When minimal becomes bare

Daisy Chandley interrogates the minimalist trend and its troubling exclusivity

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Photo: Peter Palander

Scrolling through the Instagram explore page at night, trying to calculate in your head how many hours of sleep you can get if you drop off in the next ten minutes, you’d be hard pressed to not come across a tall, slim girl in muted, tailored clothes. She’ll call herself a lifestyle blogger, whether or not she has a blog, and her feed will be a perfectly manicured mixture of uncluttered Parisian balconies, bowls of uniformly sliced exotic fruits, and crisp white bedsheets covered in angular floods of light. This, apparently, is minimalism, and you might call it one of the standard reigning style trends of the last five years – after all, the staggering following of a lot of these minimalist Instagrammers appears to be down to their impeccable sense of taste. I don’t think this is true, or at least I don’t think it’s the full story. Minimalism, at least this incarnation of it, isn’t really about aesthetics at all – it’s about money, class, and status.

As far as I can see, the main difference between decluttered and bare, or a cool white t-shirt versus a boring white t-shirt, is context. For a start, the person in question must have had the option to have more ‘stuff’ around them or a more lavish outfit and turned it down. As Stephanie Land puts it in her brilliant article. ‘The Class Politics of Decluttering’ in The New York Times: “minimalism is a virtue only when it is a choice.” If somebody lives in a bare flat because they can’t afford furniture it doesn’t seem to count, and nor does an awkward teenage girl wearing a hand-me-down white t-shirt and black jeans. Minimalism demands that the user to have a certain income in order that their living conditions are adopted by choice, rather than born out of necessity. The evident problem with this is that it creates a hard financial threshold on who can be a minimalist, which introduces a problematic element before the substance of the trend itself is even examined.

It might be countered that there’s a good reason that those on a low income with plain white plastic furniture fail to be minimalists in the context I’m using, other than the mere fact of their wage: minimalism is about being surrounded by a limited number of relatively unadorned things, yes, but those things are implicitly meant to be beautiful and well crafted, and craftsmanship costs money that some people simply do not have. Minimalism focuses our attention on the minutiae – a label, the cut of a hem, the exact length of a pair of black jeans – and it takes expensive designers to be able to master these small, beautiful art forms. In some ways this draws attention to elements of fashion that are arguably being lost; the art of tailoring with local, quality materials, and the architectural structure of pieces. This is the argument that many use to defend minimalism from an aesthetic point of view – it’s about appreciating the perfection of small and simple things.

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An important point to make before I get around to my main problem with this line of reasoning is that in reality, the individual sewing fifty pound white tees is probably not working with vastly better fabrics, and likely not much better working conditions, than the individual sewing those that line high street bargain buckets. The idea that cheaper stores are to be avoided or frowned upon simply for their ethical practices or mass-production is therefore something to be greatly suspicious of.

With this in mind, let’s suppose that Primark brought in a fantastic but totally unheard of tailor to craft a new range of blouses from reasonably good quality fabrics. Even if these blouses end up being indistinguishable from a COS blouse, and would last precisely as long, I don’t think it’s plausible to believe that both would be treated anything close to equally by a minimalist blogger perusing the shelves. Of course, there’s probably no trend where two pieces from brands with vastly different connotations are treated equally, but within more eccentric, loud and fun trends it’s not at all unusual to see well regarded bloggers raving or even bragging about having found a particularly brilliant piece at a cheap and cheerful store. For the long-legged minimalists of Instagram to distinguish themselves from those who merely cannot afford more, they have to have a name or label to flash. This is because minimalism is selling more than just clothes, and it’s no coincidence that almost every minimalist dresser you see online is also a ‘lifestyle blogger’, an ‘influencer’, or the like. Minimalism and the understatedly glamorous way of life that appears to surround it go hand in hand, and to wear a Primark blouse rather than a Ghost one is the equivalent of posting a bowl of apple and banana slices, rather than kiwi and dragonfruit. It shatters the constant implication of exclusivity.

The most glaring way in which this exclusivity is maintained, and the final suggestion that it indeed exists, is arguably the most nefarious of all: the minimalist themselves must fit the same prescriptions as their surroundings and their clothes. You might think that this means the typical minimalist would be anyone with a simple or natural hairstyle without too many tattoos or piercings, but this isn’t the case at all; vast number of minimalist bloggers have heavily processed hair and bodies more doodled on than a thirteen year old’s dream journal. What you don’t tend to find, with a few exceptions, is established minimalist bloggers and influencers who are black, fat, disabled, or even simply fail to live up to every aspect of modern western beauty standards. The primary caveat to this is Japanese women, but this isn’t too surprising: for the most part, those who succeed on social media are still very slim and able-bodied, and in addition to this they are often reductively viewed as part of an aesthetic culture which is sufficiently focused on clean lines and careful technical engineering for their bodies and identities to work with the minimalist trend. This leaves us with the question of why body modifications – the seeming antithesis of minimalism – are acceptable, but blackness, being above a size 8, and visible disabilities are not, and I don’t think we have to look too far for the answer.

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When you combine the fact that minimalism is selling a specific, elite ideal and its requirement that simple clothes and bare rooms are chosen rather than necessitated (and add a good dash of the biases that we’re all subconsciously imbued with), it’s not too surprising that certain bodies don’t fit into our notion of 2017 minimalism. While it’s certainly not far fetched to put the absence of these bodies down to simple ableism, fatphobia and anti-blackness, other style groups in the social media sphere seem to be amplifying these voices and faces somewhat more successfully, and there’s an additional idea that could neatly – if unsettlingly – explain this. When we see people of colour, people over a certain size, or disabled people wearing what might otherwise be regarded as minimalist clothing, we are perhaps more likely to instinctively read plainness and bare rooms as necessity rather than choice, assuming they are both less financially comfortable and less clued up on trends than their tall, white, slim, and able bodied counterparts. While complex intersectional wage gaps are of course a very real problem, this by no means justify these assumptions, especially when it’s so often made with distain in mind rather than solidarity, and when women of colour have been the driving force in so many trends and styles that we take for granted.

A simple blouse or vest with nice trousers, worn in various shades of monochrome, can manage to look slick, smart and relaxed all at once on all manner of bodies, and decluttering is certainly something that helps some people from all manner of backgrounds feel less stressed and distracted. The problem is that minimalism in its current mainstream format is more than just these things – it’s an exclusive lifestyle reserved for those who we perceive to be successful, beautiful and glamorous enough to be commendable for choosing it. It’s unattainability, and secrecy, and black and white Chanel carrier bags. It says, loudly and clearly, that the difference between embarrassingly bare and beautifully effortless isn’t how carefully or interestingly a person can put an outfit together, but who it is that’s wearing it, which makes it precisely the kind of trend that we need to identify, question, and reject.