Fashion plays an important role in a new category of Internet sites that have come into being during the first decade of the twenty-first century—virtual worlds or immersive environments. In these environments, visitors or residents have themselves populated, built, and used these sites that were essentially empty in the beginning. Communities have been established and flourish in these virtual worlds. Here, visitors spend an increasing amount of time, developing and engaging in economic, social, cultural, and legal relationships. It is suggested that unique self-expression is equally important in the physical (real) world and in the virtual (artificial) world.
Cornell University professor Robert Bloomfield has defined virtual worlds as “computer-mediated environment[s] that simulate … real-world physics with sufficient fidelity, and in which one or more human participants can control one or more actors.” Here, the term participant is used “to describe the human who logs on to the world.” The term actor “is used to refer to what is often called the participant’s ‘character’ or ‘avatar’”; the term “‘character’ suggests a role-playing mentality that may not be present, and ‘avatar’ technically refers to the visual representation of the actor in the game, not the actor itself.”
Immersive environments refers to the creation of virtual spaces. They can provide experiences for the senses and opportunities for activities and learning. Immersive environments can include games, virtual reality, or other simulations that usually surround the user in a natural way such as a room with large screens or a computer screen housing a virtual environment where the user is “inside” of, interacting with, their environment. An immersive environment can also be a virtual world. In virtual worlds, users interact as avatars; not all immersive environments require avatars, but virtual worlds do. The first virtual worlds started out not as immersive environments but as chat rooms in the early 1970s that helped build communities of people. Historian and author Bruce Damer gives a short chronology of virtual worlds and a larger presentation, both available on his Web site, Virtual Worlds Timeline (http://www.vwtimeline.org). Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, published in 1992, helped create a vision of virtual worlds. Beginning in 2000, worlds like The Sims, World of Warcraft, There, and Second Life started to appear. In these worlds, users interact as avatars through voice or text and can design much of their environment themselves or by using objects that are already designed for them in new ways.
In visual, rather than text-based, virtual worlds, the term avatar is used to describe the embodiment of the user within the environment. Avatar has its roots in Hindu mythology, referring to the body inhabited by a god when it visits earth. Avatars can look like people, animals, robots, even a plate of flying spaghetti—pretty much any object people want to use to represent themselves in the virtual world. Depending on the functionality of the virtual world, choices of avatars and their customization might be more limited. Also, depending on the virtual world, avatars can communicate via gestures or animations such as waving, running, or dancing, text chat, and voice. Modifying one’s look as an avatar is popular among teens and adults in virtual worlds. Researchers Yasmin Kafai, Deborah A. Fields, and Melissa Cook, who have looked extensively at the primarily tween (8–14-year-olds) and teen virtual world Whyville.net, have pointed out in “Your Second Selves: Avatar Designs and Identity Play in a Teen Virtual World,” that “the notion of second selves is of particular relevance for teen players.” According to these authors, adolescence is recognized by many as a critical period for teens’ development of identity as they decide which groups they identify with, what kind of persons they wish to be within those groups, and what is required to be become those persons.
Sometimes, the menu selection tools for changing an avatar’s appearance limit what players can do. In Whyville.net for example, body parts have to be approved or are filtered for appropriateness before they can be sold, and the avatars are just faces and torsos. This is unlike Second Life, where there is no filtering process and content can be designed for the entire body of the avatar. Sometimes avatars are similar to a person’s real-life looks, personality, or mood, while at other times they might be as far as possible from the real-life persona. Individuals may also choose to have multiple avatars in the same virtual world or across different virtual worlds.
A brief overview of virtual worlds follows; worlds are listed in alphabetical order and were chosen because they all include elements of fashion design and creation as part of the user’s experience. In the twenty-first century, many virtual worlds fascinate researchers, educators, and businesspeople. Some online platforms focus on “visually arresting descriptions of Tolkien-like fantasy (World of Warcraft, Everquest),” while others focus on “galactic combat (Entropia, Eve Online),” according to Bloomfield in “Worlds for Study.” Still others focus on contemporary daily life (The Sims, Second Life, There). Second Life is currently among the most popular virtual worlds. Its primary focus is “social interaction and community” according to researcher Joey J. Lee and professor Christopher M. Hoadley. For this reason, and also because users create almost all of the content in Second Life and almost no structure is provided for participants’ experience, Second Life offers an excellent device for studying fashion in immersive environments.
Entropia Universe (http://www.entropiauniverse.com) is a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG). It was launched in 2003 by MindArk, founded by Jan Welter Timkrans and colleagues. There are more than 727,000 users, and membership is free, according to Entropia’s main page. The premise of Entropia Universe is that it takes place in a distant future and participants are colonists that develop the planet of Calypso. Users can purchase real-world art or clothing at stores such as Vexed Generation Clothing Ltd. in London for their avatars. Residents can also customize their clothing materials by changing the color and textures using an inworld tool called a Manufacturing Machine. Residents can sell their designs inworld at tailoring shops.
MTV Virtual Hills (http://www.vmtv.com/virtualhills.html) is a subset of MTV Virtual Worlds. Launched in 2006 by Makena Technologies, MTV Virtual Hills is the brainchild of Van Toffler, president of the MTV Networks Music. Designed for people ages fourteen and older living in the United States, MTV Virtual Hills is free to use. Users create an avatar, meet people, watch MTV videos with their friends in the virtual world, go shopping, and meet avatars represented by famous people. MTV Virtual Hills has introduced girls’ clothing lines from companies such as H&M or Lauren Conrad in 2007 so that avatars can wear the fashions. They also partnered with Ford Models and Elizabeth Arden in 2008 to launch a virtual supermodel contest. Avatars got tips from Ford Models and were given a virtual bottle of M by singer and songwriter Mariah Carey.
Second Life (http://www.secondlife.com) began in 2003 and had more than thirteen million users in 2008 according to the site’s statistics page. It was created by Philip Rosedale, the founder of the company Linden Lab. Second Life is a virtual world where users eighteen years of age and older can change their surroundings by building or modifying them themselves. User creation is a significant component of Second Life that distinguishes it from many other virtual worlds. Basic membership accounts are free, but a monthly membership fee is required for those who wish to purchase land. Individuals can have a “presence” in Second Life without purchasing land. However, institutions, organizations, or corporations need to purchase or rent land in order to establish an official presence in Second Life. Many people allow others to build on their land or rent out spaces to others to sell their creations. Individuals can build objects such as cars, clothes, and houses.
Second Life has the largest following of any virtual world thus far for fashion design and the most sophisticated tools. Many designers use programs such as Adobe Photoshop or GIMP (an open-source program) to design and then import fashion into Second Life for their avatars. Second Life is based on an economy called Linden dollars that have an exchange rate with U.S. dollars. Users have fashion shows, sell their designs, and earn real U.S. dollars. Teens (ages 13–17) use Teen Second Life (http://teen.secondlife.com) to design clothes, skins, hair, and jewelry as well. Asuka’s and Dernier Cri were two of the first places on the Teen Grid where one could purchase teen-made fashions; they remain among the most popular ones.
The Sims 2 (http://thesims2.ea.com/) was launched in 2004 and was the best-selling Windows computer game of that year. As of April 2008, one hundred million copies had been sold. It was published by Electronic Arts and was the brainchild of game designer Will Wright, who helped cofound Maxis, a game-development company. The Sims 2 is rated T for Teen by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, meaning it is appropriate for ages thirteen and older. Signing up is free, but players must purchase The Sims 2 in order to participate. Players engage in relationships and pursue goals such as having children or buying a car. Users can hold jobs, attend parties, and even experience death through old age or other means such as starvation or disease. Premade clothes are available inworld as well as tools for users to design their own fashions. In 2007, The Sims 2 held a fashion contest together with H&M in which the person who received the most votes for his or her creation won, and the winning outfit appeared in select H&M stores in real life.
Stardoll (http://www.stardoll.com) was started in 2003, and in 2008 it had more than ten million users. It is for participants aged nine to seventeen and is a virtual world mall for dressing up avatar dolls like celebrities. Real-world fashion labels introduce their fashion collections for the site’s users. Fashion designer Donna Karan opened a store in Stardoll in late 2007.
There (http://www.there.com) began in 2003 and was created by Will Harvey and Jeffrey Ventrella. There started off as a way for people to meet each other across the world; its creators wanted it to be more than just a computer game. Accounts are free but have a cost if users want extras such as the ability to voice chat or to create and sell items. Avatars use “Therebucks” to purchase items and pay rent. This currency is equivalent to U.S. dollars. There is designed for ages thirteen and older. In summer 2007 There held a contest that “enabled members with or without professional fashion or graphic design experience to express their creativity, using design tools provided on the site to create various garments and shoes, apply the colors of their choice, add accessories such as scarves, and develop original textures and patterns,” according to the Web site.
Whyville (http://www.whyville.net) launched in 1999 and was created by Numedeon, Inc., founded by James Bower; it currently has over three million users, according to Bower in an interview on WorldsInMotion.biz. Whyville uses “clams” as currency to purchase face parts, furniture, or even bricks for houses. Accounts are free and available for ages eight through adult. This is an educational virtual world where topics such as financial literacy, nutrition, and playacting all can be learned using inquiry-based learning activities. Whyville allows its residents to design face parts, jewelry, and clothes for their avatars’ torsos with a simple palette of colors and design tools available inworld. All items created are filtered for copyright violations and appropriateness.
Fashion in the physical (real) world is about unique self-expression. The same can be said for fashion in immersive environments. To understand the role of fashion in immersive environments, it is important to distinguish fashion from identity, embodiment, presence, appearance, style, and attachments. Encompassing both dress and other adornments, fashion is understood as a prevailing custom or style of dress, etiquette, socializing, and so on. In immersive environments, identity is both an achievement and a tool. In the real world, identity is understood as a condition or character reflecting who a person is or what a thing is; it includes the state or fact of remaining the same under varying aspects or conditions. In virtual worlds, however, multiple, shifting identities are possible. Immersive environments offer visitors and inhabitants multiple opportunities to explore issues of identity construction, discrimination, and cultural sensitivity. Lee and Hoadley have pointed out that inhabitants of these environments can create a brand-new second self, choosing among customizable clothing, facial and body features, accessories, and so on. Here, they can choose to be beautiful.
Within these environments, the relevance of user embodiments and copresence (the presence of multiple people in the virtual world) cannot be overstated. The issue of embodiment can be traced back to its origins in philosophy and psychology. User embodiment refers to providing users with appropriate body images so as to represent them to others and also to themselves. In virtual environments, embodiment has been shown to effect not only the sensation of physical presence but also the sensations of social presence and self-presence. Within immersive environments, the body is at once a fount of symbols and the instrument of experience.
Presence within virtual environments is as much about the state or fact of being present as it is about avatar appearance or bearing. Within immersive environments, particularly because everything inhabitants do is experienced through their avatar, outward look or appearance most assuredly counts. The denizens of these environments have the opportunity to develop their own signature by designing their avatars’ appearance. Second Life: The Official Guide indicates that a metaverse (an online world) “is a very fashion-oriented world, because literally everyone is a clothing—scratch that—a costume designer.”
Within Second Life, avatar appearance has been described as the sum of many parts, including avatar name, shape, skin, hair and eyes, attachments, and animations. Avatar appearance categories include accessories; armor; canes, staves, and wands; furry creatures; handbags, backpacks, and briefcases; hats, belts, and glasses; robots, monsters, and sci-fi bodies; jewelry and watches; masks; wings; skins and tattoos; makeup and nails; speed and flying assistance; animals and creatures; and animations.
The importance of avatar appearance becomes obvious the moment you enter Second Life: the arrival lot on Orientation Island is often packed with freshly born avatars whose appearance is being edited by their owners. Every resident begins Second Life as an attractive young male or female in jeans and T-shirt, and almost every resident immediately begins working to make their avatar their own.
Thus, the number-one priority of almost every new Second Life denizen is changing the avatar’s appearance. Choosing the avatar’s name is the first decision regarding one’s avatar. As of 2008, the options are limited—a last name must be chosen from those available at the time. Names do not appear in isolation; they are viewed in combination with one’s avatar. While Second Life inhabitants can change their avatar’s appearance as many times as they like, they cannot change their avatar’s name. The name they choose to set up an account is the account; the only way to reappear under a new name in Second Life is to open a new account. Additionally, the default gender choice for one’s primary avatar is the user’s real-life gender. With a few more clicks, however, it is possible to switch gender.
Besides avatar name and gender, additional beginning choices include avatar shape, skin, hair and eyes, attachments, and animations. Avatar shape includes all body parts and body features—body thickness, height, shape of head, eyes, nose, and so on. Within these areas, options, and sometimes complications, abound. Head-editing options in Second Life include, for example, head size, head stretch, head shape, egg head, head length, face shear, forehead angle, brow size, upper cheeks, lower cheeks, and cheekbones. Skin-editing options are more limited in Second Life but include, for example, skin color as well as face and body detail.
In Second Life, avatar attachments serve to enhance an avatar’s appearance and consist of Prims, or objects that can be joined to and detached from one’s avatar, at about thirty different points. Attachments include clothes, hair, hats, capes, and jewelry. Clothes and other attachments contribute to an avatar’s unique self-expression. Within Second Life, changing avatar appearance is all about choices, editing and saving combinations of options, and the same can be said about adding new outfits and individual clothing items—making selections, dragging items between folders, and saving items make it relatively easy to acquire a new wardrobe. Ready-made clothes can be altered; for example, the color or tint and texture of selected clothing items can be changed. Clothing items can also be designed from scratch. In addition, clothing can be created out of Prims. In Second Life, tattoos fall into the clothing category, according to the Official Guide: “They can be worn as clothing items that are fully transparent except for the area covered by the tattoo. They may also be created in an external application and imported into Second Life as textures.” In addition to clothes and tattoos, jewelry is another type of appearance-enhancing attachment. Jewelry, like other attachments, can take many forms. Finally, it is possible to enrich one’s virtual life using avatar animations and gestures. Avatar animations are understood as every move an avatar makes and gestures as animations with extra content. Animation choices run the gamut from simple to complex to custom. In Second Life, making an impression on others depends not only on what one looks like but also on what one does. Gestures serve to enhance an avatar’s memorability; common gestures, male and female gestures, and other gestures comprise the categories available.
Both the serious scholar and those interested in fashion as entertainment know that a wealth of information on fashion and dress resources exists on the Internet. The fashion industry and professional organizations have similarly seen the value of virtual worlds as an advertising and informational medium. Virtual worlds represent intriguing environments not only for researchers from multiple fields pursuing collaborative investigations but also for real-world businesses. Basic business and sociological phenomena occur in virtual worlds. Fashion advertising is part of the landscape in virtual worlds, especially Second Life. Indeed, the main and original newspaper in Second Life, the Metaverse Messenger, includes colorful advertisements for many different stores offering a variety of fashions. Real-world institutions, including fashion businesses, are already experiencing the effects of growth in the number of individuals participating in these virtual environments. Virtual world fashion weeks may one day rival those in New York, Paris, Milan, and London. Fashion designers, manufacturers, and fashion schools, including online classes for self-directed study, will soon, if they have not already, become staples of the virtual world experience. A Google search for “fashion ‘Second Life’” on 25 May 2008 yielded 1,260,000 results. A Google Scholar search on the same topic, conducted on the same day, yielded 3,510 results.
Second Style Magazine promotes the best of Second Life clothing, hair, skins, accessories, and more. It is available as a PDF download, inworld from the Second Life Headquarters (and all of the other Second Life kiosks), and on issuu.com. Launched in October 2007, The Second Style Fashion Network was designed to serve as a federation of Second Life fashion-focused Web sites and blogs. Member sites may specialize in hair, shoes, or skins. SexySecond, for example, specializes in clothing that is sensual and sexy as well as fashionable. All of the sites in the network are bound by the high standards of the flagship, Second Style.
Linden Life Styles is the unofficial Second Life shopping blog. The blog highlights fashion and attachments created for Second Life. Pictures and tutorials help readers understand how to create their own fashions.
Are there fashion challenges in Second Life? Modeling contests? Fashion crazes? Are new hairstyles posted in Second Life? Does new clubwear debut in Second Life? Hot new clubwear? Can one find art nouveau hairpins on Second Life? Do fashions come right off the red carpet and into Second Life? Are there limited editions on Second Life? Bargains? Are stylish avatars photographed and interviewed in Second Life? The answer to each of these questions is a resounding yes.
It is also instructive to see some ways that fashion design education and practice are incorporated into and make use of this online world. In April 2003, students from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and Interactive Arts at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, created a cyber-fashion-drama project where fashion designs were translated into 3-D space combined with artwork and a narrative mystery for participants to solve.
In December 2007, fashion designers including Dolce & Gabbana and Max Mara, technology companies including Linden Lab (the creators of Second Life) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as filmmaker Giacomo Faenza, met at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston to discuss a partnership between fashion and technology. A CNET News blog of 4 December 2007 described the differences and gaps in understanding between the representatives of fashion businesses and those knowledgeable about the technological world. Dennis Valle, director of media interaction at Dolce & Gabbana, acknowledged that “the move to digital is a big jump that will require teaching a whole industry a new vocabulary and explanation of context.”
In March 2007, Electronic Arts software company teamed up with three art and design schools—Parsons The New School for Design in New York, Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles—to produce competitions and exhibitions that will celebrate the art of The Sims. Fashion designs constitute one of the media that students will exhibit. In spring 2007, Buffalo State College held a course for fashion-design students called the Virtual Fashion Project (http://tinyurl.com/39qhqy). Students worked in Second Life to design garments for their avatar, learned how to sell them, and developed a runway presentation using animations and poses as a final product. Students used two computer programs, Virtual Fashion Pro and later Poser, for their designs and animations. In spring 2007, student Lauren Conrad, attending the Fashion Institute of Design in Los Angeles, developed a fashion line that debuted in the virtual world of MTV Virtual Hills. In December 2007, Monroe Community College and Finger Lakes Community College held a one-day conference in Second Life for more than thirty State University of New York (SUNY) institutions about using virtual worlds in college education. Information about Buffalo State’s Second Life fashion-design program and a portal to the students’ work were made available on SUNY’s island space.
To gain some understanding of the importance of fashion in the virtual world, it is useful to examine some examples of how and where fashion is addressed in that world. Without a doubt, global is an apt adjective to describe the fashion industry at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The growth and dominance of large multinational apparel brands and retailers characterize this industry. It is shaped by professionals who are globally oriented and innovative—professionals who have both apparel product design and consumer behavior expertise along with an understanding of social responsibility and sustainability and strong communication skills.
An in-depth study of the evolution of the fashion industry from its conception to the present would naturally include diverse areas of emphasis, such as manufacturing and production, design, retail, and marketing. This study would also include an examination of each segment through the political, economic, aesthetic, technological, social, and cultural factors that influenced the industry. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, such an in-depth study will also investigate fashion in virtual worlds. Indeed, “global” may no longer be such an apt descriptor of the industry—it may be just the beginning of the story.
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