 20, no. 4 (April 2018): 1303–19. doi:10.1177/1461444816688920.

Choi, Kyung-Hee, and Van Dyk Lewis. “An inclusive system for fashion criticism.” In International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education 11, no. 1 (2018): 12-21.

Granata, Francesca. “Fashioning Cultural Criticism: An Inquiry into Fashion Criticism and its Delay in Legitimization.” Fashion Theory 21 (2018): 1-18. https://doi-org.libproxy.newschool.edu/10.1080/1362704X.2018.1433397.

Horyn, Cathy. “My Invitation Isn’t in the Mail.” New York Times online. Last modified 13 March, 2008. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/13/fashion/shows/13banned.html.

Martin, Richard. “Say Chic.” Artforum 3 no.4, December 1995, 54-55.

McNeill, Peter and Sanda Miller. “Introduction.” Fashion Writing and Criticism. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.

Mondalek, Alexandra. “A Designer Fat-Shamed Me On Instagram After I Criticized His Show.” InStyle, February 13, 2019. https://www.instyle.com/awards-events/fashion-week/philipp-plein-fat-shamed-instagram.

Mondalek, Alexandra. “How Designers, Consumers and Influencers Play a Role in Making Fashion Sustainable.” Fashionista, June 18, 2018. https://fashionista.com/2018/06/fashionistacon-2018-sustainable-ethical-fashion.

Mondalek, Alexandra. “Philipp Plein’s Fall 2019 Show Was Just as Tragic as the Kanye West Scam that Surrounded It.” Fashionista, February 19, 2019. https://fashionista.com/2019/02/philipp-plein-fall-2019-review.

Mondalek, Alexandra. “A Primer on the Many Ways Influencers Dominated the Fashion and Beauty Industries in 2018.” Fashionista, December 20, 2018. https://fashionista.com/2018/12/instagram-influencers-marketing-collaborations-fashion-beauty-2018.

Mondalek, Alexandra. “Why Karl Lagerfeld Paris Needs to Reach its New Plus-Sized Customers.” Fashionista, May 15, 2018. https://fashionista.com/2018/05/karl-lagerfeld-paris-stitch-fix-plus-size-clothes.

Ruttenberg, Jay. “This is Not a Fashion Critic.” Fashion Projects no. 4 (2014): 19-30.

Scaturro, Sarah. “Fashion Criticism as Political Critique.” Fashion Projects no. 4 (2014): 47-54.

Titton, Monica. “Fashion criticism unravelled: A sociological critique of criticism in fashion media.” International Journal of Fashion Studies 3 no.2 (2016): 209-223.