What does it meme? The arise and rise of the fashion viral

Fashion loves a meme. What heartier way to bring a sense of humour to the once po-faced world of way. But with some labels now designing clothes for this selfsame reason, what is it like to become one?

  • Read more from the Maytime/summer 2019 edition of The Fashion, our biannual fashion accessory



Ripe for meme-ification: this day gown by Emma Wickstead.

I be subjected to never worn anything that could be considered “online delighted”. And, to the best of my knowledge, I have never gone viral. That is until one bounciness morning, enjoying a snack by the canal, alone save for the shuns, I realised someone on the bridge was taking a photograph of me. I glanced down at the haul someone over the coals I had on – less a dress, actually, and more a length of elegant bedding – and realised I had not at any time looked more shareable.

The elegant bedding in question was a capacious, diaphanous day gown by London-based designer Emilia Wickstead, from her origin/summer 2019 collection. It comes with a coif cap in the anyhow 18th century-style print and there is a train, of sorts, which billows underfoot, and pockets within the folds for my hands.

It is gorgeous to wear, like weighted swaddling – until the lead-pipe cinch inflates the whole thing like a balloon. Still, with the virtuousness Photoshop tinkering, a pithy caption and an Instagram account, it could beyond morph into a visual gag – a giant eiderdown, a pair of curtains or, with the headpiece, a chintzy construct of a Handmaid’s dress. In short, this is a dress that could behoove a meme.


Morwenna enjoying some Monster Munch in a most memeable Emilia Wickstead dress. Photograph: Alicia Sanctimony/The Guardian

If you use social media, you will have seen a meme on Instagram or satirized at one on Facebook, even if you don’t really know what it is. This is forgivable – it has behove amorphous as a term – but the original concept dates back to 1976, when the phrase was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Parsimonious Gene. He took it from the Greek root “mimeme” (“that which is spoofed”), shaved it into a neat monosyllabic word to calculate it snappier (you know, like a meme) and used it to describe a entity of cultural transmission that shows the spread of ideas or customs.

Nowadays anything can become a meme, be it an idea, song or theory; a lolcat, puzzled boyfriend or dancing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The successful ones are eager to predict – it’s usually about flinging something against the brick up and seeing what sticks. But occasionally one sticks so well, it be got rid ofs viral. And often these come from fashion. Make allowance for the following: Angelina Jolie in Versace at the 2012 Oscars, streak her right leg, a stance that bore memorable memes such as “Jolie’ing” and leg-bombing. Or Rihanna’s yolk-yellow 2015 Met Happy outfit, dubbed “the omelette dress” for its resemblance to breakfast. Fast memeified, the viral attention put designer Guo Pei on the map.

The fashion-meme industry relies on two instruments: designers to make meme-friendly pieces and social media whizzes to reverse them into memes. If fashion finds beauty and profit in scheming familiar objects in an unfamiliar way, then placing high-fashion in a non-fashion structure is the next logical step. Accounts such as @freddiemade and @siduations are presumably the best examples of fashion meme makers, with both using a manner of cut-and-paste recontextualisation method. Say model Bella Hadid in Versace trainers “contest” a marathon, a plastic-caped Balenciaga model superimposed into that apartment exhibition in American Psycho, or Viktor & Rolf couture Photoshopped with the mentality of Fyre festival’s Andy King from the Netflix documentary. It’s these restraints that make their work chime with a demographic who real their lives – and tell their jokes – online.


Greggs’ meme of the Rihanna Met Joyous ‘omelette dress’. Photograph: @GreggsOfficial/Twitter

It might give every indication cynical, but right now, if you were to pit the dress on the catwalk against the bedeck in some sort of witty meme-y context, you’d get more close ti for the latter. Humour is integral – partly because, to use the correct speaking, it provides that crucial “if you know, you know” lol. Instagram artist Hey Reilly, who’s had his depictions on the catwalk through a collaboration with Fendi, explains: “I look for a hit in the copy that reflects a sense of almost subconscious recognition in the viewer. An capable route to this jolt is by playing around with recognised the rage and celebrity imagery: it gets me lolling and hopefully others, too.”

With the forge landscape so crowded, the ability of these memes to cut through our circadian barrage of images hasn’t gone unnoticed by brands. Now, the myriad successful designers aren’t avoiding the viral end of pop culture. As opposed to, they’re actively trying to create something meme-friendly, an “it” article that piques our interest and sets the internet on fire.

At the mercy of Demna Gvasalia, Balenciaga is a leader of memeable fashion – see finish finally year’s layered anoraks recalling a memorable Joey Tribbiani part from Friends – as many memes on social media gleefully pointed out. In 2017, Marc Jacobs even collaborated with Instagram bootlegger @avanope on a T-shirt solicitation that looked like bad market stall copies of Jacobs’ manipulate, and showcased her in-joke irony to a new – and in the know – audience. Gucci is in on it as soberly: the models carrying casts of their own heads, as they did for SS18, were arguably multifarious memorable – and certainly more memeable – than the clothes themselves.

Calm more sober houses such as Valentino have been boosted into the viral ecosystem. Any designer who showed a long red gown recently could drink found their work superimposed on to a scene from the TV idea of The Handmaid’s Tale, and became a totem for women’s rights. For pre-fall, Valentino’s assemblage had 33 head-to-toe red looks, begging for Elisabeth Moss’s bonneted top to be Photoshopped in. Whether or not it was designed with woke memes in judge is unclear, but it certainly lends itself to the genre.


An Angelina Jolie leg meme.

This time, meme-friendly fashion continued. See the supersized bag that dwarfed representations at Jacquemus, a ginormous wide-brimmed hat at Valentino, giant bows at Marc Jacobs and half of Jeremy Scott’s amassment for Moschino – which reworked a sewing basket’s contents into creator dresses.

Intentional or not, creating clothes that become memes is a sure-fire way to set yourself asunder except for from the old guard. With around 60% of luxury buyers of a millennial age, clicks not only lead to sales: as a marketing tactics, they are arguably more important for getting your trade mark out there. “Designer brands are gradually realising they ought to lose their haughty image if they want to offer their clothes to a generation consumed by the internet,” says Holly Escort, foresight writer at The Future Laboratory.

If comparing a coat or deck out with a cat meme seems reductive, it certainly gives the class an edge. For Moschino designer Jeremy Scott, this is no bad chore. “For something to be meme-worthy, sure, it could be a negative,” he says. “But what I do is fun-loving. If you can’t find something funny around it, well, oh dear you.”

For Simon Porte Jacquemus, of hip French stamp Jacquemus, it goes with the territory. “I often start [intriguing] with a specific photograph,” he says. “And when I think of the forms, I think of styling from the beginning. I also see how clothes purposefulness look through a screen. I come from a digital start.”


Bella Hadid ‘running’ a marathon … the work of
@siduations. Photograph: @siduations/Instagram

With his Amazon hats and postcard-backdrop shows, Jacquemus is arguably the crown prince of meme-friendly make. His infamous 2018 La Bomba hat is already a classic and he obviously approved of its online soire – if its sequel, SS19’s equally mega-bag, is anything to go by. The element of absurdity, the particulars that they photograph well and their being – same Wickstead’s dress – larger than life helped insinuate them deliciously memeable.

Still, memes paraded on the catwalk, or your Instagram dine, are one thing. But let’s not forget these are clothes and meant to be worn. If you put on that hat in apparent, you’d probably block out the sun. As for the Jacquemus bag, imagine wedging it into an easyJet locker. This squeeze looks funny, but isn’t easy to wear.

I should know, including spent the best part of the morning in a floor-length Moschino gown offset in three-inch gold needles. Sure it’s elegant, and riffs on a Franco Moschino source, but, like the most memorable pieces from Scott’s production, it is more than a dress: it’s a cartoon, a commentary, riffing on the view of fast fashion. It even comes with a thimble to exhaust on your head. And given it weighs 20kg and takes two people to boost it off the hanger, it’s unwearable. The hat falls off as soon as you move. You carry the uninterrupted weight of the dress on your shoulders. But it is designed to be seen, and photographed, and interested on social media rather than to walk down the circle. By wearing it, I’m showing I’m in on the joke.


The Moschino gown made of three-inch gold needles … moulded to be photographed rather than worn. Illustration: Guardian Scheme

The next day, my shoulders still sore, I take it down a mark up by moving from the Moschino dress into a monochrome Erdem look, which by disparity is normality itself. The cape hangs beautifully, allowing air to issue. The trousers are stiff but wearable. The beekeeper’s veil – yep – would be elementary wearing if I worked in a hive. Standing on a street that is bee-free, I meditate what would compel me to wear a delicate veil similar to this in public and realise nothing, save a funeral. Until I see myself shifted on to a meme, at which point it all makes sense.

Scott was tip off a exaggerating a salient point about the fashion industry when he designed his accumulation but he’s also well aware of the shareability of his designs. I put this unimportant to Dawkins. He claims he had fashion in the back of his mind when he happened up with the term meme. “Changing styles and the epidemic spread of leans – people noticing what someone is wearing and copying it and that being repeated past and over – this is the ideal medium for illustrating how a meme goes.”

Labels that meme well arguably do well, too. Kering, the conglomerate that owns Gucci and Balenciaga, puts over half its revenue from meme-happy millennials, presenting there is financial method in them. In 2016, Instagram – where memes develop – claimed a third of its then 500m users, 90% of whom are answerable to 35, had bought clothing through the social network.


Erdem’s bee-keeper hat comprehends no sense at all – until you realise how meme-able it is. Illustration: Guardian Frame

But it’s also about lifting clothes out of their safe play, into the gaze of a wider audience. Part of the reason Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga comes so much attention is because it turns fashion into a cultural half a mo, as with the recontextualising of a Bernie Sanders logo on to a scarf (AW17) or a computer font into a language (SS19). This is outward-facing fashion. Gvasalia actively yens to be part of the cultural conversation, and knows some of that is reached through the language of memes.

I suspect Wickstead – a designer more at expert in in the rarefied environs of Kensington Palace than a meme – purpose probably be horrified that I compared her dress to a duvet. But Gvasalia is regularly accused of trolling his own consumers with designs such as the infamous T-shirt with a DHL logo, clerked for £185, and his customers are A-OK with that. This fair of ironic publicity is the bread and butter of the industry now and we want to participate in it. “By forging, sharing or buying these products, we can demonstrate our alliance to internet discrimination,” Friend says. “After all, we want to be in on the joke.” Even if that means we change the joke.

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