Considering Snapchat Filters as Digital Adornment
Each year during New York Fashion Week, clothes aren’t the only stars of the show; hair and makeup looks can be just as adventurous as the fashions on display. This past fall, models at the Desigual show trotted down the runway crowned with paper blooms and butterflies and stylized animal face-paint. From the doe to the bumblebee to the “oddly (and universally) flattering” dog snout, these designs weren’t inspired by an elite or rarified point of reference. Rather, they were drawn from a more quotidian source: Snapchat.
An unusual take on runway beauty, Desigual’s models wore physical manifestations of the app’s wildly popular, if sometimes controversial, face filters. Snapchat launched these filters, which they officially call Lenses, in September 2015, and they were quick to catch on. When looking into a smartphone’s front-facing camera, a Snapchat user can augment their “selfie” photo with a whimsical design. Filters modify the image within the camera’s frame by beautifying or distorting the face, applying animal-like features, or digitally adorning the user in virtual accessories that follow their wearer’s movements. In a matter of seconds, a user can try on different designs before selecting one, capturing a selfie (in either photo or video format), and sending it to a friend. Each day, billions – yes, billions – of images are shared through Snapchat by the app’s 150 million users. With this sort of scale and usage, the act of dressing up in the mirror image of the smartphone is not merely frivolous fun; it has become a global phenomenon. But how can those of us who study style in its many manifestations approach this newly widespread practice? How does something restricted to the virtual world of social media relate to fashion?
Critics have fixated on the negative aspects of Snapchat filters just as they decry the fashion industry and media outlets that emphasize appearance, like fashion blogs. However, through both fashion and filters, people have the ability to experiment with optical illusions, bodily distortions, design, and identity formation while forging social connections. Moreover, the tools and concepts behind Snapchat filters have some potentially revolutionary implications for the field and future of fashion. This article presents a case in defense of considering filters to be modern-day forms of digital adornment. In doing so, it presents a framework for how we may begin to understand the connection between virtual filters and the physical realm of fashion.
Tailoring and temporality
Snapchat’s filters rely upon a facial detection tool that has been trained to recognize patterns of light and dark pixels as distinct areas of the face. The image within the camera’s frame is mapped out with a series of coordinates that identify these areas as eyes, lips, and other features. The filters are then aligned with these coordinates so that virtual eyeliner “sticks” onto a user’s eyelid and bunny ears stay in place as a user tilts his or her head. A video produced by Vox explains the process in detail, but any Snapchat user can easily appreciate the technology without necessarily understanding it. Under the shadow of the fast fashion industry, where clothing sizes are consistently unreliable and bespoke tailoring is unattainable for most, it is satisfying to see a perfect fit.
Indeed, despite operating at a faster pace than ever, the speed of the fashion industry is no match for Snapchat’s immediate image modification. However, the temporality of the fast fashion cycle is very much in step with today’s rapid digital communication methods. Encouraged by app and industry alike, individuals can easily adorn themselves with the very latest designs. Instant gratification satisfied, undesirable styles can be discarded without a second thought. As Julia Valle Noronha has noted here in the Fashion Studies Journal, retailers capitalize on the seasonality and perishability of fashion. They churn out new designs at a dizzying pace, lowering the value and cost of clothing. Meanwhile, the levels of waste and environmental damage resulting from this system are shocking.
Taking fashion’s seasons to the extreme, virtually enhanced selfies are intended to last mere seconds in the app before disappearing, and the app is frequently restocked with novel filter designs. However, these virtual transformations are free and leave a much smaller environmental footprint. As individuals spend more and more time living, working, and engaging within the digital realm, digital adornment may have a future beyond Snapchat. If people have embraced the move to “go paperless,” relying now on digital documents so as to not waste paper, could there be similar virtual vestimentary solutions to address the problems of fast fashion? It’s a provocative question, yes, but one with interesting and perhaps groundbreaking implications.
The social side of style
With fashion-loving friends gathered around the TV and a bowl of popcorn at the ready, it’s hard to go wrong with a classic makeover montage. Film characters strike silly poses in ridiculous dresses, huge hats, and zany accessories before falling in love with one perfect ensemble. For on-screen characters and viewers, too, this game of “trying on” is not just fashionable fun, it’s also a highly social activity. Besides film, the proliferation of Youtube “haul” videos and Instagram outfit-of-the-day (#ootd) posts is evidence of the popular desire to seek sartorial feedback and savor the compliments. In everyday conversation, too, “What are you going to wear?” is a question that never grows old – from the first day of school to a big wedding or reunion, and all the parties, interviews, and vacations in between, people find social satisfaction in trying on clothes and experimenting with outfits under the trusty gaze of their friends.
It is only natural, then, that people would seek that same sense of connection through the virtual “trying on” that Snapchat enables. Rather than letting the use of mobile devices plunge individual owners into separate worlds, friends gather together in the front-facing camera to swap faces, bat digitally elongated eyelashes, and synchronously stick out puppy dog tongues. Scrolling through the selection of Snapchat filters, users will often see icons showing two faces per filter instead of one, with the interface prompting them to “try it with a friend.” Even if both parties are on the snapping end, with no intended receivers, social interactions are encouraged.
Augmenting reality through makeup
Many in the tech field have speculated that Snapchat’s features will be the gateway to virtual or augmented reality. But those familiar with fashion history know that humans have long augmented their appearances, using silhouette-sculpting foundational garments and creating optical illusions with highlight and shadow. Arguably the most buzzed-about trick today is the practice of contouring the face with makeup. With a tradition in the worlds of stage and screen, contouring has been used by actors for centuries. But nowadays, when anyone, anywhere has the ability to take someone’s photo, manipulate it, and share with an enormous audience, sculpting the face with makeup gives some sense of security back to those who wish to retain control over their image. Celebrities are often caught off guard on camera, but their contoured cheekbones and airbrushed faces (often painted quite literally with airbrush makeup) reveal that they have prepared to be “papped.”
Around 2012, “contouring” hit the mainstream beauty lexicon after Kim Kardashian posted photos to social media revealing how her makeup artist used strategically-placed triangles of taupe and swaths of white to sculpt her face. From then on, beauty blogs, brands, and media outlets became steeped in these ideas, rolling out new “contouring kit” products and tutorials. Consumers, whether or not they practice these techniques, have become more comfortable with the idea of strategically, oftentimes dramatically, augmenting one’s appearance with makeup. The fact that Snapchat’s selfie lenses were rolled out in 2015, in the wake of this watershed celebrity style moment, then, appears to be quite strategic. If users were painting their faces while sending selfies and playing with photo-editing features, it seems only logical to combine both approaches (facial modification plus filter) into one tool.
“Pretty” filters, ugly implications
The majority of Snapchat’s filters are intended to enhance beauty. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with adding layers of virtual makeup, some of the app’s efforts seem misguided and have had detrimental effects. By thinning out the face, slimming and shortening the nose, enlarging the eyes, plumping the lips, and smoothing out the skin, the app seizes a user’s features and morphs them into compliance with a stereotypical form of beauty. One filter commonly referred to as the “pretty” filter contains none of the usual dress-up components but presents a beautified image, free of “flaws.” Although animal-themed designs would be adorable on their own, users are unable to try on koala or kitten ears without seeing their features shrink to dainty, stereotypically feminine proportions. Filters meant to represent notable women like Frida Kahlo and Marie Curie were designed with uncharacteristic amounts of makeup, frustrating users with their archaic gender implications. Even worse, the app has gone under fire for its skin-lightening effects. Seeing their complexion unnaturally and undesirably whitened, users have called the effects disturbing and the intention oppressive.
Two Buzzfeed reporters noted their mixed feelings about the “pretty” filter, voicing the concerns of many. According to Ellie Bate, “The weird thing about this [filter] is that it slims down my nose so significantly that it looks completely unnatural, and magnifies my eyes even more than they already are by my glasses. I've always disliked my kind of big nose and kind of small eyes, so I can't decide whether I'm happy that Snapchat has given me the opportunity to see myself the way I've always wanted, or mad that they have reassured me that my insecurities are completely legitimate.” Tolani Shoneye had a similar response: “So the pretty filter makes me look more beautiful by clearing my skin (good looking out, Snapchat) and making my face thiner [sic] – something I didn't think I wanted until now. And it also contours both the bridge of my nose and nostrils. I LIKE MY NOSE, Snapchat! [...] But hey, it's just Snapchat – it's just a bit of fun, right?”
On the contrary, Snapchat filters are not just play. As with trying on new clothes, trying on new filters lets users test out different identities. According to fashion media scholar Agnès Rocamora, “The screen/mirror shows an idealized self the viewer can identify with and therefore appropriate to work on her [or his] own identity construction.” Users can see how they would look as rockstars and aliens, yes, but they can also experience life without those irksome flaws, those few extra pounds, and that natural complexion. The fashion media is continually criticized for its presentation of unattainable and whitewashed beauty ideals. Even more dramatic than comparing oneself to these ideals, Snapchat users can actually try them on and see themselves in a “perfected” state. As the Buzzfeed reporters indicated, this experience prompts people to question their appearance and reconsider their insecurities.
An aesthetic escape
But not all of Snapchat’s lenses are meant to be beautifying. Under the shadow of normative beauty ideals, filters that shrink and distort the face to unrecognizable and largely unattractive proportions provide an alternative. Users can watch in amazement as their noses shrink down to little dots above mouths as wide as their shoulders, as they vomit rainbows with bloodshot eyes, or as their exaggerated features appear on strangely dressed, dancing figures. There is even a face swap feature which allows users to swap faces with friends or photos – the results range from amusing to downright unnerving. But, like gazing into a funhouse mirror, applying a bizarre selfie filter satisfies the search for novelty and enables curious users to enter the same realm of escape and fantasy that personal style allows.
As Agnès Rocamora has observed, the styles seen on women’s fashion blogs are “often removed from a traditional feminine ideal,” and “bloggers often break with sartorial rules that can be perceived as part of the apparatus of submission of women to men.” Take, for instance, The Man Repeller, a popular online outlet known for its refreshing, non-traditional take on female fashion and culture. Despite the provocative title, “‘Man repelling’ has never actually been about repelling men in the literal sense, but [it is about] asserting your sense of self in your interactions with fashion everyday.” This is but one example of how style and self-expression can go staunchly against the grain; it is significant that many of Snapchat’s filters similarly encourage users to break the rules. Virtual filters give users the opportunity to conform to and defy beauty and gender norms.
The social media app and the “silly” selfies created within its interface are easy to dismiss. But Snapchat filters, which operate as a new form of fashionable adornment in the digital era, deserve a closer examination. Virtual filters satisfy many of the same cravings as tangible fashion items do, enabling users to adorn and express themselves. Snapchat users can achieve instant beautification with minimal effort as they strive to keep up with the incessant photo-snapping and digital connectivity of the present day. Like fast fashion, filters instantly quench the thirst for novelty and satisfy curiosity about trying something new, be it beautiful or strange.
Snapchat and its user base face many of the same critiques that fashion and its followers experience. In her study of fashion blogs, Rocamora noted that those before her tended to privilege blogs with topics "that, in the hierarchy of social and cultural practices, are often perceived as ‘noble’ [such as politics or technology], in contrast with other fields, such as fashion, [which are] seen as trivial and unworthy of academic inquiry.” Snapchat, too, because of its prominent emphasis on self-adornment, is routinely brushed off as being shallow and frivolous or promoting self-indulgence and vanity. More troubling is that Snapchat’s filters promote non-inclusive and unattainable beauty ideals, validating users’ insecurities and chipping away at their positive self-image.
While some critics find it easy to decry millions of young people (and mainly young women and girls) for being buried in their phones and disconnected from the “real” world, a platform like Snapchat, with its weird and wonderful virtual world, has the potential to bring people together and open the doors to creativity. Face-morphing filters encourage imaginative expression, and, if nothing else, they allow users to embody their inner garden pixies or spirit animals for a few moments. After the immediate novelty wears off, users may find themselves behaving differently under different lenses. Seeing one’s own reflection staring back in a totally new way can stir an unexpected feeling or prompt a moment of reflection. Seeing familiar faces conform to problematic beauty ideals can pave the way for critical analyses and thoughtful conversations. For all their surface-level fantasy and fun, virtual filters cause users to confront the powers of self-fashioning and the influence of appearance, and may one day prove revolutionary for the trillion-dollar global fashion industry.
 Cady Lang, “This Fashion Show Featured Snapchat Filter-Inspired Makeup on the Runway,” Time, September 9, 2016, http://time.com/4486189/desigual-snapchat-makeup-nyfw/ and Desigual, “#Snapchat filters as a beauty trend for #NYFWSS17,” Instagram, September 10, 2016, https://www.instagram.com/p/BKLt2t0AgzX/.
 “A Whole New Way to See Yourself(ie),” Snap Inc., September 15, 2015, https://www.snap.com/en-US/news/.
 Face-altering filters on Snapchat became so popular that two social media mammoths vying for Snapchat’s market share, Facebook Messenger and Instagram (which was acquired by Facebook in 2012), have since developed copycat features. See, for example, Nick Statt, “Facebook Clones Snapchat's Face Filters and Ephemeral Photo Messages,” The Verge, October 28, 2016, https://www.theverge.com/2016/10/28/13446254/facebook-camera-update-test-snapchat-clone-msqrd and Josh Constine, “Instagram Launches Selfie Features, Copying the Last Big Snapchat Feature,” Tech Crunch, May 16, 2017, https://techcrunch.com/2017/05/16/instagram-face-filters/.
 Biz Carson, “Here’s Everything You Need to Know About How Many People are using Snapchat,” Business Insider, February 2, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/how-many-people-use-snapchat-user-numbers-2017-2.
 Joss Fong and Dion Lee, “How Snapchat Filters Work,” Vox video, 5:07, June 28, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pc2aJxnmzh0.
 Julia Valle Noranha, “On Fruit Stalls and Shopping Malls,” The Fashion Studies Journal, May 6, 2017, http://www.fashionstudiesjournal.org/commentary/2017/5/6/on-fruit-stalls-and-shopping-malls.
 Of course, Snapchat is only accessible from a smartphone device and these generally cost hundreds of dollars. The app itself, however, is free to download and use.
 This theory was further reinforced by their May 2017 release of World Lenses for the rear-facing camera, which enable users to decorate not just their faces but their physical surroundings, too. See Darrell Etherington, “Snapchat Introduces World Lenses – Live Filters for Just About Anything,” Tech Crunch, April 18, 2017, https://techcrunch.com/2017/04/18/snapchat-introduces-world-lenses-live-filters-for-just-about-anything/.
 Beth Shapouri, “Kim Kardashian Tweeted Out Pictures of Her Makeup Contouring Trick In Progress! Come See the Magic!,” Glamour, September 5, 2012, http://www.glamour.com/story/kim-kardashian-tweeted-out-pic.
 The Frida Kahlo filter reportedly lightened users’ skin far past the shade Kahlo used in her self-portraits. On the other hand, filters that darken the skin color are also highly problematic. For instance, a Bob Marley filter was considered offensive as a virtual form of blackface. See Julia Carrie Wong, “Snapchat Raises Eyebrows With Women’s Day Filter That Lightens Frida Kahlo’s Skin,” The Guardian, March 8, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/mar/08/snapchat-international-womens-day-frida-kahlo-marie-curie.
 Rachael Krishna, “People Think These Snapchat Filters Are Making Their Faces Look Whiter,” Buzzfeed, May 16, 2016, https://www.buzzfeed.com/krishrach/people-think-snapchats-beauty-filters-are-making-them-look-w?utm_term=.dezVPDRZDj#.pgB5GlpLl3.
 Agnès Rocamora, “Personal Fashion Blogs: Screens and Mirrors in Digital Self-portraits,” Fashion Theory 15, no. 4 (2011): 417.
 Rocamora, “Personal Fashion Blogs,” 420.
 BK, “What is Man Repeller?,” Man Repeller, http://www.manrepeller.com/what-is-man-repeller.
 Rocamora, “Personal Fashion Blogs,” 409.