Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 72, nov 2008 (edited)
Lookbook.nu and the Game of Fashion
Fashion is full of paradoxes and certainly one of the most profound is how we try to express individuality using only ready-made objects whose meanings are created outside of ourselves. We assemble an outfit that we want to use to express our modest uniqueness; individual but at the same time not too individual. We try to say something personal through fashion, yet it can never be totally autonomous, just like we cannot have our own personal language since it has to be somehow shared to work as communication. It is thus stuck in-between its heteronomous process of creation as a communication tool and the autonomous will of the wearer to express something personal.
Traditionally fashion has been a totally ready-made phenomenon, usually dictated from above and according to linear logics or repetition. But fashion is not simply repeated, it follows some form of basic rules which gives it an organic quality and dynamic characteristics – it follows some rules of life. These rules are a sort of “logic” of how fashion spreads between us, here among us. It acts quite like a “meme”, a gene-like unit of information or a “virus of the mind” to use Richard Dawkins term, or like an epidemic “virus” to use contemporary advertising speak.
If we want to study this type of viral fashion one such example could be the editorless style community of the site lookbook.nu where everyday fashionistas upload images of their latest outfits and comment and discuss each others way of dressing and modeling. Here the roles of designer, stylist, model, producer and consumer are blurred and all have many ways for participating in the creation of new looks. It is an organic fashion that grows at lookbook, a special life form of cultural production and style transmission that acts as a living system of new turbulences and flows – something like a swarm of fashionistas creating their own user generated fashion magazine, made from interactions between fellow fashionistas.
Yet, the inner mechanisms of fashion remain the same as it seems that fashion spreads between us following some basic protocols, some unwritten intersubjective social commands. Put extremely simplified these commands could be formulated as basic rules or laws. There are only two modes: in or out. It could thus be something like an algorithm, like game rules. The rules to the “Game of Fashion”.
We could describe these basic rules like this:
* If the fashion expression is too unique, it is not fashion. (it is too original)
* If the fashion expression is too popular, it is out of fashion. (it is too popular)
* If an accessible status group wears the fashion, it is in fashion. (it functions; imitating the once we like, differing from the ones we dislike)
* Fashion expressions are somehow “contagious”. But at the same time it cannot be too original or too popular. (as in rule 1 and 2)
As I elaborated on the rules of fashion I got surprised in how much these protocols somehow came to reflect a game simulation I have been fascinated with for a long time, but never been clever enough to fully comprehend; Conway’s “Game of Life”.
What makes the “Game of Life” so interesting is that it generates complexity with very simple rules. From simple combinations of binary data, starting from a simple configuration, unexpected results emerge. Since its publication in 1970 the game, as a generator of cellular automata, has fascinated mathematicians and biologists. It is a game of computer generated artificial biology, resembling an evolution of life through simple rules or protocols, visually playing with emergence and self-organization.
The game board consists of cells where each cell of the two-dimensional square grid is considered to be either "live" or "dead". The game-play is very simple, you only “play” it in solitaire mode, as it is actually a zero-player game; you only set up the initial configuration and then let the rules determine the fate of your cellular life form. The game is in this sense the initial seed, and the simulation following its evolution with every “generation” re-applying the rules on the new form. As simple starting point for life simulation.
The rules of “Game of Life” are as follows:
* A cell dies of loneliness if it has one or zero neighbours. (“death by isolation”)
* A cell dies of overcrowding if it has four or more neighbours. (“death by overcrowdning”)
* An alive cell with exactly two or three neighbours survives to the next generation. (the cell is “stable”)
* A new cell is born if it has exactly three neighbours. (called “birth”)
An evolution can thus look something like this, following the rules over 10 generations.
The simple rules applied to various starting configurations evolves into unexpected forms over the generations, and they show certain straits and characteristics, but keeping their simple rules. Some evolve to become stable but oscillating “blinkers” (as in the GoF1 illustration, which starts to repeat itself after eight generations), while others move around or crawl over the grid, as “gliders”.
Other forms create complex patterns of movement from their initial configuration and move in repetitive patterns while giving “birth” to independent life forms. These new life forms shoot out from their bodies, and are called “guns”. As the Gosper Glider Gun (illustration GoF2), producing a new living “glider” every 15 generations. It is a simple pattern of mathematical cells that produces life on its own. It simulates the spread of life at the simplest level similar to the replication of life among basic cells and germs and thus literally illustrates the “viral” diffusion of ideas or intensities.
For sociologist Gabriel Tarde, his analytic resource of idea “germs” is at its full potential at the moment of innovation, and this creates “vibration”, just like cell multiplications or the “firing” of neurons between nerves. This is pure difference, pure intensity, and and resonates well with Pierre Bourdieu’s notion that “Fashion is the latest fashion, the latest difference.” We could say that fashion is the latest intensity, the latest firing of social life. It does not require too much imagination to see an analogy between this viral approach and fashion, itself signifying a social vibration of status and desire that dies over time, usually in a season or two. We are “immune” to last season’s fashion, and indeed most of us have some “dead” garments buried in the back of the wardrobe that once were highly vivid.
This means that we could see the lookbook fashion system or the “game of fashion” as a living system, as an ecology of living parts, rather than a mechanical system of simplified cause-and-effect relationships, of designer dictations and interpassive blind followers. In the living system of lookbook every actor is both sender and receiver and as the virus mutates the fashion bends and is constantly reinterpreted. It is a flat field of two-way fashion agency and pure viral intensity, yet following the playful rules of diffusion.
A fashionista does not need to be autonomous to feel alive. On the contrary; a fashionista feels alive by abiding the rules, and by being engulfed in the intensity of the social game. It is this unpredictable game that is fashion, this vibrant celebration of life. The game is indeed played on a “field”. And it only refers to the last season (or in this sense ”generation”). If it was skinny jeans last season it is now flares. If it was white last season, it is now black. We all know the rules: it should neither be too original, nor too popular. What a lovely game to play.
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