Working It: Personal Branding From the Kardashians to Hipster Barbie

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Kim Kardasian sisters mobile apps

Last week was New York Fashion Week, and the Kardashian sisters were out in force. After juggling interviews, runway shows and Uber-filled traffic jams, all five descended on the Apple store in Soho to promote their new apps, which, according to The Cut blog of New York Magazine, featured “videos, photos, and musings from the girls about their lives and projects.”

A reporter taking in the scene was struck how Kim, in full audience view, checked her hair in her iPhone camera, carefully smoothing a wayward strand. “Did she forget that we can see her?” Not hardly. In a brilliant moment of “casual authenticity,” Kim reminded us that she does exactly what so many of us would do to ensure we are perfect for our close-up. No matter that, for the rest of us, a close-up of that caliber rarely occurs. The KKs are brilliant at popularizing a way of being in the world that prior to the Instagram age was reserved for a rare breed of insiders engaged in specialized practices that were not for you and me.

Apple Kardashian Jenner Soho mobile app launch talk September 2015

There was a time when only fashion models had to “put on that show, 24 hours a day,” as one model I talked to in the pre-dawn of social media put it. Now it seems that every young girl who considers herself somewhat in the know about fashion and style feels the urge to constantly document her grooming, outfits, and exploits. During this New York Fashion Week more than ever before, the streets became runways in the world of Insta-girls populating our feeds.

While everyone has always tried to stand out from the scrum of fashionistas milling about between shows, it is striking how many were named by name in the various news outlets’ now obligatory ‘street fashion’ slide shows. Editors, bloggers, and models all were carefully documented, with only the occasional anonymous shot of a fantastic peacock, a courageous unknown in a sea of bold-faced names. It seems the adorable fashion students who used to hang around the tents, hoping to soak it all up by osmosis, are now jockeying for position with the self-branding fashion bloggers who are already, or about to be, well-known. Being always ready to be photographed has become a profession of sorts, and it didn’t start with the Kardashians.

Jean Patchett modelHistorically, models worked for the camera strictly in the studio, at the fashion show, or on the runway. They carefully protected their image beyond those arenas; a 1950s Ford model who had sashayed about in crinolines, carrying her model-signature hatbox, recalled ducking into movie theaters to make herself scarce between calls. Superstar model of that time, Jean Patchett, similarly didn’t want to over-expose herself, believing that “the more you are seen, the less you are wanted.”

Careful management to avoid over-exposure now seems quaint, but the mid-century titan of model-makers, John Robert Powers, would have had no truck with today’s I-just-woke-up-this-way, #nofilter mentality. He managed his ‘girls’ within an inch of their lives, carefully staging photo ops for the press where his carefully-coiffed models went about their anything-but-normal lives. He observed:

“If Mrs. Smith cooks and keeps house for her husband it is of interest to no-one but Mrs. Smith. But when a model has domestic tastes, she is photographed buying groceries, basting a roast, taking her baby out in his carriage.”

Sounds a lot like everyone’s Instagram or Facebook feed, but before the image onslaught of the digital age, regular people weren’t staging their lives as if they were on a movie set. It was a model’s job to “epitomize romance for the average person, to represent the story-book heroine in real life, to live more colorfully than other people.”

Fast-forward to today’s Instagram age, and it seems that everyone feels the pressure to live more colorfully, beautifully, to be the hero of their own show, engaging in what I call “glamour labor,” the work to look like your tightly-edited, highly-filtered image in the flesh.

Socialty Instagram Hipster Barbie

In a perfect send-up of these kinds of pressures, a fictitious Instagram account depicts a hipster Barbie doll’s golden idyll of sunny hikes, coffee dates, and rugged boyfriends. While completely contrived, it nonetheless rang true with thousands, going viral in a matter of days. “Socality Barbie” shows quite literally how “plastic” Instagram, and those of us who feel the need to feed it, have become. In the endless chase for the perfect image, Hipster Barbie might just have us beat.


Elizabeth Wissinger, PhD, is Associate Professor of Fashion Studies and Associate Professor of Sociology at City University of New York. Her new book — This Year’s Model: Fashion, Media, and the Making of Glamour — is published by NYU Press. Follow her on Twitter: @betsywiss

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