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What is the history of the fashion meme?

Exploring the origins and progress of memes in fashion

After years of fashion moments being meme-ified by the internet masses for a quick laugh and a few likes, brands are jumping on board with ad campaigns, runway designs and red carpet moments inspired by and tailored to, the age of the meme. It isn’t only brands that are leaning into the meme, fashion publications have also joined the fray, using meme culture on social media to relate to younger audiences. Now, this rising artistic genre is gaining stature as a legitimate form of fashion criticism and commentary, with creators finding employment through posting their original content and collaborating with brands. Where do memes come from and what is their link to fashion?

First, we have to question: What constitutes a meme, and what is the relevance of meme culture? Undoubtedly, memes play a central role in digital culture. Even social media users who are unaware of the minutiae of the internet will have shared a meme, whether or not they know what it is, such is their ubiquity. As Morwenna Ferrier writes for The Guardian in 2019, “the original concept dates back to 1976 when the word was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. He took it from the Greek root “mimeme” (“that which is imitated”), shaved it into a neat monosyllabic word to make it snappier (you know, like a meme) and used it to describe a unit of cultural transmission that shows the spread of ideas or culture.” Colloquially, a meme is just an online form of humour; quick-witted responses to news and cultural events harnessing the idioms of the internet and social media to make self-referential quips that relate to the growing feelings of chaos in our current global landscape. Easily shared, re-made and re-shared, again and again in new contexts, memes are in essence a form of satire that both react to and inform the zeitgeist.

Colloquially, a meme is just an online form of humour; quick-witted responses to news and cultural events harnessing the idioms of the internet.

Are memes becoming part of fashion because they talk about pain?

Culturally, memes have come to signify a great deal more than just a quick joke. Instead, as we grow more dependent on technology, they are becoming an essential form of communication for young adults who are struggling to articulate their complex thoughts and feelings. Entering the 2020s, faced with economic instability, the looming climate crisis, widespread political corruption, and the rise of far-right ideology, and now a global pandemic, there is a growing sense of nihilism amongst Millennials and Gen-Z. As a result, these generations are turning to the self-conscious irony of memes for comic relief. Although these themes and events are not inherently funny, the splicing and recontextualising of them, with the internet’s off-beat, the ironic lexicon is the key to their humour. Are memes becoming part of fashion because they talk about pain?

 

Left to right- The Skeleton Dress, Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali, 1938, France. Museum no. T.394&A-1974. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; The Tears Dress, Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali, 1938, France. Museum no. T.393&A,D to F-1974. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Shoe hat, Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali, 1937 – 8, France. Museum no. T.2-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The democratisation that Instagram helped to instigate, have fostered a new sense of self-awareness and humility in fashion.

While fashion memes as we now know them are new, a symptom of the internet age, fashion has a longstanding relationship with satire and humour, despite what the industry’s reputation suggests. Since Elsa Schiaparelli first started making surrealism-inspired garments in 1927, many designers have delivered collections with an off-beat irony and sense of humour. While seasoned fashion fans and professionals recognise the nuances of certain brands, out of context these designs are  – for lack of a better word – ridiculous. Just look to TV shows Absolutely Fabulous and Ugly Betty, or the films Qui êtes-vous, Polly Magoo? and The Devil Wears Prada, which parodied industry insiders, playing on the stereotypes of fashion people as snobby, vapid and mean. This severe stereotype is exactly what invites such mockery – think of Meryl Streep’s famous icy monologue in The Devil Wears Prada denoting the importance of the ‘stuff’ around which a multi-billion pound industry revolves worldwide – and an obsession with the seemingly superficial makes fashion an especially easy target. For an industry that is said to take itself so seriously, fashion’s response to these spoofs was overwhelmingly positive, with many prominent figures from the industry making cameos in later episodes of Ugly Betty, and in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie. This mockery, and the democratisation that Instagram helped to instigate, have fostered a new sense of self-awareness and humility in fashion. Once fashion found its place on Instagram, with this intrinsic sense of humour, and the precedent of the industry as a comedic target already in place, its foray into meme culture was only natural.

When these outside perspectives clash with more familiar pop culture references or shared attitudes, it allows for a new, seemingly bizarre context, which makes that which we know to be mundane suddenly very amusing.

The rapid pace of our digital world only serves to further the absurdity of these memes as they are taken and reinterpreted by people all over the world to fit their individual outlook or life experience. When these outside perspectives clash with more familiar pop culture references or shared attitudes, it allows for a new, seemingly bizarre context, which makes that which we know to be mundane suddenly very amusing. Outside of their humorous function, memes are also used to disseminate cultural – and even political – ideologies. Just as Dawkins originally defined them as units of cultural propagation, memes act in this way by amplifying our beliefs; as we relate to the comedic aspect, we relate too to the values behind it. Without this integrally relatable humour and the breakneck pace of the internet, it’s unlikely that meme culture would have become quite so meaningful.

Punch, or the London Charivari (23 April 1870)
Punch, or the London Charivari (12 October 1867)

“I think memes are a form of journalism and fashion satire, a lot of satire in the old days would be caricatures and comic strips.” – George Serventi

If we remove the cultural significance of memes and look at them subjectively, memes are simply a contemporary form of cultural satire. Just like the satirical magazine, Punch, or the London Charivari, first published in 1841, or the daily ‘Matt’ pocket cartoons in The Telegraph, memes chronicle the events of the world around us, all the while pointing out their absurdities. Take, for example, the British public who last year – confused and frustrated with Prime Minister Boris Johson’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic – took the Government slogan “stay alert, control the virus, save lives” along with its recognisable graphic design, and made their own versions ranging from the politically scathing, to the outright ridiculous. Satire has long been a powerful editorial tool, allowing journalists to break through the mass of the news cycle to take on subjects from a different angle and offer, at times, far more scathing commentary.

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While satire has taken somewhat of a niche position in modern media, memes are breathing new life into the genre. In this way, journalists can harness the cultural power and hyperspeed linguistics of memes to provide snappy, easily digestible commentary on complex issues. “I think journalism is more than just writing these days,” says fashion journalist and meme maker George Serventi. “I think memes are a form of journalism and fashion satire, a lot of satire in the old days would be caricatures and comic strips.” 

Just as 19th century cartoonists made jokes about enormous, fashionable crinolines, now memes are finding their place as a legitimate form of online fashion commentary, appealing to the expeditious attention spans of social media users and finding a home on Instagram.

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