Can Personal Style Exist in the Age of Instagram?

Harling Talks Personal Style in the Age of Instagram

If you click on my byline on Man Repeller, you will find a litany of evidence regarding the impact of Instagram on my stylistic proclivities. I’ve written about testing Instagram style trends; following Maison Cleo and subsequently becoming enthralled with the elusive white summer blouse; collecting evidence of a phenomenon I came to call “Menocore”; stalking Tracee Ellis Ross’s vacation aesthetic; gleaning black-tie outfit ideas from coworkers and…well…a whole lot more, but you get the idea.

The app has been a notable conduit for many – if not most — of my fashion-centric revelations over the past few years, a veritable breeding ground for discovering new brands, new trends and new ways to wear things. Every time I open the “Explore” page and start scrolling, I inevitably come across something that gives me that telltale, spine-tingling thrill: a relatively unknown Danish jewelry designer making pearl earrings in the exact style I’ve been looking for; a style blogger living in South Africa who has the coolest way of combining dresses and pants; a creative agency that posts beautiful images from photo shoots around the world, etc. Each discovery feels utterly unique, and yet they all seem to fill a need I didn’t even know existed, as if the insatiable entity that is my personal style was hungering for a source of inspiration that was both highly particular and utterly nebulous, and all of a sudden, the perfect inspiration appeared. Like magic!

When I pondered the full impact of this ongoing discovery loop, I had a strange train of thought: Is my personal style even personal anymore if it is being shaped by an algorithm that appears to know me better than I know myself? Is Instagram’s never-ending conveyer belt of trends a detriment to human creativity? An excuse to sit back, relax and dress like everyone else?

When I emailed Style Director Nikki Ogunnaike to ask her that very question, she made an interesting point:

“When has personal style ever really been personal? Apps are here and we’re spending more time on them, but before that it was music videos, TV shows, and movies that served as inspiration for me. Joan on Girlfriends wore cargo pants one episode and I’ve been obsessed ever since. That is to say, I’ve certainly been inspired to buy things because I’ve seen it on another person —most recently it’s everything Princess Diana ever wore on vacation because I deep-dived Fly Lady Di— but the way I style it is all Nikki. The styling part of ‘personal style’ can still exist, but dwelling on just how personal it is could lead you into an existential crisis.”

Her comment resonated with me. I’ve always liked imagining my relationship with style as a conversation, an exchange between my taste and the world around me – images, words, people, pop culture, nostalgia. In that sense, I’ve always found it somewhat enlightening, because to grapple with your sense of style is also to grapple with your sense of self. The more I learn about the former, the more I learn about the latter – and vice versa.

I wondered, though, if Instagram was making that pursuit reductive. Thanks to my clever Explore page, the rotation of ever-available inspiration is essentially low-hanging fruit. At times it felt like the algorithm was reading my mind. Was it? Eager for answers, I reached out to an Instagram spokesperson.

“There are a number of signals we take into account to predict what kind of content you’ll enjoy, including (but not limited to) who you follow, what you like, and what you comment on,” the spokesperson told me over email. “The Explore page is also partly powered by what is trending among the people you follow, and on the platform in general. It’s important to note that the algorithm we use for Explore is separate from the algorithm we use for the Feed — the Explore page is specifically personalized to reflect your interests and interactions.”

When I mentioned that my Explore page seems to have become better and better at serving me content that I like, she said, “Explore is constantly evolving alongside your interests, so the more you engage with content throughout Instagram, the more Explore can learn what you like and what you might be interested in.”

I suppose, then, the algorithm does know me better than I know myself in that it is able to deduce what I will like before I do. Designed to keep me constantly engaged, it is always one step ahead. So what does that mean in terms of its impact on personal taste?

When I posed this question to Leandra, who has also written at length about the various sartorial discoveries she has made via Instagram, she said, “I don’t know that an algorithm shapes my taste so much as it does perpetuate taste that is already there. Unless that is kind of the same thing!” That sentiment rang true for me as well: a classic chicken-or-egg situation.

She also acknowledged how the algorithm is developed to learn our tastes and feed us content accordingly: “It’s sort of like a really good market editor that understands the nuances of what makes up the style of wherever he/she works and then serves the best options that it can scrape.” I appreciated the idea of thinking about Instagram’s algorithm as a particularly clever market editor, though I wondered whether my trust in its ability to do so was giving me tunnel vision.

Leandra touched on this too, saying, “The real danger (if you can even call it that) is in what happens when you are sure your taste is changing, that you’re ready to explore a new frontier but are so caught up in the loop of old party tricks/a dated algorithmic equation.”

The thing is, I am sure my taste is changing, simply because it always has. Sometimes the shifts aren’t immediately apparent, but in hindsight I can often pinpoint exactly when and why they occurred.

I want the best of both worlds: I want the new frontier — the hypothetical thing that turns my personal style topsy-turvy and prompts me to reflect on the when and the why of my emotional state — and I want the algorithm’s comfortingly accurate loop of discovery. But maybe they aren’t mutually exclusive. Maybe they can work in congress with each other — if I become a more thoughtful middle(wo)man, that is.

In the end, I think the key to keeping personal style personal, no matter how smart apps like Instagram get, is precisely what made it personal in the first place: curiosity. As long as we’re relentlessly curious, as long as we keep overturning rocks and peeking under the hoods of metaphorical cars and asking questions and reaching tentacles out into the unknown, new frontiers will inevitably surface — and the algorithms? They are our maps, our metal detectors, our binoculars, our guides, readily equipped to help us identify the multitude of telltale, spine-tingling thrills that these fresh batches of stylistic proclivities have to offer.

Collage by Madeline Montoya.

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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