How Has Street Style Evolved Over the Years? Savoir Flair Investigates

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Photographer Bill Cunningham working during Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Spring/Summer 2014 on October 1, 2013 in Paris, France.
Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

Picture a scene as chaotic as Black Friday shoppers stampeding through Walmart to snatch discounted products from the shelves – except this scene is surrounded by the grandiose architecture of Palais Garnier, and the setting is Paris Fashion Week outside of a Stella McCartney show. Sleek, black town cars and limousines slowly make their way through a mass of well-heeled attendees in order to pick up their VIP passengers, struggling to navigate given the mass of street-style photographers clamoring for their own angle on an Irene Kim twirl or a shot of Anna Della Russo in an extravagant Versace get-up.

In an acerbic 2013 feature for The New York Times, Suzy Menkes referred to it as the “circus of street style, and it has only gotten worse. Yet, if we were to rewind back ten years, this bizarre scenario would simply not have existed. It wasn’t until 2007, when Scott Schuman  (a.k.a. The Sartorialist) was tapped to cover the menswear collections in Milan, that street-style photographers had any presence at Fashion Week at all. Since then, there has been an explosion of interest in street style, thanks in large part to the democratization of fashion by way of the internet.

Blogs and social media spread these aspirational style images far and wide, and created a new category of fashion altogether. However, Schuman, Tommy Ton, Adam Katz Sindig, and other widely known street-style photographers were hardly pioneers of the discipline, but rather, represented a new breed. Yet, in the story of how street style has changed over the years, they represent the middle portion, with a new class of self-made influencers armed with Instagram filters, and hired teams of photographers and photo editors representing the most recent chapter.

But in order to understand how much the game has shifted, we have to look at the prime mover and, in this case, that is the late Bill Cunningham, a street-style photographer and fashion critic at The New York Times. This year was rocked by many untimely deaths, but one that affected the fashion world deeply was his passing. He was not only instrumental in shaping the way media reported style, but was also a pioneer of the street-style category.

“We all get dressed for Bill,”an editor famously confided in the 2011 documentary Bill Cunningham New York, but something tells me that he would prefer if you didn’t. You see, for all intents and purposes, Cunningham was a populist photographer, choosing to focus on authentic personal style, rather than celebrity. He was interested in clothes as a form of personal expression, and developed the technique of shooting his subjects in candid situations on the street.

He once ignored a photo opportunity with Catherine Deneuve, who was surrounded by paparazzi, simply saying, “But she isn’t wearing anything interesting.” He took it as a personal responsibility to capture genuine moments, eschewing women who were paid to wear clothes in favor of those who styled themselves in looks they paid for with their own money. His philosophy was simple, “Money is the cheapest thing. Liberty is the most expensive.” With his death, we lost one of the purest voices in the fashion industry, but his life’s work serves to remind us of how much the street-style scene has changed since he first took to the streets of New York City on his bicycle in search of real style.

photographers-street-style
Photo: Courtesy of Tommy Ton

As street style has evolved over the past decade, so too have its subjects, who have since learned how to control the narrative and adapt their personal style into influential fashion careers with the aid of brand collaborations. Previously, with the Cunningham era and early days of Schuman and his ilk, street-style subjects were not known entities. Now they are editors, bloggers, influencers, and models, which has made the category less relatable but more aspirational than it was before.

The influx of marketing cash by major fashion brands is what has led to this sea change. Now, the street-style images you see on Instagram or in the pages of your favorite online fashion magazine are little more than advertorials. The candid nature of street-style photography has been completely subverted by brand influence. Shots are now posed, photoshopped, tweaked, and filtered, belying the “real” nature of street style.

People are no longer dressing for themselves at Fashion Week or displaying true personal style on their Instagram pages, but are dressing for the camera lens instead – or worse yet, for a paycheck. Furthermore, professional street-style photographers now function as a marketing arm of the fashion industry, providing paid-for visuals that are meant to simulate “real” style, but this is ultimately a false narrative.

Epictetus once said, “Know, first, who you are and then adorn yourself accordingly”, an idea rooted in fashion’s function as a tool of self-expression and self-identity. However, modern fashion has gotten further away from this idea, evidenced by how much street style has changed over the years. Identity – or at least the impression of one’s unique identity transmitted by sartorial statements – can now be purchased or paid for.

When you can align your identity with products, you transmit a message that the products reflect your values in some way, which means identity is now mutable, capable of shifting at a moment’s notice. Does Chiara Ferragni really listen to Guns N’ Roses, as her T-shirt might imply, or is she simply appropriating the rock subculture because it’s on-trend for 2016? You’d be right to guess the latter.

Photo: Courtesy of Imaxtree

This week, Bridget Foley, Executive Editor at Women’s Wear Daily, conducted her annual report on the state of fashion, and somberly pointed out that the fashion industry is no longer concerned with fashion. “Typically, we strive for at least one pure fashion item to make the Top Ten [annual list of stories],” she writes. “No such candidates this time around. Nor focus on a look, a mood, or the influence of a silhouette, although Demna Gvasalia’s bold debut statement at Balenciaga did get fleeting consideration.”

Similarly, street style is no longer concerned with style – at least not its authentic aspects as it concerns real women and how they wear their own clothes. In The New York Times, Ruth La Ferla tackled the situation, saying, “What they are parading as street style — once fashion’s last stronghold of true indie spirit — has lately been breached, infiltrated by tides of marketers, branding consultants, and public relations gurus, all intent on persuading those women to step out in their wares.”

This is the part of the industry’s evolution that occurred when multinational conglomerates became stakeholders in the sartorial realm. With a global economic system founded upon return on investment, brands must find a way to continue to reach a changing consumer, and one of those ways is to take the relatability of street style and bend the category to a brand’s whim. This interference often goes unnoticed by the average consumer. How many times have you scrolled through your feed and considered the amount of products being sold to you by your favorite influencers? Chances are, the impact is peripheral.

I say all of this not to suggest that the subversion of street style by brands or self-interested influencers is a bad thing, but rather to say that it is what it is. As more become aware of the repurposed nature of street style, a backlash is sure to follow and, naturally, there are already people leading the way back to a more authentic purview.

David Luraschi, for example, is an emerging street-style photographer who is taking his genre of photography “back to the streets” with candid, compelling imagery. Regardless, now that street style has mutated so thoroughly that it has become virtually unrecognizable, perhaps it deserves a more accurate name. How about “blatant sartorial advertising masquerading as authentic personal style”? Too long? Okay, I guess we can stick with “street style”.

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