Fashionistas have long fetishized the street. Yves Saint-Laurent led the way in 1960 with his scandalous Beat Collection, which paid tribute to the beatniks who moped around Paris' Left Bank in motorcycle jackets, black leotards, and flats. Designers—who had traditionally associated themselves with high culture and the beau monde—have ever since been finding inspiration in the vulgar masses. A cynic might say that by co-opting rather than creating trends, haute couture has been trying to defend its prestige and authority in an increasingly anarchic fashion world, one in which the forces of ready-to-wear and cultural anti-elitism threaten to win the day.
Whatever the reason for fashion's obsession with the street, keeping an eye on it has never been easy. Strolling around town is tough on the shoe leather, and only insiders know just where to look. The print media, meanwhile, has been of little help. Fashion editors are more likely to devote what pages they have to the fashion establishment (which pays for advertising) than to nameless but chic pedestrians (who don't).
Until now, the best-known exception has been the Sunday New York Times, which for more than 10 years has been running—at a small size, on lackluster newsprint in the Style section—Bill Cunningham's candid shots of stylish New Yorkers. But an exciting new development is making it easier than ever to follow the look of the man (and woman) on the street. Made possible by faster Internet access and cheaper digital photography, street-fashion blogs have sprung up all over the world, and they are quickly proliferating.
The best of these sites capture the joys of people-watching and offer an experience that's more like lounging on a park bench than flipping through a fashion magazine. For one thing, the blogs aren't label-conscious: Few identify the brands worn, and not one mentions the prices paid. Their subjects also tend to be dressed casually, with few business suits or cocktail outfits in sight. Even better, many of the subjects are actually smiling—quite a faux pas in the fashion world, which still demands the scornful, stricken look that traces back to Lord Byron. But the sites do share at least one trait with fashion glossies: Most feature photos of young hipsters taken by young hipsters, with few ordinary Joes or dowdy seniors on display.
The photography in the blogs usually consists of straight-on, full-length portraits, but a few include some candid photojournalism. Unlike New York magazine's misanthropic "Look Book"—which uses low camera angles that, intentionally or not, make its subjects look like snobs with upturned noses—the sites try to portray people in a flattering or at least neutral light. Anti-elitist and upbeat in tone, they tend to inspire appreciation or emulation rather than envy. Refreshingly, those that include comments from readers or the editors usually avoid the cattiness found in celebrity fashion blogs like Go Fug Yourself.
Each site has its own distinctive look and feel, as determined by the taste and skill of its editors and photographers (usually one person holds both jobs). In some, such as London Street Fashion, the subjects pose self-consciously, while in others, such as Stockholm's STHLMstil, they stand naturally and without pretensions. StilinBerlin prefers ordinary people in mundane garb, whereas Shanghai's Meet Cute concentrates on teenage b-boys and flygirls. On the amateurishly homey side, there is Singapore's the Clothes Project, which contrasts with the slick production of Tokyo Street Style. Emphasizing the individual over his or her attire, Paris'Facehunter puts decadent scenesters on display, and significantly it is the only one to sexualize its subjects, who sometimes pose provocatively. As of yet, there are no street blogs from Italy, which is surprising given that country's ties to the fashion world. It's not a shock, though, not to find any from Los Angeles—after all, more attention is paid to public attire in pedestrian-friendly cities, which offer the most opportunities to see and be seen.
Upon surveying the blogs, it's tempting to generalize about the state of fashion around the world. At the very least, these sites demonstrate that the shoulder-bagged urban hipster will fit in wherever he travels. And this photo suggests that the plague of "high idiocy" T-shirts, which sport ironically dumb slogans like "Your retarded," has spread as far as Singapore. Likewise, someone looking for local trends might conclude that Stockholmers are fond of cheery, almost primary colors, that Berliners prefer knee-length skirts and sundresses to trousers, and that Muscovites love busy patterns. One must be careful not to extrapolate too much, however. Not being documentarians or anthropologists, the editors end up revealing their own taste more than that of their locales.
Some of the editors prove to be unusually adept at capturing a particular aesthetic. For instance, Helsinki's Hel-Looks, whose subjects always appear strikingly in sharp focus against a blurry background, has recently been concentrating on trends in platform boots, horizontally striped stockings (sometimes mismatched), and the style known in Japan as "elegant Gothic Lolita," which is a morbid take on Victorian doll dresses. Appropriately enough, it has also been offering plentiful examples of the Scandinavian look of combining highly disparate items that nonetheless work together.
But the standout street-fashion blog is far and away New York's the Sartorialist. Unlike nearly all of the others, it concerns itself more with adult elegance than adolescent faddishness, and its subjects range from elderly Harlem popinjays to chic ladies on bicycles. Paying special attention to fine men's clothing, it shows how even a fat, bald guy can look dashing when clad in an impeccable suit and tie.
Helmed by Scott Schuman, a former showroom owner who used to work for Valentino, the Sartorialist has attracted a large and influential audience (averaging 7,000 visits per day) that includes a number of industry insiders. The comments posted by Schuman and his sophisticated readership can offer quite an education to the unschooled eye. It is possible, for instance, to learn the pros and cons of "freelancing" socks as well as how to spot Italians by the length of their neckties. The best remarks, which reveal how clotheshorses obsessively and discerningly judge others, bring to mind the example of Beau Brummell, the 19th-century dandy who famously used to lounge in front of the bow window of a London gentlemen's club while criticizing the dress of passers-by.
Schuman's blog has now become so well-known that he was recently asked to cover men's Fashion Week in Milan for Men.Style.Com, and Esquire will soon devote some space each month to his work. In October he will receive an even greater honor: Saks Fifth Avenue will be showcasing the Sartorialist's photos in its landmark display windows.
It is, of course, no surprise that the fashion industry has already begun to use street-fashion blogs for its own commercial purposes—indeed, the Marxist social critic Walter Benjamin once accused the flâneur of being a "spy for the capitalists, on assignment in the realm of consumers." But ultimately these blogs should strengthen the leveling and decentralizing forces that continue to dismantle the once dominant fashion pyramid. The time is long past when a few couturiers could dictate international style from the heights of Paris. Thanks to the growing popularity of this new medium, it seems likely that a leaderless multitude will increasingly influence fashion from the ground—or rather, pavement—up.