Unpacking The Different Fashion Gazes

Updated: May 21, 2020

In a recent lunchtime conversation, trivial chat on fashion turned much deeper when a colleague remarked that sometimes when scrolling Instagram, she feels almost attacked by the aesthetic of unfriendliness of some of the fashion brands she follows.

It was a statement that was equally jarring and amusing, and indeed a strange concept to think about: was ‘hostile’ à la mode now? Also, what were the other models of ‘looking’ employed by fashion brands?

To begin with, we selected H&M’s official Instagram account as one brand to study.

For a counterexample, we decided to study the vintage store. Secondhand vintage stores are by default, a mish-mash collection of different clothing items of different aesthetics, styles and eras — the furthest one can get from the H&M aesthetic. We found the instagrams of two major vintage fashion stores in the UK and US: Buffalo Exchange, an American vintage store, and Beyond Retro, a UK vintage retailer.

Running hundreds of unique images from each of these accounts through our Culture AI models, our Concept AI model gave the H&M image set the highest score for the machine-generated term ‘vanity’- suggesting that the images had a feigned, ‘put-on’ feel to them.

Examining the H&M set of images semiotically, we observed these key things:

Distance is established with side gazes.

Source: Instagram, @hm

From the perspective of an observer looking on at these images, the social distance between observer and image subject is wide. Camera shots employed were mostly mid distance shots, with a few being long distance shots.

The gaze of the subjects in almost all of these images are distant. A big cluster of images detected by our Image AI were that of the Side Gaze. The side-glance subject rejects the observer’s attempt to make eye-contact, and instead looks far away towards something.

This is a rejection of establishing rapport, and a power move to elevate the subject above the viewer. Subjects in this cluster also appear to hold stiffer poses. Even the dogs do this well. In one, a dog modelling dog clothes depicts the dog sitting upright with its head held high, looking steadfastly away from the direct gaze of the observer.

Personal, yet impersonal.

Source: Instagram, @hm

Another cluster of images we found in the H&M image set were just clothes. In these pictures, although background elements such as a coffee table, rug, and books functioned as symbols of domesticity and home-life, the “personability” associated with the private domain of the home is not found. So, not lived in.

In quite a few of the images in this cluster, the machine-generated label ‘boutique’ appeared, indicating the colder, more curated feel of these shots. The ‘boutique’ label connotes a sense of exclusivity, of hyper-curation, and class.

But we don’t need an object-detection model to tell us that:

Looking at the images above, the clothes items are arranged in a manner more for store-fronts than home wardrobes. What the viewer sees are front shots of clothes hanging straight from hangers, arranged such that they occupy the centre-foreground of the image frame. Where there is tilt, it is constructed carefully. Pairs of boots are angled slightly, although both shoes slant in as parallel a manner as possible.

The vintage store image set on the other hand, presents a very different story.

Playful and Perfectly Imperfect

Source: Instagram, @buffaloexchange, @beyondretro

Clusters were less distinct in the image semiotics of these two image sets.

Examining these, we observed that the angles of people shots vary: some show the subjects in playful poses, some experiment with a slightly tilted angle or with objects slightly cropped, some from a bottom-up angle. All channel an artfully imperfect aesthetic.

Observers looking at this would feel more like they’re looking at the Everyday rather than the runway.

In terms of background composition, backdrops are colourful, such as everyday settings — a shop front, on the pavement, by the road, against a coloured wall. Less frequently featured are shots with neutral, ‘professional-looking’ model backdrops.

An exchange of mutual looking: personable gazes

Source: Instagram, @buffaloexchange, @beyondretro

In terms of the gaze of the store, it is one that demands attention. The model’s gaze is often direct, looking straight at the camera, maintaining eye contact with the viewer. Smiles are open-mouthed, social and friendly way more often than they are close-lipped and removed.

There are occasional long shots and side gazes or distant gazes, although these are few and far between. The camera shot type separates these side gaze shots from the ones in the H&M set. Pictures of side gazes were shot using the close-up shot style in the vintage set, which function to establish a more personal social distance, as if the viewer is a friend standing right next to the subject.

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From our study, we see that the world H&M creates is that of chic, cool sophistication. The world of Beyond Retro and Buffalo Exchange is clearly quirky and playful.

Fashion stores provide shoppers not only consumer products, but also the wider, abstract shopping experience. This experience entails the creation of identities, the act of fantasy-construction on the consumer’s part: one pieces together products to act out a fantasy persona — whether it’s the pin-up retro diva, icy-cool sophisticated city-girl or flower-power hippie.

Our fashion choices allow us to bring in elements of our dream world into reality. Following this, the fashion that brands gravitate towards are, naturally, closely aligned with our self-identity. And, these brands work to sell these dream realities through careful curation of brand aesthetics, across social platforms, on runways and on their brand sites.

As we move on into the 2020s, further into an age of open-minded Gen Zs and millennials (and the odd honorary millennial like me) embracing subcultures and differences, further into an age where uniqueness and self-expression is celebrated, it’ll be interesting to see how the fashion gaze further fragments.

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