In recent memory, fashion’s most talked about moments have also been the most meme-able. The double-pronged ability to make an impact within the dimensions of an Instagram square, while enjoying a second life as a visual, context-free gag has been absolutely key.
Last weekend, Jared Leto went viral with the outfit he wore to the Conor McGregor fight. Channelling Fred from Scooby-Doo, he wore a plunging black shirt with a crucifix, a blue neckerchief and robotic-like sunglasses, he became a meme.
It was not very different from what he has worn before (especially when wearing Gucci) but, out of context, this sort of gender-fluid outfit at an Ultimate Fighting Championship fight had those waggish meme-makers going wild, suggesting Leto should be either selling essential oils, playing jazz flute or appearing in Pitch Perfect. Also this week, the new Sex and the City cast photo became a meme (with Brat Packer Andrew McCarthy making possibly the best meme, referencing Kim Cattrall’s role in the 1980s film Mannequin).
In 2021, if you have not become a meme, has it actually happened? The idea of taking an out-of-context moment and repurposing it into a completely different digital setting is not new, but now fashion moments feel like they are being created to be enjoyable on both these levels. It was only a few years ago when Moschino, Balenciaga and Viktor & Rolf began exploring the trend in fashion, but in 2021 fashion memes are even more essential, a vital part of the conversation in a way they weren’t before. A single photo can create a viral moment, spark a cultural conversation and, for a fashion brand, eventually boost sales. The strongest visuals can create multiple meanings: think of Bella Hadid wearing her gold Schiaparelli “lungs” on the red carpet at Cannes; Kanye West’s “head bag”; Machine Gun Kelly and Megan Fox or Bennifer 2.0’s entire relationships playing out in photos. These duos can start trends and cultural conversations with a manicured nail, a cut-out dress and couple-twinning outfits.
“Fashion and memes have fundamental things in common,” says Professor Zara Anishanslin, who teaches at the New York’s City University, “they’re both visual things that gain cultural power by spreading from person to person and, if they (are) memorable or even ridiculous enough, can explode in popularity only to seem kind of tired and passé. Soon to be replaced by the next thing that comes into vogue.”
She thinks that the pandemic has led to more meme-ability. “Times of crisis lend themselves particularly well to visual satire, which is a type of wit particularly well suited to memes,” she says. “There’s a recognisably similar humour at work in contemporary fashion memes and the work of 18th-century printmakers who poked fun at the enormously high hair women like Marie Antoinette sported, hair so high that it contained whole ships in it, or had to be dressed by men on ladders.”
With so many of us forced to have more screen time during the pandemic, something happening without an online rumble seems insignificant. And with the growth in NFT’s and virtual clothes, the lines separating the viability of a moment in the real world compared with the impact it has in the digital one become blurred. “In the absence of actual social interaction for many people during the pandemic, social media took on added importance as a way to interact with other people,” says Anishanslin .
One of the biggest fashion winners of these past 18 months has been Croc shoes. The entire Crocs phenomenon seems built on the meme idea (think of the recent Croc-Balenciaga heel crossover) and the multiple meanings these shoes give different generations – Gen Z loves them, millennials hate them and no one can stop talking about them. The company themselves have said that they have used this “Marmite” feeling it brings out in people to inform their campaigns. This is, one might assume, a business model to learn from and the future of fashion.