The Invisible Labor of Fashion

In the popular imagination, blogging has become a viable career path with legions of aspirants. As many other creative workers struggle to find stable and fulfilling careers, bloggers and others with digital clout seem to have shaped their careers with ease. The impeccably curated online presences of these young women—fashion blogging is heavily skewed female—seem to offer hope and a sense of control in an economy marked by persistent instability and precarious employment conditions.

But this idealized profession is less glamorous than it first appears. In a new study to be published this fall in the journal Social Media + Society, we examine the gap between the rhetoric and reality of fashion blogging. (Our analysis of 760 Instagram images by 38 top-ranked female professionals is part of a larger, multi-year project on the subject.) Pro-bloggers, we learned, must continually reconcile a series of competing demands: They have to appear authentic but also remain on brand, stay creative while tracking metrics, and satisfy both their readers and the retail brands that bankroll them. Many work up to 100 hours a week, and the flood of new bloggers means companies increasingly expect to not have to pay for partnerships. Meanwhile, the nature of the job requires obscuring the hard work and discipline that goes into crafting the perfect persona online.

Bloggers often chalk up their success to sheer enthusiasm, describing their work as some version of “a creative outlet fueled by a passion.” However, this passion-project narrative often renders their investments of time, energy, and money invisible. More often than not, the blogger’s road to fame is anything but smooth: Many launched their endeavors in response to an uncertain professional future. “I started the site when the economic downturn had affected the amount of work I was doing at my full-time job,” said Kate Arends of the lifestyle blog Wit & Delight. “[It was a] way to focus on work that interested me and hope that I would be able to drive a few freelance projects my way.” Similarly, Jessie Holeva of Trend Hungry recalled how after graduating from college in 2009, the only offer for work she received after countless interviews was an unpaid writing gig at a magazine, prompting her to start blogging instead.

Creating and maintaining a successful blog in the aptly named “attention economy”—where social media metrics are the currency du jour—requires countless hours of thoughtful planning. The bloggers we interviewed unanimously described their work as more than a typical full-time job; many estimated they devoted more than 80 hours a week to their blogs and related activities. Others shared how they were up into the wee hours responding to commenters, crafting posts, and editing images to fit the technical and strategic requirements of various platforms. (The qualities of a popular image on Instagram, for example, aren’t the same for a popular image on Pinterest.) Candace, one of our subjects who wished to remain anonymous, explained that curating a single post on bargains is a “full day’s work.” Others noted that styling outfits and photographing them for a post can take a similar amount of time.Scores of advice columns, manuals, and websites dedicated to creative careers highlight the significance of self-branding for landing a job. Branding has been hailed by the venture capitalist Mark Suster as “the most important way to proactively control your career development and how the market perceives you.” A personal brand is supposed to come across as authentic, despite the countless hours and financial resources typically required to create it. Navigating this paradox—translating oneself into a consistent yet distinctive visual aesthetic, online voice, and potential partner for commercial brands—is a continuous project. As Crystal, another subject who asked to remain anonymous, explained, “Your world revolves around promoting yourself and your blog while trying to run a business.” Sometimes this means endorsing products you don’t entirely believe in. Megan Collins, the founder and editorial director of the men’s lifestyle site Style Girlfriend, said this is particularly true for bloggers with smaller followings who tend to live a feast-or-famine lifestyle.

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