The term meme was coined in 1976 by the English biologist and science popularizer Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene.
Just like a gene, a meme is a unit for storing and transmitting information, but only in the realm of culture. Both memes and genes are replicators, objects that copy and reproduce themselves or, in simple terms, can reproduce. Dawkins argued that for memes, fertility and relative accuracy (as opposed to absolute accuracy for genes) are important for reproduction.
Examples of memes he cited included melodies, ideas, buzzwords and expressions, ways of cooking chowder or building arches, but also the concept of God and Darwin’s theory. The latter examples, however, represent entire meme complexes, or meme complexes. Memes spread in space – from person to person (horizontally) and in time – from generation to generation (vertically).
Although the notion of an Internet meme goes back to Dawkins’ meme, it is still significantly different. An Internet meme is any but short information (word or phrase, image, melody, etc.) that instantly and unexpectedly becomes fashionable and is reproduced on the Internet, usually in new contexts or situations.
Thus, for the Internet meme, the main role is played by popularity (which can be compared to fecundity, according to Dawkins) and communicative expansion. In this sense, neither Darwin’s theory nor the soup recipe is an Internet meme, although this information is also transmitted and stored on the Internet.
Internet memes do not seek to reproduce accurately but rather to distort, or at least to create, new contexts in the broad sense of the word. Their emergence is often unexpected and sometimes nonsensical and absurd. The life of an Internet meme, especially at the beginning of its journey, is not routine but rather constantly creative.
The Internet meme is more popular than its scientific source (authored by Dawkins) and is often mixed with it if only because, for simplicity and economy, the first part (Internet) of the word is discarded, and the outward coincidence becomes complete.
And, by the way, when the Internet did not yet exist, memes did. Linguists and philologists called them speech clichés and catchphrases.
Both the Internet memes themselves and their lives are very unlike each other. But they seem to live through four common stages:
1. The creation of the meme and the initial reaction.
This occurs in one place, on a website, forum, or blog, where a strange, absurd, sometimes poetic phrase emerges that provokes a lively discussion.
2. The spread of the meme.
Next, the phrase or the picture moves to other venues and begins to try new contexts and situations. This period can be called a creative zone because the meme is changing, trying to capture more communicative space. This is a time of communicative expansion.
3 The use of the meme.
Next comes the period of stability, which is the most optional but important phase because it leaves the meme with a choice (see point 4). The meme loses energy. By inertia, it continues to be used and thus continues to exist.
4. The meme fades or changes status.
It disappears because it is no longer interesting – fashion is always transitory – or it persists but ceases to be a meme and enters the flesh of language or communication. And we don’t even feel that it was a meme.
The rise of fashion memes
Recently, people have been increasingly mocking big fashion and creating one fashion meme after another. Haute couture is, of course, an element incomprehensible to ordinary citizens. Sometimes there is a suspicion that fashion designers are just joking and waiting to be figured out, but everyone at the show accepts the rules of the game and applauds the “naked king” (who, more often than not, is dressed in the ridiculous way).
Then, in various fashion magazines, there are deep, thoughtful notes about symbolism, eclecticism, and the explosion of paradigms, from which it is absolutely clear that journalists are just as bluffing in their texts as fashion designers on the catwalk.
Occasionally, though, of course, some eye-pleasing event creeps into all of this. However, for the most part, all haute couture fashion shows are a kind of get-together for their people.
It seems that some of the recent collections were consciously created with the aim of getting into memes.
How many times during the Paris Fashion Week have you seen pictures that ironically hinted at the resemblance of hats from the new Balenciaga collection with an Ikea lamp? And how many friends have forwarded you a clip of the Olsen sisters’ or Daniel Leigh’s reaction to the news of Phoebe Philo’s return? And even if you don’t follow fashion news that closely, you’ve probably still liked the meme about how the layered Balenciaga look is a revived chair with things piled on it.
And you certainly had a hand in the explosion in popularity of jokes about the omelet (or pizza dress) Guo Pei dress Rihanna wore to the Met Gala in 2015. Well, It’s thanks to you that the designer of this outfit made it onto the schedule for Paris Fashion Week. Still, underestimating memes? This is in vain.
But the designers themselves have already managed to realize their importance. And they not only support the creation of viral content by users of the network (like Gucci, which officially approved #GucciModelChallenge last year) but also make it themselves. For example, Valentino finally decided to have an account in TikTok – and got the support of one of the main experts on fashion memes.
One of their videos was created by Hanan Besovic, the creator of the @ideservecouture Instagram account, a “doctor of memes” and a new industry favorite (Pierpaolo Piccioli and all the fashion editors I know are already subscribed to him). And looking at some of the latest collections, you get the impression that they have been deliberately created for the purpose of getting into memes.
You could even say that they are memes in their own right. For example, dresses with ironic inscriptions like Royal Pain In The Ass from Viktor & Rolf’s latest collection (and don’t tell me you didn’t notice that it references the latest scandals in the royal family).
“Initially, memes in fashion were used mostly by insiders. it was a way to entertain yourself, share information and make fun of the industry”.
Journalist, creator of the Telegram channel Golden Chihuahua
However, it all started much earlier this year. The first fashion memes appeared in the golden age of Tumblr. It was on this portal in the early 2010s, one after another, blogs began to be created that were ironic about strange things and collections, collected gifs of models falling down at shows, and ridiculed stereotypes about the industry and its inhabitants.
They were quite a chamber: they were followed mostly by those who had something to do with fashion. Everything changed dramatically when it was Instagram’s moment of stardom – and the brands that appreciated its importance in time.
However, Demna Gvasalia went even further within Vetements. In fact, he was the first to create things that were fashion memes in themselves – his T-shirts with the DHL logo, hoodies with footage from the movie “Titanic,” giant “shuttle” bags, and caps with obscene slogans can be read without any additional explanations.
The strategy paid off: in just a couple of years, the brand became the most viral on social networks, gained almost a cult status among hypebeasts, and ensured Gvasaglia himself the chair of Balenciaga’s creative director, where he continued to hone his fashion meme skills.
What are the reasons for the growing popularity of memes in fashion?
“The first and most obvious is that it’s simply funny,” says Hanan Besovic, creator of the @ideservecouture Instagram account. “Humor is exactly what we really need, especially in our difficult times. The second reason is that memes work for audience awareness. Many people underestimate their power.
However, some “goofy pictures” can spark a discussion – and end up bringing an issue to a very broad audience. Any message is conveyed faster through fashion memes. Serious information is easier for people to understand when it’s presented in a light-hearted way.
Sasha Amato adds: “After last year, we realized that the old methods of marketing weren’t working. People get bored very quickly with basic, ‘bare’ information like press releases. It’s easier for them to accept something that will distract and entertain them.
Fashion memes are the kind of shiny package that fashion is easiest to wrap and serve up. Buyers now like to see things as specific references and references they associate themselves with. And they should be easy to read and perceive.
Therefore it is not surprising that “funny pictures” have already migrated from homemade blogs to the official pages of big brands – and even to shows and lookbooks.
What is next for us in the field of fashion memes?
Will fashion memes finally supersede other ways of communicating about fashion? Unlikely.
“And the memeticization of fashion will become obsolete because fashion, like any cultural phenomenon, is cyclical. People already look at Vetements’ meme collections as a flat joke, like they’re making another joke, but what’s new about it?
Memes have become an outlet for postmodernism, and it is always followed by a return to modernism, to the “dry” presentation of collections and classic design, clean lines. This is why many designers were unfavorably impressed by Pyer Moss’ couture show because it looked more like a postmodernist performance than a fashion show,” believes Sascha Amato.
Hanan Besovic, on the other hand, has a very different opinion on this matter: “Memes aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. People need the alternative view of things that memes provide. But you can already see their “shelf life” is diminishing.
The first fashion memes kept their influence for years, while today’s memes are no longer relevant within a week (a good example is the photo of Bernie Sanders from Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony). The most successful memes are those that describe the current moment.
Back in 2017, an account called @trashfashionshit appeared on Instagram. It is run by the singer and makeup artist Ethereal, who lives in Mexico City. To the delight of her subscribers, she regularly posts strange, eccentric, and sometimes downright creepy looks from designers of different eras. The project began because the creator decided that the world needed to have “a space dedicated to all these rare, crazy inventions from fashion shows.”
And many of these crazy inventions are not only not suitable for practical use, which, however, is not uncommon for high fashion, but they are ready-made fashion memes.
If we consider fashion as a process of creating something new (new styles, details, and prints), then we can say that in the present time, it is as if it has ended. After all, fashion now is a transformation of what has already been created, an eternal reference to the past.
It no longer has “heroes” who would be perceived as iconic personalities and idols. The very fact of the existence of a charismatic leader in the person of a rock star or a skillful couturier is gradually receding into the past.
Although in the XX century, there was a certain cult of personality of the designer, and his philosophy and outlook played a determining role in the choice of the client of his creations.
Because of the rapprochement with consumers in a virtual world, the so-called celebrities are no longer perceived as something almost divine and inaccessible.
Now the designer may not even be the clothing author, and different fashion houses may unite into a single corporation (for example, Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, and others formed the LVMH group).
The demand for a fashion designer in such a format is determined solely by consumer demand and the product’s commercial success. This is measured in the number of viewers who come to see it, the number of reviews in the press, mentions in social networks, and so on.
Imagine sitting at a Christopher Kane show (inaccessible to mere mortals) and waiting for deep thought, a sense of fulfillment, inspiration, and beauty. All around are the most famous, creative, and rich people in the world. And suddenly, they appear on the podium – the great and mighty Crocs.
Shoes that have long ago turned into a fashion meme and remain an antonym to the phrase “haute couture” despite the democracy of the XXI century. But the designer’s goal, as we have already analyzed above, was to increase the number of references. And this goal has just been achieved.
Time is passing, and now Demna Gvasalia is showing the world crocs on a 25 cm platform, ignoring the DNA of Balenciaga brand and all that is so dear to the powerful fashion world of this one. Is Demna a savior because the brand has never been more popular, or a destroyer?
There is no exact answer, but we can certainly call him the king of kitsch. The crazy and uninspiring thing was able to surpass Kane’s simply embellished crocs in a minute in terms of virality.
So the irony raised to the absolute, the grotesque, and the camp (that is, everything exaggerated, excessive, unnatural, vulgar, but that is exactly the good thing), which was the theme of the last Met Gala – that is what modern designers play on.
They have found an answer to the question that has been bothering the entire fashion industry, from sewists to buyers, for the past 20 years: how to keep the consumer in the era of information and change?
That’s right, make him play irony (or even post irony – when it is not clear what humor is, and sincerity is difficult to distinguish from irony). A lot of people like to “be on point.” And if you understand the “coolness” of the thing or exhibition, then you’re smart. Just not the fact that there really is anything to understand about it 🙂
Behind all this humor, there is a soulless calculation with which managers and PR people promote bad taste, filling the space with useless things. Unfortunately, unlike their predecessors (the deceased McQueen and the living Tom Brown), modern designers lose content in the pursuit of the approval of the masses, modern designers lose content. It turns out that Undercover and their coats with the inscription “We make noise, not clothes” are more a sad truth of life than a funny joke.
How is it that the concepts of “luxury” and “memeticization” can stand side by side? The answer is probably in the fact that solvent demand in the expensive segment is increasingly shifting to a new, younger audience.
The focus is shifting from the traditionalism that is primarily characteristic of luxury – with a new generation in a changing world with changed means of communication; it is difficult to talk about fashion in the old language, conservative and hierarchical. The new language is somewhere in the middle between artistic creation and viral reach.