Images via Polyvore

Justice for Polyvore, the original virtual styling community

Now that Instagram and Pinterest are glorified shopping malls, the world is sorely missing a wholesome space for democratic fashion interaction.

by Lexi McMenamin
12 May 2021, 11:51am

Images via Polyvore

In August 2020, the New York Times Style section issued a post-mortem on the previous decade in the fashion industry, mapping out its various rises and falls: the codependency of brands and early 2010s bloggers; the advent of Instagram influencers; the way fashion’s seasons were tripping over each other — and the many, many brands thrown into disarray by the time the pandemic rolled around. In retrospect, it’s almost too easy to tick off the things the fashion industry desperately needed to move away from, from the needless global travel to unsustainable production expectations. But there was one thing said feature managed to conjure up happy memories of: the community of inspired online stylists that the now defunct website Polyvore pioneered.

Now, as we approach post-pandemic life with the fashion industry truly rattled, there’s increased emphasis on creativity and individuality, as well as sustainability — a concept that the industry has loved in theory, but failed tremendously at in practice. So what does the post-Covid digital fashion community even look like? Now that both Instagram and Pinterest are glorified shopping malls — forcing the expression of stylistic creativity through sponsored content and pushing fast fashion — why can't we have an online fashion community that celebrates creativity without the pressure to become an influencer? That was what made Polyvore so special. 

Launched in 2007, Polyvore was a "community-based e-commerce site" used to put together outfits in "sets" collaged together from across the internet — but it was used for much more than that. By some counts, Polyvore had 20 million users globally. “Polyvore was my thing,” fashion historian and archivist Tianni J. Graham of archivealive says. “I didn't grow up with a lot of money, and my taste always exceeded my wallet. I always knew that I wanted to be in fashion, but I couldn't always afford the stuff that I wanted. So Polyvore was a way for me to attain it digitally.”

Polyvore’s equalising potential went beyond solely economics too. “For the most part, you didn't see faces,” Tianni says. “You just saw images. You didn't see skin colour, you didn't see weight or anything, so it was just like: okay, anybody can do this. You might not be able to actually fit the clothes, but you have your imagination.”

“There was something inviting about the fact that Polyvore wasn't about purchasing, and you weren't directly being sold a product” – Samantha Haran

In April 2018, Polyvore was bought out from previous owner Yahoo by SSENSE, which maintains a zombified version of the Polyvore set editor, minus the community aspect of the site. One day, without warning, sets, accounts, and entire communities suddenly disappeared. Outcry from users immediately blasted across social media. A petition to fight the site's takedown gained at least 14,000 signatures (it's since been removed, lost to the sands of internet time, but it’s likely to have surpassed that figure). While there are other sites trying to replicate the experience, there will probably never be another Polyvore. Still, its spirit lives on. 

“I wouldn't use the word 'democratisation', but I do think there was something more inviting about the fact that, by nature, Polyvore wasn't about purchasing, and you weren't directly being sold a product,” Samantha Haran, an Australian fashion and culture writer who used the site says. “Instead of the now-common focus on purchasing products and establishing self-branding, Polyvore was more about exploring different products and adventuring into styling.” 

“That is something that we try to achieve to this day: to assert that you don't have to be buying fashion to be part of the conversation,” Iolo Lewis Edwards says. He’s the director of High Fashion Talk, a cross-platform space designed to foster online fashion community. “So many of the people coming up now through Instagram, they're so attached to the idea that buying fashion is the main way of engaging with it… But what I'm trying to push is that people talk about fashion, and don't necessarily buy it or wear it — it’s just a talking point. It's a cultural study.”

The best Polyvore replacement at this point might just be the hellsite that is Twitter — especially High Fashion Twitter. “There are others that I’m fond of like Urstyle, but for me the best platform for influencing your creativity is Twitter, hands-down, and more specifically, ‘High Fashion Twitter’,” advertising and design student Nathan says. “There’s just so much knowledge and so many ideas to gain just by scrolling through your timeline, if you’re on that part of the platform… it can instantly spark concepts and provide information that you can use in order to conceive your own inspired works, without you spending a cent.”

Samantha notes that Twitter is her hope, too. “It is very much to do with the ease of interaction, and the fact that no one is able to monetise their content as an influencer, which is a culture that seems to have permeated all of Instagram and even newer spaces such as TikTok,” she points out. “In my time on Twitter over the past three years, I've seen a lot of people styling outfits with individual items, similar to the 'Polyvore' style,” naming accounts like @MODAAMUSE and @infurgadiso. Twitter has also been a site for Samantha’s own creative output; she recently wrote for PAPER about High Fashion Twitter’s Met Gala, an online event she helped organise for its second year.

“If Instagram and Pinterest were supposed to be Polyvore’s legacy, the lack of community-building made that impossible.”

Polyvore’s emphasis on visual layouts had an obvious influence on Pinterest and Instagram — both which eventually dethroned it as fashion curation platforms — but maintained a focus on anonymity and site culture of its own. It’s part of why fandom was able to thrive there alongside more serious fashion communities; while individual profiles and accounts could develop followings on the platform, there was less of a cult of personality. While people trafficked in “likes” just as much as anywhere else, they largely made their sets as an expression of creativity without being precious about it. If Instagram and Pinterest were supposed to be Polyvore’s legacy, the lack of community-building made that impossible. 

“Something I really don’t like about Instagram is how much it is at odds with the idea of community,” says Samantha. “It's very individualistic, and the intention of creators on there is to create a brand for themselves, and there isn't necessarily the capacity to hold discussions or interact horizontally.” Tianni agrees, and says the level of perfection expected on Instagram further perpetuates the same exclusivity that online fashion communities are working against.

It’s part of why Iolo appreciates the role Clubhouse, the voice-based conversation app, is playing for those interested in fashion. “How we treat each other as human beings in real life is maintained on the app, so you very rarely have discussions that get into the same level of fury and vitriol as those on Twitter would,” he says. “They generally also have a moderator in every room who is there to keep things positive, and if not positive, at least productive.” Iolo is more interested in how fashion communities can connect over a multiplicity of platforms, rather than using a one-stop-shop like Polyvore was. “Russia is totally into Telegram right now,” he points out. “And of course, China and most of Asia have got WeChat.”

Clothing is a focal part of how we visualise ourselves in relation to the world, and vice versa (insert the Devil Wears Prada “cerulean vs. cornflower blue” monologue here). This is a key part of fashion that an industry focused on elitism cannot support. As archivist Tianni points out, fashion’s further accessibility — something Polyvore represented — is a historical inevitability. “Fashion has been slowly and gradually democratising itself for decades,” she says, gesturing to the 1960s and 70s as key decades in that process. “From the very beginning, royalty always dictated what style was, and then the establishment started to dictate that. Today, the establishment doesn't have as strong of an influence as they did before, and fashion has become commodified and commercial. Consumers are getting bored. We're ready for something new, something fresh.” Something like Polyvore 2.0, perhaps?

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