THE BLOG

Can Good Style Change the World?

01/27/2015 12:38 EST | Updated 03/29/2015 05:59 EDT
Melanie Jeng/HPMG

A few years ago, I tried the style blogging thing. It was hardly an attempt because the total number of outfits I posted was zero, due to how ridiculous I felt pretending every time a stranger passed by that I, clearly not a model, was modelling for something and not just taking photos of myself -- because that would just be weird and kind of narcissistic, right? But I couldn't ignore that there was an opportunity there, and the world was responding quite positively to other people doing this: they were getting deals with brands, designing fashion collections, and even fronting mainstream magazine covers. Turns out, people loved looking at good style.

Bill Cunningham's portraiture in the 1970s was the very first iteration of the modern street style phenomenon. Surely style existed before then -- but it's like the well-known analogy of "If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it still make a sound?" Well, yes. The same goes with style: before the explosion of street style in the 2000s, great style was something most people only associated with their grandmothers, Audrey Hepburn or a fictional character.

But then came Scott Schuman and his camera. While trends never start solely by the act of one person, they are popularized by one easy to identify tipping point. The Sartorialist was arguably it, and seemingly overnight, street style photography became a thing. Coinciding, not coincidentally, with the rise of blogging and social media, photos of people on streets doing nothing but wear clothes became more than a trend and changed the entire way we consume style: breathing fresh life for the stale, elitist and closed off world of fashion, and for the general population for whom style was a lofty far-reaching thing only reserved for people of another era and red carpets.

Today, the girl down the block can snap a photo of herself and within a few short years reach influence rivaling that of traditional celebrities and models. And celebrities and models who aren't taking up the next gen iteration of street style photography -- the paparazzi photo turned photo op for real style, the self-styled Instagram shot, and the face-only version, the selfie -- have become just models or just actors.

Style has become something that could be instantly and widely appreciated, emulated and had.

New York Fashion Week starts in a few weeks, kicking off another year in the cycle of fashion, but as one of the few central stomping grounds where street style photographers and tastemaking ladies and gents gather a select number of times a year (alongside other fashion weeks, Art Basel, music festivals, et al), these events have become as much known for what happens outside the tents as much as what happens inside.

The streets have come to resemble another kind of catwalk, and one can't help but feel like it's all gotten to be a bit much and that maybe the fairy dust on this modern phenomenon has settled.

The novelty that existed in the early days of style blogging and street style -- being touched to the depth of our sartorial souls for the very first time by Caroline Issa's quirky, approachable luxury or Nicole Warne's polished uptown pixie -- are now best summarized in the oft-said phrase "been there, done that." Real style, attainable style, was the novelty, but now that style, like fashion, is everywhere (and "real" could mean staged, styled by a team, and photoshopped), and the rampant assertions that the favored look du jour is too-white, too-young, and too-thin have dampened the original celebratory spirit of style, the question is: what's next for style?

I have an idea.

With each generation, the adoption of a new style standard represented more than a change in aesthetic tastes as trends represent today in the seesaw of what's-new-what's-next-what's-cool; style has always been tied to some sort of revolution. Today, with nothing that can't be created, nothing that can't be found, nothing that can't be knocked off, we really can have it all.

There is no style standard -- there is instead, style overload. (See: normcore.) We can today dress however we choose to, and nobody is going to stop us. Not your mother, not Instagram, not your boss (okay, maybe your boss). And hey, that was really cool -- for a while.

And yet, in the midst of all this having, seeing and sharing, the fashion world is operating under a cloudy and dark visage that most of us conveniently ignore because we are so caught up in the glossy distractions of fast fashion: It is an industry rife with exploitation and a lack of transparency or reverence in how we treat people, animals and the earth.

The memo has been written: it's time for something beyond "hey, this looks good." That's not enough, it's no longer exciting (isn't that a fashion crime, anyway?), and the world is waiting for its next fashion revolution.

Instead of defining a look by label, trend and price, perhaps it's time we start to identify style also by our values. And if it's hard to determine what we do believe, a place to start might be what we don't want to be a walking ad for. Things that come to mind that are very present and very real in fashion today: child labour, stuff filling up landfills, clothes that dye entire rivers and pollute entire cities.

Style is self-expression, and I think we have a lot more to express than how long our shirts are, how much flare our skirts have, and which floral print we're wearing. Yes, I would still like to express these things -- they actually do mean something to me. But there is more to me than that. And I bet there is more to you too.

If the mass proliferation of consumable style has taught me anything other than how to tie a scarf 982 ways, it's that people hold the power, much more than they realize, now more than ever, to shape the world. So maybe it's time to shape the world based on the real sum of who we are and who we can be. And if you, like me, don't quite know who that is yet, you can always start with who you don't want to be.

We can set a new style standard, one that isn't about more, but about what kind of world we want to live in and what kind of people we want to be.

After all, you are what you wear. Make it count. Make it true. Make it good.

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Street Style at Art Basel Miami Beach 2014