Why We Can′t Have Nice Things: Social Media’s Influence on Fashion, Ethics, and Property

Anthony Rausch

As I read through Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Social Media’s Influence on Fashion, Ethics, and Property by Minh-Ha T. Pham (Duke University Press, 2022), the question that kept coming to mind was how representative the fashion industry could be in terms of illuminating the paradoxes that social media creates in other arenas of contemporary economic life. The argument of the book is meaningful and sound in its context; the question is, does it apply elsewhere? The overarching thesis of the book goes something like this: fashion – and by extension debates about original fashion, fashion as knock offs, the fashion end-point in the form of real fakes, and so – isn’t a thing in any real sense, but rather is a site of struggle over value systems that are constructed and come to operate within these competitive markets, struggle that in the case of fashion takes place around the notion of an ethics of fashion (p. 23). The specifics of these ethics are determined primarily through a form of intellectual property regulation that emerges not through any formalized legal process, but through exchanges by social media users: “almost all matters of fashion ethics are now discussed, negotiated, and carried out online” (p. 25). So, in this regard, is fashion an outlier or a ‘representative case’?

The book is 130 pages of text followed by ample notes and an extensive bibliography. The logic, research, arguments, and theoretical connections are each extensive and sound. The four chapters, prefaced by an Introduction and followed by an Epilogue, present numerous highly engaging intellectual threads to follow. First, there is the extended explanation of how, for the fashion industry, almost all the intellectual property regulation that takes place is accomplished through crowdsourced media exchanges. These online interactions are the everyday social media activities that accompany the trajectory of fashion through its concentrated life span; a life span too short for the slow pace of the mainstream legal system. This means that determinations of intellectual property infringement originate and are decided outside any recognized legal structure, by media users through informal online communication; highly informal and irregular, but ultimately still bringing significant cultural and material consequences in the real world of fashion where stores sell and consumers buy. A second dominant thread concerns the combined racially-geographic reality of fashion, where the bottom-up copying that takes place with less prestigious and often non-Western actors creating less expensive fashion versions – knockoffs – are uniformly found guilty of infringement on the one hand. However, the top-down copying, where the design theft that is euphemistically-coded as creative inspiration, paying homage, and showing cultural appreciation as practiced by industry-dominant and largely Western fashion brands is seen as justified, allowing these fashion names to freely appropriate what is denigrated as ethnic or folk clothing from ‘lesser’ cultures without any backlash. A third area of particular interest are the tensions that emerge in the configurations of such fashion ethics. For example, inherent in the ‘democratization of fashion,’ a notion and an era that brought such buzzwords as ‘cheap chic,’ ‘recession chic,’ and ‘credit crunch chic,’ was an ethical call for equality and accessibility, with both producers and consumers across socio-economic and geographic divides having equal opportunity to realize their fashion objectives. On the other side emerged an ethic of moral authority, wherein, on principle, producers must charge more and consumers must pay more for fashion that is – wink, wink – assumed to be both truly original and ethically-produced.

Pham’s work includes historical fundamentals, outlining the history and tensions surrounding the history of the Fashion Originators Guild of America (FOGA), which was established in 1932, for example, along with numerous detailed cases both past and present of impropriety – either absolute or coming dangerously close – in the origin of ‘original fashion.’ In these cases, the names that appear include many of the major fashion brands we are familiar with and the details are always highly illuminating, if not disappointing, regarding the many contested claims that accompany fashion design. To Pham’s credit, cases where the system, such that it is, worked appear along with those where a questionable outcome could be predicated largely by just knowing the players. An interesting part of the story here is that most of the claims and determinations of intellectual property infringement are cases of ‘punching down,’ when a big name points a finger at a smaller enterprise. And while there are those cases of smaller fashion designers taking on a major house, there are very few cases of a major label taking on another major label. There are also numerous mini-discoveries that entertain one’s logic along the way. The paradox of fashion is that the industry’s chaotic intellectual property environment – that which takes place in these online mediums – has not only not hurt the industry, it is the reason the industry has thrived. Social media works for the fashion industry simultaneously in two contradictory ways: it has created market growth for all kinds of fashion copies – those condoned and those condemned, with those condemned then conferring a particular status on those condoned – on the one side, while also enabling fashion consumers to (pretend to) be ethically conscious and to express a top-down consciousness of ethics in a wide range of ways on the other.

The Epilogue is explanatory but less socially-critical. The notion of social media-generated fashion ethics as narratively-productive is emphasized: the processes of social media that dictate the fate of fashion create multiple fashion narratives – narratives that create and propagate the myths of originality, morality, and ethics in fashion. It is through the efforts on social media to debate, defend, and disseminate these narratives that the tensions become clearly apparent and the contradictions of fashion in terms of geography, race, and culture can be discerned. The critical side of this concluding explanation is to consider, as in the opening of this review, whether the online world, and work, of fashion is representative of broader social realities that are emerging in similar processes elsewhere as the footprint of social media expands across society. An extension of this investigative examination of how the fashion industry proceeds online to the real world goes something like this: the internet’s promise as a tool of participation is undermined by its capitalist structures – from its corporate owners, its neoliberal valorization of individualism, its idolization of market-based freedom, and its shallow popularity. Social media creates its own world, and then reaffirms the value of the world that it has created, and in so doing, positions itself as the only world worthy of recognition, participation and authority. In that sense, while Why We Can’t Have Nice Things was successful in illuminating the workings of social media within the fashion industry, and in such a way as to make clear what this means in terms of myriad social tensions, my disappointment is that the final contextualization was not further extended beyond the case for fashion, such that the message one takes from the work would truly fit the broad scale of the title, in a more societal-level response to: why, indeed, we can’t have nice things.