Phones, Fashion, Self and Society
By Howard Rheingold, Tue Nov 30 08:45:00 GMT 2004

Will the telephone's transition from appliance to fashion accessory change the ways we think of ourselves and interact with each other?


Consider this: Samsung and Vogue announced a co-marketing partnership in October, combining their engineering, design and marketing clout to create a "couture" category of mobile phones. "Style icon" Diane von Furstenburg (DVF) was commissioned to create a limited edition designer phone – the DVF Mobile. The visual design is based on Andy Warhol's famous print of von Furstenburg's face -- combining fashion, art history, design, nostalgia, and narcissism in one stroke.

von Furstenburg declared: "The mobile phone has become a part of today's lifestyle, and a part of a woman's body language," and announced that each "DVF Mobile by Samsung is accompanied by a Diane von Furstenberg original charm and accessory known as the 'CityBand,' which allows on-the-go, style-conscious women to carry the essential lip gloss, credit card and wireless phone in one elegantly designed package." In other words, DVF, Samsung and Vogue are trying to turn the purse into an accessory of the telephone.

This announcement was brought to my attention via email from Norway-based Rich Ling, one of the earliest social scientists to follow the adoption of the mobile phone. When I asked Ling what he thought the DVF Mobile meant, he referred to Georg Simmel, who observed the psychosocial aspects of fashion at the beginning of the 20th century: "Following from Simmel," Ling replied, "fashion consists of two types of tension. The first is the tension between individual and group identity. The second is the tension between the avant-garde and the dowdy. With the first of these, individuals are involved in trying to develop their own special ways of being or façades while at the same time also using their display of clothes, language and other artifacts (including the mobile telephone) as a sign of membership in a group. With the second of these, the individuals are, in effect, trying to surf on the edge of a dynamic change in society. If they are too far ahead, then they are discordant. If they are too far behind they are an echo of that which has come and gone. The ownership and use of the mobile phone (as an object of consumption) allows one to show their competence as a 'correct' (or perhaps not so correct) consumer of up-to-date technology. In addition, the device is a networking tool that in itself helps to develop and maintain group interaction. Further, the way we use it, the way that we display it and the way that we place it in our presentation of self provide others a sense of our fashionability."

Ling referred me to Leopoldina Fortunati, another social observer of mobile media, based in Italy. She sent me some of her papers. One of her studies, "On the Human Body, Fashion and Mobile Phones," from "The Social Representation of Telecommunications," a forthcoming collaboration with A. Manganelli, described a research project Fortunati participated in in 1996, "on the social representation of telecommunications, a significant association between fashion and the mobile."

Fortunati "cannot help mentioning that Siemens has recently put on the market the collection of Xelibri mobiles," the result of two years work by a multinational team at Siemens Munich laboratory. The first phones in the series that were sold in Italy were named "1," "2," "3," and "4," and were scheduled to be withdrawn from the market when the next collection – "4," "5," "6," and "7," naturally – became available. If you can sell an expensively packaged communication tool as a jewel-like accessory that has to be changed twice a year, there is money to be extracted from the people who spend $15,000 for a designer gown and wear it once.

The Xelibri, however, failed in the marketplace, and Siemens withdrew it. When I asked Fortunati in recent email about the DVF Mobile and what Samsung might or might not have learned from the example of the Xelibri, she replied : "The great drawback of this operation was that it did not take account of any real comprehension of that social phenomenon which is fashion. In fact the mobile phone was just made into a fashion object and sold through that network of fashion distribution centres which are boutiques. But these two operations are objectively inadequate and useless if at the same time the other big operation is not also carried out: the production of the fashion discourse on mobile phones. Without the iconic representation and narration of the fashion object, no new product – including the mobile – can have a proper diffusion, unless it comes from below, from people’s creativity, very much like a product of street fashion. Sociological analysis shows in fact that fashion is a complex apparatus, a system that in order to work properly needs many parts, all its parts."

Fortunati suspects Samsung turned to Vogue precisely in order to avoid the shortcomings of Xelebri's marketing , and cautioned that "There cannot be a fashionable mobile phone designed by means of stereotypes. The only possibility for a mobile phone to become a fashion object is for it to be at the same time also a device with a wide range of services able to positively speak the language of social diversities. Otherwise the latest model of mobile phone, even if built on a design of Andy Warhol, will always remain a pathetic, even if attractive, phonic shell "

What does this portend for those who can't afford such expensive tastes? Fortunati cites the same century-old work by Georg Simmel that Ling noted, in which objects used by the socioeconomic elite are considered fashionable until they are adopted by the masses, when they become unfashionable, pointing out that the mobile, reversing Simmel's trend, "became fashionable, that is, a trendy object, only when it had been taken over by the masses." When a high-tech communication device with complex features (rather than a scarf or cosmetic) is the "trendy object," and when the fashion object itself can be used as a medium for propagating fashions, the adoption of mobile phones as fashions could disrupt social codes and associated economic or political structures.

Constructing identity by wearing symbolic objects is the inward tension associated with fashion. The outward face of the tension between identity and society is the public dimension of telephone use – the act of conducting a private conversation with a physically absent partner, in front of copresent strangers. The performative aspects of our personalities find a new dimension of expression with the mobile phone, but in the act of using it, we are changing the nature of the stage of public behavior. As Fortunati put it:"life is still a theater, but the difference between when we are acting and when we are being ourselves is on the whole less distinct, if only because the mobile gives us the possibility, when necessary, to stage ourselves."

These toys for the super-rich are not as important in themselves as in what they might portend for a few years hence, when wearable devices become mass-market fashions. Might we use this as an occasion to think about possible psychosocial impacts of a technology-driven trend before it occurs, rather than afterward? And if we do – will that have any effect on the outcome? Check back here when custom ring tones reach Wal-Mart.