Brent Luvaas on his book, Street Style

Street Style cover

Interview by Matthew Raj Webb

https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/street-style-9780857855756

Matthew Raj Webb: Not so long ago, fashion showed up in anthropologists’ writing largely as a pejorative. Today, fashion practices, media, and industries are at the center of many important and far-reaching theoretical debates. There are even dedicated graduate programs in so called “Fashion Anthropology.” What drew you to the topic, and what does your study of street style blogging reveal about fashion as a variegated social field?

Brent Luvaas: I’ve always been interested in fashion, how people present themselves to the world around them, and the stories people tell about themselves through the clothes they wear. As the kid dressed all in black in the corner of my high school cafeteria, fashion and its relationship with identity seemed like an obvious thing to study. Even my early ethnographic work on indie music in Indonesia was as much about what bands wear as the music they play. It was only when I became interested in bloggers, however, that I made the choice to make fashion an explicit focus of my anthropological practice. I learned a lot about fashion as a variegated social field from the project, both in terms of the ways people mix and match clothes in their everyday sartorial practice and, more importantly, in terms of how fashion, as an industry, has re-structured itself in alignment with digital technologies. Blogging wasn’t just an exception to the fashion industry as usual, a way outsiders and amateurs could get in on the game. It transformed the inherent logic of the industry. Now everyone in the fashion industry has to present, market, and brand themselves the way the bloggers did. Blogging may be out of fashion now, but the impact of blogging on the industry can’t be overstated. 

Matthew Raj Webb: One of the main threads in your book concerns the tensions between global democratization of access—such as via the internet and digital cameras—and the remediation of professional/amateur distinctions, both in the field of fashion photography and within anthropology. Could you elaborate on your point of view here? From your perspective, how have new media of fashion—and anthropology—transformed or reinforced historical hierarchies of value?

Brent Luvaas: I think we have to distinguish between the methods through which hierarchies are established and performed and the hierarchies themselves. Fashion has always been about exclusivity. It’s built into its very concept. The industry depends on it, creating a model whereby the fashion elite continuously work to distinguish themselves from everyone else. When a trend reaches peak saturation, fashion moves on. Digital technologies like blogging and social media have not eliminated that elite. They have simply transformed the methods and tools people use to become that elite. There was an elite class of bloggers when I was doing my research. They have now rebranded themselves as social media influencers. Social media has become a critical part of becoming part of the fashion elite today. It is an industry requirement. We could argue that it has, to a certain limited extent, widened the scope of who can become that elite. There are today more people of color in the fashion industry than there used to be, having built a large enough following through social media to demand that the industry pay attention to them. There is also more body diversity. But the industry remains primarily skinny and white. It remains insular and exclusive. It is still a social field—like anthropology itself, I might add—where social, cultural, and economic capital are critical to achieving success.

Matthew   Raj Webb: I was captivated by Chapter 5, where you discuss bloggers’ collaborations and partnerships with fashion businesses—brand associations that you actively pursued for your own (highly successful) style blog, Urban Fieldnotes. From the point of view of street style bloggers in the mid-2010s, what did the opportunities and constraints of cultural production within the commercialized field of fashion look like? How do you think these might have changed today?

Brent Luvaas: I’ve touched a bit on this in the previous questions, but perhaps a bit of blog history is important here. There was a moment, in about 2005-2007, when blogs, run through free platforms like WordPress and Blogger, were not a commercial enterprise—at least not for the bloggers. Street style bloggers got into the game because of an abiding interest or passion. They weren’t making money from them and most people I interviewed who had blogs at that time claim it hadn’t even occurred to them that they could make money from them. But after bloggers like Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist and Tommy Ton of Jak & Jil started shooting for magazines like GQ and Vogue and getting brand partnerships with American Apparel, Burberry, and others, a new generation of bloggers emerged with the explicit intent of using their blogs to enter into the industry. They were the predecessors of today’s fashion influencers. The game began to shift, and more and more bloggers began showing up outside the shows at Fashion Week hoping to either be noticed by the photographers or capture those up-and-comers who would help them build a name for themselves as photographers. Blogging, and later social media, became a key part of how people build careers in the fashion industry. The outsiders re-wrote the rules of the fashion industry. But then, fashion has long been an industry of outsiders. This might be more of a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Matthew Raj Webb: Street Style cuts across locations like Philadelphia, New York, Boston, as well as Jakarta, Cape Town, and Athens, drawing on aspects of your auto-ethnography and para-ethnographic research. As a community of practice and cultural phenomenon the world of street style blogging is thus globally diffuse and diverse, but you nonetheless note that participants tend to share a middle-class position. How do these factors lead you to understand the value of the street as a representational idiom and context?

Brent Luvaas: As you stated in the question, street style bloggers tend to be middle class. If you want to get your work recognized, you need to be able to produce the aesthetics currently valued by the industry. To produce those aesthetics, you need expensive camera equipment. It was not unusual for bloggers I encountered to have spent upwards of $10,000 on their cameras and lenses alone. Plus, not everyone’s perspective on style gets the same amount of attention on social media. An ability to recognize and anticipate what the industry values in fashion is required, and that ability is not universally distributed. It remains the exclusive domain of a particular kind of urban, cosmopolitan, middle-class person. Despite a rhetoric of democratization, there was never an equal playing field in the street style game. Nonetheless, there is a diversity of perspective, particularly across regional and national boundaries. Street style bloggers actively sought to elucidate that diversity through their work. They highlighted their own city or nation’s distinct flavor and style. They sought to put their own city on the global fashion map, and in doing so, they practiced a form of amateur visual anthropology. Street style, then, is a global phenomenon with distinctly local characteristics. And it depends on a shared conception of the street —itself derived from western European models of urban design—as a public, highly visible space where people perform identities for others to see. Street style blogging has helped perpetuate and extend the reach of that concept. It has real, practical implications for how public spaces are conceptualized, accessed, and designed.

Matthew Raj Webb: Street Style was published in 2016, you have subsequently written about how deeply the project affected you (Luvaas 2019), stating that you remain in some ways haunted by the habitus you acquired. Could you please talk a little about what it has meant for you to leave the field given the ubiquity of fashion media and intimacy of dress politics in everyday life? Moreover, I’m curious to know your thoughts on what it feels like to age as a researcher—and human!—deeply immersed within the world of fashion?

Brent Luvaas: For those of us who do work in the digital realm in some capacity (and perhaps that is most of us these days), there is no “leaving the field.” Not really. Today, we remain linked, via Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and other platforms to the communities we study. We are (rightfully) held more accountable for what we have to say about our interlocutors. We have trouble gaining distance. That is doubly true for those of us who employ auto-ethnography as a key part of our practice. For us, we have made ourselves an explicit subject of our own work. I studied street style blogging by becoming a street style blogger. I picked up a camera, walked the streets, and learned to intuit cool the way a street style blogger does. I hung out with fashion people, got free-lance employment by the fashion industry, and became increasingly self-conscious about what I wore and when. All that messes with your head. All anthropologists are changed by the field in some way, but how do we live with these changes when we’re never really able to leave the field? I’m still wrestling with that question myself. What has become clear to me is that I need to consider before I start a new project who I will become by doing it. That is especially true as a middle-aged cis-gendered, heteronormative white guy. Some research options are off the table for me. I can no longer build a project around hanging out with twenty-something Indonesian hipsters until four in the morning every night. That would be creepy. People are not super likely to want to talk to me. I would also likely have a harder time building a following as a social media influencer than I did nine years back. Fashion has carved out greater space for people over 40 in recent years. But that space is limited, and my ability to access it even more limited. Rather than combat the youth cult of fashion and the psychological damage it could inflict on me, I’ve turned my attention to other practices of visuality, less tied to age. Lately, that has been street photography. I’ve learned a lot from street style blogging, but the biggest things I’ve gained are an appreciation for the camera as a tool of perception and an appreciation of the street as a space where culture is improvised and performed. I am taking that appreciation into my new work, moving away from the fashion industry, but still walking the same streets.  

References

Luvaas, B. 2019. “Unbecoming: The Aftereffects of Autoethnography.” Ethnography, 20(2): 245–262.

Sirpa Tenhunen on her new book, A Village Goes Mobile

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https://global.oup.com/academic/product/a-village-goes-mobile-9780190630270

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: What is so fascinating about A Village Goes Mobile is how effectively you use your long historical relationship with a West Bengali village to reflect upon how the introduction and decade-long use of mobile phones affects social relationships.   Which aspects of your previous research shaped your research foci and your questions? 

Sirpa Tenhenun: My previous research in Janta focused on gender, kinship and politics, so I was inclined to continue to observe these aspects of culture and society when I started working on the appropriation of mobile phones. Without my long-term relationship with the community I might not have been able to recognize changes, and how mobile phone use, on the one hand, contributed to these changes and, on the other hand, to how mobile phone use was intertwined with changes. I, for instance, could observe how mobile phone use helped transform kinship relationships. I also witnessed how most people could accomplish more in a shorter time by being able to coordinate their activities with the help of mobile phones. However, the most significant economic change in the village since the turn of the century was not due to the use of mobile phones, but to the agricultural policies. Since farming small plots of land has become increasingly unprofitable, young men from small farms use their phones to find paid employment outside the village.

Ilana Gershon: You discuss the fact that most West Bengali villagers did not have landlines, that their only experience of telephony were the mobile phones.  This reminded me of Terry Turner’s discussion of Kayapo videos, that their makers had experienced radio and then video cameras without experiencing all the different media in-between that Euroamericans have.   How do you think this affected people’s experiences of telephony – to never have had an experience with landlines first?  

Sirpa Tenhunen: Villagers who never had an access to a landline phone experienced the ability to use mobile phones as more spectacular than those of us who have routinely been using landline phones before mobiles became available.  This does not mean that the idea of a landline phone did not at all affect how mobile phones were used: initially, when the phone density was low, mobile phones were mostly kept at home and shared by the household members.   However, villagers were able to use mobile phones more innovatively since they had not developed routines of landline phone use. For instance, they frequently used the phone’s speaker to share the phone conversations with whoever was present.

Ilana Gershon: How did the introduction of smartphones affect social organization in Janta?  Did it change gender relationships?

Sirpa Tenhunen: Smartphones were used to strengthen pre-existing identities but they also offered opportunities and technical affordances which challenged hierarchies. Contrary to their hierarchical position, educated young wives and children could become the phone use experts in their families. Low caste people were able to make identity statements simply by possessing smartphones. Digital sphere constructed through mobile telephony was first associated with male-dominated public sphere but it proved much more malleable than the public sphere outside the home from where women are still largely excluded—the great majority of women continue to be housewives despite women’s growing aspirations to be able to work outside the home. The young men pioneered the use of smartphones—if their older models were still working, they were kept in the house and used by the rest of the family, mainly by women, who usually stay at home more than men do. At the same time, few women who moved outside the home for work or study started to acquire their personal phones. Young women now also preferred smartphones, readily discussing the multiple functions of these phones and demonstrating their ability to use them. Most people stored music and films on the smartphone’s memory card from downloading shops instead of browsing the internet independently. I never saw women listening to music on their phone in public places like men do —listening to music on smartphones through the phone’s loudspeaker is used to ascertain the meaning of the public sphere as a masculine space where men can spend their leisure time. The few men and women in the village who have used their personal phones to browse the internet all had a college education. The ability to browse the internet with one’s phone was, therefore, related to one’s education and wealth rather than merely gender.

Ilana Gershon:  What kinds of social relationships or circulation of knowledge changed because phones made it common to have a one-to-one or dyadic conversation, which might have been difficult to achieve before the advent of mobile phones?

Sirpa Tenhunen: Within the sphere of politics, mobile phones provided a channel to contact opposition political leaders discreetly. The use of mobile technology amplified multiplicity by strengthening clandestine political activities and alternative discourses. Women’s increasing access to a mobile phone influenced their relationships with men, but—more crucially— it influenced the kinship code of conduct and kinship hierarchies within families and between kin groups. I observed how phones offered women a channel to express unconventional ideas and exert their will through networking. For instance, a mother could advise her daughter over the phone to not to obey the mother-in-law whose demands were excessive. Thanks to phones, young wives were able to stay in constant touch with their natal families which was unheard of in the past.

Ilana Gershon: One of your findings that I found startling was that mobile phones had contributed to a marked decline in village-level leaders’ power.  Could you explain why this is the case?

Sirpa Tenhunen: Mobile telephony was a crucial factor in the rise of the opposition in West Bengal, where the Communist Party had been in power largely through its network of local village leaders from 1977 until 2011. In 2010 opposition activists related to me how mobile phones help them secretly mobilize against the ruling party. Political activists used phones more to organize party meetings and offer political patronage than to organize spontaneous demonstrations and support. The parties’ power used to be largely derived from their role as arbitrators of disputes: any person who feels that he or she has suffered an injustice can call a village meeting, led by local political leaders, during which a solution will be negotiated between the disputing parties. Thanks to mobile phones, patronage could now increasingly be sought from opposition leaders and from outside the village. When I visited the village in 2013, I found that after the end of CPI(M) rule in the village in 2011, not a single general village meeting had been held to solve local problems and disputes. Mobile phone use had helped amplify translocal political networks thereby reducing the power of local village leaders.  Phone use for political purposes built on earlier political patterns and meanings, but it made politics faster, more heterogeneous, and translocal.

Michael Prentice’s Ranks and Files

My dissertation explored how corporate hierarchies are embedded within genres of communication in South Korea. I conducted fieldwork in the headquarters of one of Korea’s largest domestic steel conglomerates where I followed how top managers across expert departments controlled subsidiaries through different techniques. My main theoretical focus in the dissertation was connecting things happening in the “office,” like making PowerPoints and holding meetings, with our understanding of the nature of corporate entities themselves. Following how different departments drew on documents, systems, and projects, as modes of control, I made the broader claim that organizational borders take shape around the categories and pathways traced in different genres.

Page 99 interestingly lands directly on what I called the “pig’s feet” incident. It is one of a few places in the dissertation where I discuss hoesik (sounds close to “way chic”), one of the most visible genres of corporate culture in Korea. Hoesik refers to after-hours eating and drinking between coworkers or partners. The event at hand took place between two Human Resources teams, one from the headquarters and the other from a subsidiary. We met at a famous pig’s feet restaurant off of a back alley somewhere in Seoul. I described how the event brought together two teams through conviviality and consumption in which the overt hierarchical relations between their organizations would be momentarily set aside. It was a generally gregarious time, until an abrupt moment in which a mid-ranked manager from the subsidiary team brought up work. He lamented that the headquarters team made too many requests at the last minute. Interestingly, he directed this to the junior-most member from the headquarters, Ki-ho, who was responsible for collecting files from the subsidiaries. It was a strange encounter: Ki-ho was socially subordinate (in rank) but pragmatically superior (in terms of files). In the chapter, I used this incident to discuss the tension between rank hierarchies (which are made very explicit across speech, writing, and behavior), and organizational hierarchies (which are embedded into modes of knowledge production or even occluded altogether, like in group encounters). Hoesik is normally considered a domain outside of formal work itself, but I argue it was one social genre tied to a broader reorganization of corporate relations between the headquarters and subsidiaries.

Michael M. Prentice. 2017 “Ranks and Files: Corporate Hierarchies, Genres of Management, and Shifting Control in South Korea’s Corporate World.” Phd. Dissertation, University of Michigan.

Michael Prentice is currently a research fellow in the Digital Trust & Security program at the University of Manchester where he is researching cybersecurity issues in cross-cultural workplaces. His book manuscript explores how changes to reform historical issues of hierarchy in the Korean workplace are channeled through changes to communication and interaction. He received his PhD in anthropology from the University of Michigan in 2017. You can reach him by email at michael.m.prentice@gmail.com.