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San Francisco
Cindy Sherman
SFMOMA - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 3rd St., San Francisco, CA 94103
July 14, 2012 - October 8, 2012

Identity Outfitters
by Christina Catherine Martinez

Snaking through the rooms of SFMOMA’s recently opened Cindy Sherman retrospective, I felt disturbingly underwhelmed by portrait after portrait of the artist acting as her own costumer, make-up artist, hairdresser, and photographer, becoming in each photograph, a different woman. Whispering into their recorders and to each other, the critics sound-byte thesis statements echoed off the walls like sage axioms: “pictures are misleading,” “identity is a social construction,” “photography is implicit in the fabrication of identity,” etc., etc. I wondered why the whole thing had less bite for me than it seemed to have for a not-much-older generation.

In an age of fashion blogging, the idea of a woman trying different identities through clothes and make-up, hair-cuts and dress-up, which she then documents with a photograph (for the sake of art or otherwise), feels so much less incendiary than it probably did thirty-odd years ago. I do this almost every day. So do thousands of others.

This is not to say Sherman’s work is irrelevant, but that its relevance has more to do with prescience than endurance.

Christina Catherine Martinez, from her blog: For Show.

The term “fashion blog” is self-explanatory, but it’s still a small enough niche of cultural concern. I’m constantly reminded of this in the course of talking to a rational person who simply can’t get their head around the idea: the cataloging of outfits I wear day-to-day, the odd appropriated fashion or art-related image (filed under “inspiration"), and frivolous musings that upward of thousands of people per month deign to consume. Some blogs of course do better than others, the most successful ones rival staffed media outlets in terms of audience, but even modest fashion blogs can have hits into the thousands.   

The obsession is completely reciprocal, actually tipped far in the favor of the other like-minded women (okay, most of them are actually teenage girls) whose sites attract tens, hundreds, thousands more views than my own. The vast majority of my RSS feed consists of fashion blogs that fall mainly under the sub-genre known as the Personal Style Blog, a more diaristic (and voyeuristic) format than sites dedicated to the aggregation of news and content from the “real” fashion industry. (The great irony of the fashion blogosphere is that it’s capable of making women feel just as crappy about themselves as the glossy ladymags they’re supposed to be challenging.)

I wish I could explain the impulse to do it. I vaguely recall encountering personal style blogs through eBay vintage stores around 2005. Over the next few years I flooded myself with them, each blog connected to hundreds of others, which I checked up on several times a day, and a seemingly endless supply of new blogs to peruse if there was a minute to spare. Though it’s nearly impossible to accurately track these things, the numbers on fashion-themed blogs range from the millions to the mere thousands depending on the source. I eventually decided I wanted to insert myself into this community; fashion bloggers all seemed to know, or at least be aware of one another and I’ve found this to be largely true. There’s a pervading rhetoric of inclusivity, but the fashion blogosphere is also the world’s largest cool-girls table, and scooting your chair over is no guarantee you’ll get noticed. It makes the effort feel all the more absurd when I suspect no one is looking.

Sherman’s portraits are eerily recognizable because they are often nondescript evocations of archetypes generated by films, television, and fashion (though I might argue that the latter is more akin to archetypes generated by films and television about fashion), that often had yet to be fully articulated at the time she was miming them. The fashion blogosphere has its own zeitgeist, its own movements, archetypes, politics, and celebrities, only the archetypes are oddly fluid, because we’re making them up as we go along. We’re all engaging in a codified mode of crafting identities, in an arena of higher stakes, no less, because there’s no distance of caricaturization and commentary.

Christina Catherine Martinez, from her blog: For Show.

This is quite plainly the best us we think we can make, even if sometimes we’re neglect to do it because the chasm between our online personas and real-life responsibilities is too vast. One would think that with all the possibility an empty plot of cyberspace holds, fashion bloggers would have the room to fully express the unique flower that we all are. But just as in life, we are herded into tribes, either by internal or external force.

The difference between a girl who wears Jeffrey Campbell Lita platforms and the girl who wears vintage Salvatore Ferragamo Vara flats is so readily apparent to fashion bloggers and almost impossible to explain diplomatically to anyone else. Then of course, there’s the difference between a Vara flat and a Varina flat, and the growing popularity of the JC Nightwalk cutting into Lita’s domain, Etsy types versus NastyGal types, aspiring-insider fashion bloggers versus anti-fashion fashion bloggers, career fashion bloggers versus ad-free fashion bloggers, feminist fashion bloggers, eco-fashion bloggers, modest fashion bloggers... I can go on and on, but the particulars are a discussion for another time (give me your URL and maybe we can talk about it over gchat).

Identity construction is a given now, maybe even more than that—a mandate. And a personal style blog offers a crucial smidge of extra control over it than the garden-variety social media site does. In the process we’ve created a parallel social landscape united tenuously by a love of clothing, divided by differences in style and provenance of said clothing that take on their own inflated meaning and new signifiers of WHO U R.

The archetypes are being created faster than we can smash them, but if Sherman didn’t have to pick, than we don’t either.

Christina Catherine Martinez
(Image on top: Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #6, 1977, film still; Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York)

Posted by Christina Catherine Martinez on 7/26/12 | tags: photography blogging fashion

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