Speculations on Fashion as Information Technology, or, Bellbottoms as a Series of Tubes


Recently I’ve been enjoying an online discussion of the decline in fashion innovation. As Kurt Anderson observes, the visual innovation of mainstream American dress is far less pronounced when comparing someone from 1991 to someone in 2011, that 1971:1991, or 1951:1971. This violates our expectations for the forms of accelerating cultural development we sometimes ascribe to the twenty-first century. Anderson:

Now try to spot the big, obvious, defining differences between 2012 and 1992. Movies and literature and music have never changed less over a 20-year period. Lady Gaga has replaced Madonna, Adele has replaced Mariah Carey—both distinctions without a real difference—and Jay-Z and Wilco are still Jay-Z and Wilco. Except for certain details (no Google searches, no e-mail, no cell phones), ambitious fiction from 20 years ago (Doug Coupland’s Generation X, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow) is in no way dated, and the sensibility and style of Joan Didion’s books from even 20 years before that seem plausibly circa-2012.

But as Tyler Cowen and Alan Jacobs respond, there’s a big caveat to Anderson’s argument, since it explicitly excludes technology. Cowen notes that we still see innovation in information-dependent technologies:

Today the areas of major breakthrough innovation are writing, computer games, television, photography (less restricted to the last decade exclusively) and the personal stream. Let’s hope TV can keep it up, and architecture counts partially.

I think it’s fair to say that innovation in each of these areas has been driven by the proliferation of new and powerful technologies, from the impact of social media, the internet, and attendent cultural forms on the novel, to the power of new scripting and rendering technologies in architecture.

Yet I think this discussion just misses the more basic insight, which is that fashion, as a channel for communication, is an information technology. Fashion is an indexical sign that talks to others, plays a key role in status and peer group signaling, serves to demarcate distinct social spaces and contingent individual ambitions. And at the end of the day, fashion competes with other communication technologies for bandwidth. From texting to email to social media networking, a great deal of that communication is happening away from face to face encounters, and relies on distinct associative and indexical registers (I haz roflcopter).

Which brings up the second, and perhaps even more interesting insight that that looking at fashion as IT offers. I’m used to thinking of transformative technology as a non-zero-sum game; it creates new spaces and possibilities that supervene (without directly impinging) on existing social forms. But the possibility that fashion innovation is competing with and losing out to digitally-mediated technologies suggests that are zero-sum features to technology certain key respects.

Cowen notes that the substantial investment in the aesthetic innovation of technologies (think Steve Jobs here) changes how we invest our resources in fashion. (And I don’t want to minimize the value of aesthetics as an information technology in itself, which gets to the heart of Edmund Burke’s insight. By signaling differences in the object we interact with, design can change the content of what we experience through our technology.) I suspect there’s a differentiating function at work here, too. We don’t want to look like the Mighty Mouse. Apple’s house style seems to depend upon its distinction from contemporary patterns of dress and perhaps even the human form. At the end of the day, it may be that the distinctions between fashionable clothing and technological aesthetics are mutually reinforcing. If so, even while the evolution of fashion attenuates, it won’t stop anytime soon.