Scholars such as Roy Rosenzweig and Dan Cohen have long been pointing to the ephemeral nature of internet content and the importance of collecting history online. Rapidly changing technology, limited budgets, and priorities make internet preservation uncertain. Future historians looking back on our times might be missing much of the robust and dynamic activity that occurs on the web. Keeping this threat in mind, what website would I wish to save for posterity? J.Crew.com
Before you click away in disgust, hear me out. There is more to J.Crew.com than overpriced t-shirts (although, I do own a fair amount of those. And overpriced dresses, blazers, jewelry, etc.). The various pages, fashion spreads, and price-points on J.Crew.com reveal more than what is “in” this season; the website reflects and constructs expectations about gender, race, class, and consumerism.
Perhaps it is easiest to make the case for the importance of J.Crew’s fashion by comparing it to a historical example. The Bloomingdale’s Illustrated 1886 Catalog is a window to the world of the Victorian era consumer. Geared primarily towards the female consumer, the catalog offers a wide variety of goods, including corsets, bustles, parasols and other items that have fallen out of fashion in the 21st century.
Yet, just as things have changed, many things have stayed the same. Both Bloomingdale’s in 1886 and J.Crew in 2014 sell maternity wear and wedding gowns, reflecting the societal norm of a woman as a wife and mother and the importance of domesticity.
The fashion spreads also share certain similarities. The illustrations in the Bloomingdale’s catalog and the models on the J.Crew.com are often posed together; whether socializing, bathing, or attending a wedding, the women are dressed appropriately and impeccably.
Although separated by over a century, Bloomingdale’s and J.Crew are selling the same thing: a vision of the ideal woman.
Of course, that ideal has changed over the years. While the Bloomingdale’s Illustrated 1886 Catalog sold day-suits for paying calls, J.Crew has a section of the website focused on professional wear. And while the ideal woman sketched in the 1886 catalog was clearly upper-class and white, the J.Crew website has added some (but not enough!) racial diversity to its cast of models.
Perhaps J.Crew’s most famous brand ambassador is First Lady Michelle Obama. Obama has worn J.Crew at numerous public functions, including appearances on talk shows, Presidential Inaugurations and even a spread in Vogue. All of these occasions have been documented on the J.Crew site. As the brand tries to use the First Lady to attract aspirational consumers, the First Lady arguably uses the brand to sell herself as a typical American woman.
Hopefully, I have made a strong case for the historical importance of J.Crew.com. Yet, why do I think that J. Crew is even in need of preservation? J.Crew is a profitable company with its own personal archives. But should a business really be trusted to preserve its full history, the good with the bad? And while J.Crew no doubt archives its designs, fabric samples, and print catalogs, the company must struggle with digital archiving like the rest of the world. How does one archive a dynamic website?
The Internet Archive has saved the J.Crew website 1,208 times between December 19, 1996 and February 9, 2014. Yet what it is preserving is a static image of a website, without interactives or even active hyperlinks. Interactive features on the site such as “Looks We Love” are lost.
In addition, these archives do not account for the robust social media presence that J.Crew maintains on sites such as Pinterest and Tumblr. Or the vibrant community of online users that create their own blogs such as J. Crew Aficionada (check out her long blog roll call!) Users comment on these sites, often praising J.Crew, but just as often questioning their styling, their marketing tactics (“Dude. Settle down with the whole personal stylist spiel on every single pin. We know what to do if we like what we see.”), or if they would really wear these fashions.
Whether they accept or challenge J.Crew’s vision of the ideal, women are able to add their voices to fashion publishing in ways that were not possible in 1886.