Essay: The North East, Fashion Photography and the International Language of Instagram

by Katie Hindle .

What is interesting about the digital revolution is the new ways in which the physical place, and the sense of identity and belonging that relate to them are configured. It allows people to represent and define themselves visually on their own terms, beyond the stereotyping that often occurs if those outside of the region make that representation.

It is almost a cliché of interviews with those working in the fashion industry that their first experience of fashion was through photography encountered in fashion magazines. For those born outside of the major fashion cities, the fashion industry has historically been experienced as a world located elsewhere - fashion was something that people understood as happening to someone else, somewhere else. Cultural historian, Hilary Fawcett, in her book chapter We Gotta Get Out of this Place: Fashion, Gender and Identity in the North East, talks about growing up in Sunderland and how magazines were her only connection to the swinging sixties that were taking place in London.[1] For those in the regions, magazines were especially important at this point. As Fawcett states:

'By the early 1960s, the North East’s geographical remoteness had become highly significant in a growing distance between patterns of fashion retailing in the region and the rapidly changing youth orientated metropolitan market. London saw a revolution in terms of fashion for young people predicated on a constantly changing dynamic led by new designers and entrepreneurs, and responsive to the style of mod culture and the growing economic power of teenagers. Travel to London was expensive, few people owned cars and consumers were dependent on the local fashion market which lagged significantly behind. It was through the media that information about the new developments in fashion and popular culture were disseminated to regional customers. Magazines played a critical role in the lives of young women.'[2]

Fashion has undergone a massive transformation since this time, not only because of the transformation of retail across regions which, by the end of the 1970s, had reduced the difference between regions in terms of availability of fashionable clothing,[3] but also because of the revolution in communication brought about by digital technology. Since the 1920s, photography has been central to the way in which fashion has been disseminated, advertised and represented. Historically, this representation and dissemination has been dominated by a small number of photographers hired by magazines to shoot editorials, or by fashion brands to shoot advertising campaigns. Such campaigns were displayed primarily in print magazines, such as VogueElle, and Harper’s Bazaar. Indeed, those mediums still exist and are utilised; as the fashion photographer Ellen Von Unwerth argued in a SHOWstudio interview, 'there have never been so many magazines and therefore never been so many opportunities for a fashion photographer.'[4] However, the rise of new and social media has transformed this relationship between photography and fashion. As the geographer Louise Crewe states:

'Traditionally grand narratives were transmitted unidirectionally from designers/producer to an audience/consumer through carefully choreographed photography and film. The emergence of interactive and fast paced interface mechanisms is changing both the pace and form of fashion dissemination.'[5]

This change is not particular to the fashion industry; the wide availability of cameras and camera phones and tools that allow photographs to be easily edited, uploaded, and published on the Internet has had an impact across all aspects of social life. But, perhaps because of the particular centrality of photography to fashion mediation, this has had an enormous impact in the fashion industry and the way in which photographs are produced, consumed and disseminated.

The rise of blogging culture and platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr, along with e-commerce, has given new forms of fashion imagery an enormous visual online presence. Such platforms have led to the rise of a number of practices that have impacted the production and dissemination of fashion photography. It is in light of these developments that it is now possible for people outside of the traditional fashion cities to participate in the fashion industry, creating their own images as part of the global fashion conversation.

What is interesting in terms of photography is the recent growth in the number of fashion retail businesses in the North East that sell via e-commerce. The region’s population is relatively small, meaning there is only so much room for physical retail, despite the region’s legendary taste for consumption. E-commerce relies on photography for the representation of merchandise, and most local fashion retailers have their own website and social media sites. I am interested in forms of visual representation that come from the new availability of technology that allows people outside of the traditional fashion media to communicate in this way, and how it relates to the North East.

Particularly, I am interested in how the North East is represented in ways that deviate from the preconceptions about Northernness that pervade the popular imagination, and notions of industrial Northern life that have lingered long after the industry has left. For instance, Fawcett refers to a photographic shoot published in Honey magazine’s March 1969 issue. The photographs depict a model on the banks of the river Tyne, and show a rather depressing and grey industrial cityscape. Accompanying it was a piece featuring interviews with locals that talked about how dreary and unfashionable the North East was. As a researcher, it has been disheartening to find that there has been little in the way of representation of the region in fashion since this less than flattering photo shoot (Alasdair McLellan, Jamie Hawkesworth and Tim Walker being notable exceptions). Representations of the region in the popular press are even more disheartening, they are often reductive and stereotyping. For instance, The Daily Mail has a habit of sending a photographer to the region on a Bank Holiday to record scenes of drunkenness that are represented as unique to Northerners, rather than part of our national culture. This is problematic because, as Robert Coll states, as the, 'region is less able to represent itself on a scale which can compete with the image makers.'[6] He argues that those in the North East need the opportunity to represent themselves culturally and through artistic practices, rather than relying on the representations of the region by others, as such opportunities are part of the building of new post-industrial forms of identity and a positive future for the region.[7]

An example of the new forms of representation that come through digital media is a local e-commerce fashion retail success story called Pink Boutique, the initiative of North East entrepreneur Alice Blackie. Pink Boutique stocks party dresses and is a brand built on the type of glamorous, hyper-feminine style that is synonymous with Newcastle nightlife and the ritual of women getting dressed up and going out, a ritual that remains an important part of North East culture. The business operates from the North East and sells to customers all over Europe via its website and social media. Blackie started the business on eBay, having noticed a gap in the market in terms of party dresses and today has a significant social media following, including over 300k followers on Instagram.[8] The imagery posted on the brand’s Instagram is produced according to the conventions of a recognisable global formula of social media fashion imagery. It is extremely unified and consistent in its appearance, with images of influencers and models in the merchandise, modelled generally within domestic or 'boudoir' styled studio spaces. Such images are interspersed with aspirational or humorous quotes, and the occasional image of celebrities. The images produced by the brand sit somewhere between the vernacular, the documentary photographic style of the fashion catalogue and the fantasy of the fashion editorial; and express the aspirational aesthetic of contemporary North Eastern femininity. It is interesting to note that in two images posted on Instagram the brand has chosen to photograph the model on The Millennium Bridge, outside of The BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. These landmarks are part of the regeneration of the Newcastle Quayside from its industrial roots to a space for leisure and culture. As such they tell a different story about contemporary North Eastern femininity, one that distances it from The Daily Mail narrative and the masculine identity of the industrial North, hinting at the new opportunities for work and identity that de-industrialisation and a new culture of consumption brought women in the region. This contemporary version of North East femininity is also located firmly within the terms of globally defined fashion and popular culture, which is evident in the fact that such images are posted alongside those of the infamous Kardashian sisters. 

Other brands based in the region, from large established labels such as Barbour to smaller, new lines such as Longsands, draw on the region’s natural landscapes in their design and photographic content. The North East coast plays a massive part in local culture. It is also an important part of local memory and heritage as many in the region have historically been employed in the fishing industry and shipbuilding. However, such representations are also as important in creating new post-industrial narratives about what the North East is. As Robert Colls states of photographers such as Bill Brandt who came and photographed the North East in the 1930s:

'Many of those who represented the regional culture […] did so by assuming that dreariness of landscape meant the dreariness of the people who lived in it. So closely had the landscape been connected with the people, and both with a regional ‘personality’, that the spoliation of one was seen as the actual ruination of all.'[9]

Asserting the natural beauty of the region becomes an important counterpart to the historical assumptions that remain a powerful part of the way the region continues to be viewed. To many, the North East is an industrial, bleak landscape. Barbour, who originally made its wax jackets for fishermen working on the North Sea coastline and continue to produce in the region where it is based, is visually defined by this coastline and countryside heritage. 

However, it is important not to overplay the extent to which place is evident. What all these brands cleverly do is take the new global language of social media and use the resources at their disposal to join it. For instance, Barbour posts images of local scenes alongside those taken all over the world. This can be understood in the context of a digital world that is global, where bloggers and fashion press seem to travel constantly and time zones and boundaries between places blur, which gives a sense of constantly being everywhere and nowhere at once. END., a local menswear boutique that has grown out of a small physical retail space to become one of the North East’s top 50 tech companies due to its e-commerce presence (they presently have 734k Instagram followers), makes little reference to its position in the North East in its social media feeds or website, but instead posts a steady stream of images that tap into the global streetwear culture, a mixture of images of merchandise and remediated imagery of a variety of cultural and travel subjects.[10] Similarly, the sea and countryside, although locally significant, are universal and timeless spaces associated with natural beauty, freedom and relaxation, while also evoking a non-specific and idealised sense of rural Britishness which is central to Barbour’s brand.

What is interesting about the digital revolution is the new ways in which physical place, and the sense of identity and belonging that relate to them are reconfigured. It allows people to represent and define themselves visually on their own terms, beyond the stereotyping that often occurs if those outside of the region make that representation. But just because one is from a certain region, it does not mean one’s aesthetic is entirely defined by it. Just as Fawcett dreamt of being part of the swinging sixties on Carnaby Street, in the digital era people in the North East dream of having a piece of the Kardashian lifestyle, or the Chiara Ferragni lifestyle, or to be dressed head to toe in Gosha Rubchinskiy. Regional identity has always been formed in part from influences that flow in and out of regions, and arguably this process is intensified in the digital age. The North East retail businesses I have looked at tap into the global flow of fashion related imagery on social media, and use its visual lexicon, combined with the local resources available to them, to tell their own aspirational fashion stories. What is important is not the Northern nature of the representation, but that the fact that the digital has brought about a situation where those in the North have an opportunity to represent themselves. Such representations allow local businesses and individuals to participate in a global culture and marketplace, one visually defined by aspiration, fantasy and idealisation, terms that have defined fashion imagery for many decades.

 

[1] Hilary Fawcett, Made In Newcastle: Visual Culture, 2007, Northumbria University Press: Newcastle Upon Tyne

[2]Ibid, p.23

[3]Ibid, p.34

[4]Lou Stoppard, 'Interview with Ellen Von Unwerth', SHOWstudio, 15 June, 2015, accessed 2 December 2015, https://showstudio.com/project/in_fashion/ellen_von_unwerth.

[5]Louise Crewe, 'When Virtual and Material Worlds Collide: Democratic Fashion in the Digital Age', Environment and Planning A 45 (2013): 761.

[6]Robert Colls 'Born Again Geordies', in Geordies: Roots of Regionalism, 2005, Northumbria University Press, Newcastle Upon Tyne

[7]Ibid  p.31

[8]Coreena Ford, 'Entrepreneur starts fashion business – and now exports to 50 countries', The  Journal, 8 August 2014, accessed October 2016 http://www.thejournal.co.uk/business/business-news/entrepreneur-starts-fashion-business-90-7585624. 

[9]Robert Colls, 'Born Again Geordies', in Geordies: Roots of Regionalism, 2005, Northumbria University Press, Newcastle Upon Tyne, p.9.

[10]Robert Gibson, 'North East Tech 50: meet the companies driving the digital revolution', The Chronicle, 24 May 2016, accessed October 2016 http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/business/business-news/north-east-tech-50-meet-11379495