Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Dressing for Success, But on Whose Terms?

In 1992 D.A.Pennebaker was granted unprecedented access to the strategy sessions of the Clinton campaign led by communications director George Stephanopoulos and lead strategist James Carville. From that came The War Room, a timely, important documentary, capturing a historical moment when media would be the centerpiece of a campaign strategy, rather than the issues themselves. The producer of the film was R.J. Cutler.

Flash forward to 2007. Cutler himself now gains unprecedented access to . . . the hallways of Vogue to look at how Anna Wintour bullies her staff into producing the phone-book sized September issue. Hmm. Does this fall from the important to the frivolous say something about Cutler, or does a country get the docs that it deserves?

I saw September Issue at a screening that included many of the junior staff of the magazine. They screeched in knowing delight at the bon mots of the Vogue players—Grace Coddington, Andre Leon Talley, and the queen herself.

The film is slick and diverting, without revealing much about Wintour. Cutler edited it to have an odd opening gambit: Anna on camera saying that “people” mock fashion because they are afraid of it. I don’t know too many people who bother mocking fashion---indifference is the more likely reaction. But this anecdote establishes Anna as the kid in school who was most afraid of being laughed at. And isn’t it those childhood fears that are at the root of many power-mad bosses?

Cutler’s portrait of Wintour is not unflattering; it couldn’t be, since she certainly signed-off on the final cut, but there are unflattering moments. For instance, Anna’s 60-year old worked-on skin looks amazing, until the camera sits on her hands and neck in the car, the age indicators that peels and knives can’t repair.

The film is most interesting in presenting the creative director Grace Coddington. The Welsh one-time model started at Vogue on the very same day as Anna. Grace has a lot of power at the magazine, but Anna can overturn anything she says or does, and she does. An entire photo shoot of twenties styles, for example, which Grace directed and which was exquisite, Anna throws out. That’s a lot of money blown on a simple power play.

One thing that struck me about Cutler’s film is how joyless this “fabulous” world of Vogue is. Grace comes the closest to seeming to enjoy the artistry of her creations, but then it’s slashed by Wintour. Reality is a bitch.

Vogue September 2009
This film piqued my curiosity about the current Vogue enough to send me to the magazine stand for the first time in 20 years. The September issue hasn’t changed discernibly in all that time (except for the celebrities over models on the cover). The ads go on for 240 pages before the articles begin. Many of the ads are artful and beguiling, selling sensibility and lifestyle more than specific items of clothing. Other ads feature the ghouls, that strange place that fashion goes when it rejects all beauty norms and goes for bizarre hair and frightening maquillage.

There are still the extreme thin bodies. And that is still dangerous to girls, women of all ages.

Is this world of high fashion— that is reality for a few and a fantasy for many—noxious? Does it seduce women into dangerous ideas of self image, and toward financial ruin trying to buy this year’s $1,000 purse? The fictional account of Anna’s world spoke more directly to this theme. The Devil Wears Prada offers more of a look at the effect of the billion dollar a year fashion industry on individuals than the documentary does.

That’s a lot of money, a lot of jobs. And there’s the silver lining, as the 18th century philosopher/economist Mandeville captured in his poem, The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Publick Benefits:

“whilst Luxury
Employ’d a Million of the Poor,
And odious Pride a Million more.
Envy itself, and Vanity
Were Minister of Industry;
Their darling Folly, Fickleness
In Diet, Furnityre, and Dress
That strange ridic’lous Vice, was made
The very Wheel, that turn’d the Trade.”

(Everything I ever learned worth knowing I learned from Paul Fussell.)

When In Doubt, Wear Red
Wise words from Bill Blass. At its best, Vogue inspires personal style without inflicting hardship or pain. And that’s what’s important to more people, personal style, not impersonal fashion.

For a sartorial fix these days I go to The Sartorialist, a great blog by Scott Schuman. He photographs actual people on the streets of New York or Milan or Paris wearing smart, exquisite, inspired outfits. It’s really not a question of money, although sometimes an accessory is from the high end stratosphere. Mostly it’s just excellent, imaginative combinations of textures, colors, patterns, and good grooming. When I see these ensembles, it makes me want to try, just a little harder, the next time I get dressed.