Social media is killing the celebrity fashion icon.
Social media is killing the celebrity fashion icon.

“We’ve lost the plot” is the title of a brilliant piece in The Atlantic. For weeks, I haven’t been able to shut up about it. I recommend it to anyone who will listen, because it perfectly diagnoses the moment. It brings to light society’s “constant need for entertainment”, as writer Megan Garber puts it, accurately declaring that we are already living in the metaverse, where fiction and reality are so intertwined, they are indistinguishable.

Take the current Thabo Bester controversy, for example. As the Facebook rapist’s Bonnie and Clyde-esque escapades with Dr Nandi Magudumana play out in real time, social media is already speculating about who should play them in a Netflix series. Many have cast Tsotsi actors Presley Chweneyagae or Mothusi Magano in the lead role, with Sindi Dlathu supporting. Mock movie posters are already circulating the internet. 

The people have made it quite clear: news bulletins and front-page blow-by-blow accounts of the events are not enough. We want it dramatised and given the full Jeffrey Dahmer treatment!

If this is not the memefication of reality in full display, I don’t know what is. As Garber posits, we want reality delivered to us through the lens of entertainment.  

I’ll come back to how this plays out in fashion, consolidating fast fashion’s hold on our purses, but first, let me get to how we may have arrived at entertainment’s cannibalisation of reality as we’ve always known it to begin with.

Over several decades, Hollywood has trained us to expect the dramatisation of real-life events, and lately, no doubt driven by algorithms, it delivers on this promise at breakneck speed. Think Anna Delvey or Elizabeth Holmes. Anna Sorokin — dubbed Delvey — had not even been sentenced yet when Netflix and Shonda Rhimes’s Shondaland Productions acquired the film rights to her life story in 2018.

Unfolding stories

Holmes, the convicted blood test start-up fraudster, is only due to report for her prison sentence at the end of April, and yet we’ve already seen and forgotten about The Dropout —a fast-paced, Amanda Seyfried-starring dramatisation of the Theranos founder’s years-long grift. 

It used to be that biopics were made about historic figures; now they are made about people whose stories are still unfolding before our very eyes. Everything, including our own lives, is enmeshed in entertainment. 

At an individual level, we’ve become the directors of our own filter-drenched TikTok reality shows. We deliver timely, and even episodic popular music-soundtracked snapshots of everything we do, from getting dressed in the morning, to every single thought that crosses our minds — all for the entertainment of others.  

The distinction between artists, who have earned their fame through years of hard work in a particular vocation, and social media content creators, whose best talent is mimicry, has all but disappeared. Work in creative industries where talent was the prerequisite now prioritises huge social followings for brands to exploit. There’s no way to earn these followers except by turning your own life into entertainment.

This brings me to fashion.

Different outfit

Recently, as I got dressed for an event I was invited to, a friend reminded me that the custom designer suit I was preparing to wear had “already been seen on Instagram”. I got tonnes of likes the day I wore it, too, which means I cannot disappoint my followers by showing it to them again. What I wear is no longer about how I feel and how I want to look, but how it’s going to land with my followers. The idea stopped me dead in my tracks. I had to think about what it meant.

We’ve bought so hard into the idea of our lives as content that we want to behave like celebrities whose access to resources allows them to wear a different outfit every night. While celebrities often borrow these looks, for those of us who are merely simulating access for the benefit of our followers and their entertainment, a cheap Shein knock-off of runway trends we might never wear again suffices. This hyperreality is thus a boon for fast-fashion producers. 

What we spend our hard-earned money on is now dictated by our newfound roles as reluctant entertainers, in a constant quest to keep audiences engaged by any means necessary.

Listening to friends discuss how much money they spend on fast fashion every month, just so they have a different outfit to wear at every social engagement, and no doubt to keep their Insta feeds interesting, makes me break out in hives. Many who thrift the clothes they use to keep their social media audiences entertained feel less beholden to fast fashion, and maybe they are, but what’s at issue is the culture of consumption itself.  

Initially, the ever-increasing commercialisation of fashion that forced designers into producing an endless stream of new collections annually sent the fashion trend cycle into overdrive. We are now in an endless loop of social media-driven trends that, like on-demand entertainment, fuels a thirst for more.  

It feels like we are living in a parody precisely because this appetite for endless entertainment and engagement consumes every aspect of our lives. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. 

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