Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fashion Piece

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2009)

For the last ten years at least, except when professional requirements or extremes of heat demand otherwise, I’ve almost invariably worn the same thing: a long-sleeved black T-shirt, jeans, and a black jacket. I feel comfortable in this outfit, and the repetition eliminates any possibility of my making a bad clothing purchase. People sometimes tease me a bit on the lack of variation, but the way I look isn’t particularly striking in a big city like this. It gets more attention when I go home to Wales though - my young cousin recently said I looked like Dr. Who. This literally isn’t true, but suggests that once you break out of the sweater/open-necked shirt paradigm, one eccentric’s pretty much the same as another.

The September Issue

I suppose that even by thinking consciously about what I wear, even if the nature of the thought never changes, I do in some sense apply a fashion consciousness to myself; it’s obvious enough that many men simply don’t. But I’ve never had any interest in fashion or style beyond that. A Wikipedia article cites the opinion that “fashion is a group of people bouncing ideas off of one another, like any other form of art,” and there’s no doubt those ideas sometimes coalesce into aesthetic greatness, aligned with major societal or other change: the swinging sixties revolution is one I often wish I’d experienced (for numerous reasons). But whatever “ideas” drive the industry now are surely incremental at best. The fashion documentary I best remember is Wim Wenders’ Notebook on Cities and Clothes from twenty years ago, which focused on the Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto: it caught the relentless pace of the business pretty well, and Wenders was on to something in his musing about the parallels between the then-new digital technology and Yamamoto’s work, but didn’t take it anywhere too challenging.

The new documentary The September Issue, a behind the scenes look at the workings of Vogue magazine (focusing on the September 2007 edition, the biggest in its history), doesn’t spend much time musing on what it’s all about: by its very existence, it assumes our buy-in. I liked the movie more than I thought I would, simply because it does a pretty good job at evoking the sense of a workplace - something not that common in documentaries (reality-show distortions aside). It may be Vogue, but it’s still just a few floors in a high-rise building, and it functions on repetition and gruntwork more than abstract glamour. As in many environments, you get the sense of endless meetings, usually involving more people than strictly necessary, most of whom change their minds on a dime based on the views of who’s in charge. Contrary to what one might expect from The Devil Wears Prada and suchlike, it doesn’t even seem that stylish – most of the female staff seem to wear just any old thing.


As most reviewers have pointed out, the film’s primary entertainment comes from the dynamic between legendary editor Anna Wintour – who seems to be focusing mainly on making it through the movie unscathed, and certainly succeeds – and senior creative director Grace Coddington, a former model, now a veteran who’s seen it all and still has the best ideas. Several people in the film, including Coddington, recount how Wintour, earlier than anyone else, saw how celebrity and fashion would cross-pollinate; she put actresses on the cover before her competitors thought of it. But surely this is mixed progress at best, pulling fashion further in the direction of sheer disposability. Near the end of the film, Wintour says “fashion’s not about looking back, it’s always about looking forward,” and it shows in her constant insistence on something new, on avoiding repetition, but beyond that there’s never a sense of what aesthetic principles she’s applying.

With more time for reflection, she’d surely amend that statement anyway, because even I can see how fashion consistently revisits and renews past ideas and trends (this was explicit in the Wenders film, which showed Yamamoto consistently scouring old photographs for inspiration). Coddington seems more aware of this, spawning most of the magazine’s more elaborately staged and posed and accessorized – and objectively beautiful – photo shoots. The September issue’s cover girl is actress Sienna Miller, who no one involved frankly seems that excited about, and whose Rome photo shoot appears to leave everyone underwhelmed. The smartly laconic Coddington keeps her distance there, while doggedly delivering most of the issue’s actual high points (despite Wintour persistently scrapping some of her best work). The women have been working together for decades, and seem to have their mutual territory pretty well staked out, but it’s not clear whether they’re even lukewarm friends.

The Point Of It All

At the end, this leaves you with considerable affection for the institution and its ways. As with all documentaries, you keep thinking of other things it might profitably have covered, but hey, gotta look forward, no point looking back. I enjoyed the glimpses of Wintour’s strategic get-together with a group of retailers, at which one of the group asks if she can’t help with them with their supply chain problems. Nonplussed by the question’s sheer practicality, she deflects it into an abstraction on designers spreading themselves too thin, ending with a cryptic “less is more.” It’s one of the few moments that speaks to the consumer, the great unknown in all this; it’s virtually apocryphal that no normal people buy anything you see in the fashion magazines, and why would they, when an actress will be pilloried for being seen twice in the same outfit? It’s all fluffy fun of course as long as one’s just taking shots at over-exposed actresses, but one has to question an industry whose basic operating principles are so in conflict with notions of conservation, sustainability and rectitude.

I know the images in Vogue in a sense provide an escape from everyday calculations, but the problem is there’s increasingly nothing that isn’t an escape – the news is trashier, people’s grasp on their own finances and entitlements is frothier, political discourse is increasingly disconnected. If fashion were really useful, it would provide a form of counterpoint to all of this, and I know there are individual designers who work more ethically and provocatively, but on the whole, the industry just seems like an airheaded cheerleader for everything that’s gone wrong. And for all her immense focus and staying power, Wintour’s surely been a contributor to this slow decline. Through my own approach to this of course, I figured out the new paradigm some time know, I might even throw my hat in the ring for her job when she finally moves on.

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