They divide opinion, invite scorn and attract our attention no matter what they do. And in some cases they needn’t do anything at all for us to put them on our front covers.
It girls, that class of pretty young women who usually have long legs and a famous surname, inevitably make headlines for every little thing they do, from falling out of nightclubs to starting their own line of shoes.
Take a glance at any newsstand on any high street. The eye doesn’t have to travel far before it lands on an It girl with a beautiful dress and a notional “profession”. ‘It’ itself is tricky to define, but you are familiar with the names: from Made in Chelsea’s Millie Mackintosh to literary heiress Dree Hemingway, from downtown perennial Chloe Sevigny to established clotheshorse Alexa Chung. They represent a collection of women with a lot of money, access and media attention - both positive and negative.
They are held up as paragons of 'personal style', which in itself is a dubious concept, generally used to encourage ordinary folk to imitate women in the public eye as style icons. They are lauded as women who can negotiate the fashion landscape and know how to dress themselves effortlessly. And because of the aspirational nature of media and marketing today - 'buy this, wear this and your life will be shinier and better' - we want to be just like them. But the result, as in the case of Alexa Chung, is that we take them too far as a source of inspiration in the press and on the high street. Soon, every woman is dressing like the same style icon and we’re back to square one. It’s a symptom of the growing homogenisation of street fashion: the term “personal style” again becomes meaningless and we all end up buying identical items for the same reasons.
There is no doubt that Chung, a former model, is very good at wearing clothes. There is a reason why she is a British Fashion Council style ambassador, and there are positives to this, too: if Alexa wears a pair of J.W. Anderson pajama pants to a major event, for example, it’s going to be covered in the press. Anderson, a young, independent designer, will get a lot of media coverage. Alexa champions emerging designers at a time when it is tough for them to translate good reviews into commercial success, which is undoubtedly a boost for the British fashion industry. This is increasingly the way in which the industry works, and it’s fair and understandable that a young designer would want an It girl like her to wear her clothes.
But it doesn’t end there. The media cannot and will not stop at merely reporting what these women are wearing - the attention spills over into criticism of their private lives, their careers and, most often, their appearance. The pressurised cycle of online news platforms today invites readers to be active judges of celebrities’ looks, weight and love lives. Judging beautiful celebrities - or maybe more accurately, finding flaws in them - has become a national pastime, thanks to a steady stream of ‘who wore it better’-type news stories. The result is a culture that can’t decide whether to worship Alexa Chung as the nation’s best-dressed woman, or to attack her for being underweight and hence a bad role model.
This is an unfair outcome on two levels. Firstly the majority of us have limited money to devote to our wardrobe, and limited access to the kind of designers these It girls love to wear. So it’s unreasonable to hold them up as the gold standard for personal style. It’s easy to dress well when designers are so eager to court you that they give you clothing free of charge - see It girls like Cara Delevingne and Rosie Huntington-Whitely, faces of Burberry and so contractually obliged to wear the label’s finest when they’re snapped out and about. And it’s pretty difficult to “get the look” of the nation’s current favourite when you’re on a non-celebrity budget, despite what the media tells us a lot of the time.
Also, it is possible to give too much attention to one person. If the papers are fawning over Kate Moss one day and criticising her because of a single dodgy photograph the next, then the public are being encouraged to find constant fault in these women. It breeds a culture of negativity which is unhealthy for our own self-image, too. While we march off to spend our pennies getting the look of Georgia May Jagger or Chloe Sevigny, we end up criticising ourselves, judging our bodies and our styles unfairly against the It girl template. These are women whose job it is to look good and dress well. For the rest of us, looking good and dressing well may be a concern, but it’s one of many. We needn’t treat ourselves as their direct competitors.
There is another way, though. Instead of taking these privileged, polished and dedicated women as our role models, we may be better off looking around us at the genuinely creative and inspirational men and women on the street and in our own lives. Not everyone can dress like a size 6 22-year-old - and not everyone would want to - and so we should consider turning instead to ordinary women who aren’t in the pockets of Big Fashion. There is legitimate inspiration out there on the streets and online, and it offers a more diverse and less homogeneous range of style than the current default set by the It girls of 2012. Personal style is about establishing a wardrobe that suits you and that you love rather than emulating a handful of stylish beauties in the public eye. Aspiration is what makes us worship at the It girls altar, but inspiration should be taken wherever we may find it, and not purely from what we see in the press.