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What Archive?: Digital Recordkeeping, Fandom, and Fashion

What Archive?: Digital Recordkeeping, Fandom, and Fashion

This blog series explores the divide between digital and print mediums, with special consideration for the role of accessibility and temporality in constructing (or dismantling/deleting) content, and the relation between this content and analog + new media archival processes for a discipline that is inherently disposable and regenerative in nature.

Fashion is a subject that lends itself to a unique brand of fandom because the existence of any sort of readily accessible public archive is entirely dependent on these fans themselves.  It’s safe to say I’m pretty obsessed with fashion archives and have spent a lot of time using them.  In this post I will begin to parse out the differences between corporate archives and user-generated fan archives.

The most prominent corporate digital archive is undeniably the American Vogue archive.  Launched in 2011, it includes every page of Vogue since its inception in 1892, and is continually updated as new issues are released – but while the digital archive is available to the public for a hefty price tag of >$1000 per year, many of the images it encompasses are freely available online, some of them even being circulated by Vogue’s own digital media outlets.  So what’s the big deal?  Why pay for Vogue when their content is brought online by fans as well as their own digital outlets?  And if Vogue puts its current issue’s imagery online immediately after the paper copies are released, why even buy them at all?

Digital fashion archives are an anomaly because user generated archival processes (via message boards or Tumblr) are not looked down upon – for the most part it’s just a case of good press coming with increased exposure.  While producers of counterfeit items are subject to legal actions, individuals who painstakingly scan and upload old fashion imagery generally don’t face any legal consequences.  But if “the best way to hide knowledge and action is…to not put it on record in the first place”, then arguably the Vogue archive makes it clear that its contents that don’t make it to the public web sphere are not worth knowing about.

Online communities like the Fashion Spot help dispel this notion by creating user-generated boards and archives centered around various interests in fashion content and imagery.  Users like the 16 year old Lyla’s Scans painstakingly upload old editorials from the 80s and 90s according to both personal interests and requests from the Fashion Spot community.  Yet even so, there is still a wide range of fashion content that has not been systematically archived, in digital or hard copy, and the question remains of whether there is a need for more systematic digital archives, and if so, why hasn’t it happened.

The paradox that is central to the dilemma of trying to hold onto everything is that fashion thrives on its ability to regenerate and shift quickly from one thing to the next.  So in eliminating larger systems of archives, save for Vogue’s exemplary efforts, Cornelia Vismann states, “One could almost make a correlation between the simplicity of elimination and the chances of retrieval: the less manual work involved in the act of elimination, the higher the chances of restoring the information and vice versa.”  As evidenced by the efforts of involved fans, fashion archives of magazines are slowly being pieced together collectively --  this is a good start, but its lack of formal organization makes me wonder whether these efforts will be useful in the future, or if they will still exist in the digital sphere at all.  But the inherent precariousness of this constructed archive leaves me wondering whether the fashion system will realize that its constant need to disavow fashion’s past while explicitly referencing it to push it forward would be served well by a greater push for stable archives.

Finally, fashion as a discipline is fairly nebulous, which adds to the confusion.  It isn’t a specific artistic medium, like painting, and the tangible output can take the forms of anything from a photograph to a piece of clothing to a video of a runway show.  Like Jill Lepore, I also worry, “that the twenty-first century will become an informational black hole.”  But the more worrisome question, for me, is that if we can’t even successfully compile hard copy records of fashion magazines into a cohesive, publically accessible archive, do we even stand a chance in the face of digital platforms that embed the ease of instant deletion into their interface?

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