It's OK for intellectual feminists to like fashion

Blog title from Hadley Freeman's book The Meaning of Sunglasses : "Prada styles itself as the label it's OK for intellectual feminists to like".

The author is a bilingual fashion editor, writer and translator with a serious blog, cinema and magazine habit.

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Email: fashionmemex(at)gmail.com

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The duchess of Cambridge’s difficult first trimester has provided a welcome change to the usual celebrity pregnancy discourse and has highlighted hyperemesis gravidarum, a little-known debilitating illness.

We have gotten used to magazines focusing on pregnancy glow, to actresses explaining how being pregnant was the best time of their lives and to models dispensing tips on bouncing back to their pre-pregnancy body, putting unnecessary pressure on expectant mothers who don’t have household staff, don’t have personal trainers and can wonder why their pregnancy is different from what is presented as the norm. 

Rushed to the hospital on Monday for hyperemesis gravidarum, an illness most people had never heard of until then, the duchess of Cambridge reminded everyone pregnancy isn’t always picture perfect and can be dangerous. Medicine has taken the livelihood risk out of expecting in most of the Western hemisphere but it hasn’t always been the case, and still isn’t in too many countries.

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According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, 350 000 women died from pregnancy-related conditions in 2008. In 2010, the UK had a maternal mortality ratio, defined by CIA - The World Factbook as “the annual number of female deaths per 100,000 live births from any cause related to or aggravated by pregnancy or its management”, of 12, nearly 100 times less than Chad or Somalia.

Hyperemesis gravidarum is one pregnancy-related illness which can result in death. Contemporary stats on the topic are hard to find but in the 1930s, hyperemesis gravidarum is thought to have caused 159 deaths per million births, a number which dropped to 3 deaths per million births in the 1950s (1) in the United Kingdom.

Nowadays, the cost of hyperemesis gravidarum has become economic rather than demographic. The illness can decrease job efficiency and force women to take sick days which, considering many country and company policies towards pregnancy isn’t ideal. It also impacts relationships and heightens the risk of prenatal depression, according to the HER Foundation, an American “grassroots network of hyperemesis gravidarum (HG) survivors”.

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In other words, it sucks. Those difficulties are likely not improved by the many people thinking women suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum should just get a grip, a feeling echoed in too many op-eds, tweets and other benevolent online comments on the duchess this week.

The royals are at their strongest highlighting causes society doesn’t care about yet: prince Charles and organic food, princess Diana and HIV/AIDS patients in the 1980s… This is just what the duchess of Cambridge unwillingly did this week, giving in the process a voice to an unglamourous cause and force-educating the public on the topic. Nearly every media outlet has published heartfelt and at times horrific accounts of hyperemesis gravidarum by women and their partners alongside explanation of the illness. I wouldn’t be surprised if the duchess was asked to become patron of a UK association highlighting the risks inherent to pregnancy. 

Since arriving on the public scene nearly ten years ago, Catherine has been nothing but dutiful. Her pregnancy isn’t just producing a new heir for the monarchy, it is highlighting a condition thousands of women suffer from the world round, which is exactly what she is meant to do as wife of the future king.

All photos from Defence Images, the Ministry of Defence brilliant Flickr account

(1) numbers from Misc.medscape.com, retrieved 06 December 2012.

Posted at 5:26pm and tagged with: Royal Family, health, pregnancy, magazine writing,.

When, in February 2011, American Vogue came under fire for its laudatory portrayal of Asma al-Assad, first lady of Syria, by Joan Juliet Buck, the magazine was reproducing a glossy tradition of obsessing over the Westernised wives of Middle Eastern and Persian dictators.

Reading Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs, his account of the fall of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran, I was reminded of how I first became aware of the dynasty’s existence: through a 1998 coffee-table book on legendary princesses, amongst which was the Shah’s third wife, Farah Pahlavi.

That book by French journalist Henry-Jean Servat, like most features on Iranian imperial life you could read in magazines such as Paris Match in the 1970s, couldn’t have been further from Kapuscinski’s account of fear, terror and torture.

Much like Buck's profile of al-Assad, it was all about fairy tale weddings and designer dresses, about a simple love story between a man and a woman and how good they were to their people and at modernising the country, about charity work and Western-educated women.

Western education is a key part of many dictators’ wives narrative, including for al-Assad and Pahlavi, who respectively studied in London and Paris. If they like our clothes and were educated in our universities, how can they not embrace our values and bring them back home? There is an underlying arrogance to these articles not dissimilar from the European empires determination to assimilate the world to their values over six centuries.

The Pahlavis might not have hired an American PR company to promote them in the West, but their oil money did the trick. Kapuscinski explains the frenzy governments got into the second they realised how much they could make of the Shah’s petrodollars. This focus on selling contracts to Iran might have been why foreign magazines chose to highlight the glossy, even though the state’s abuse of human right was already documented.

In her 2009 Sundance documentary The Queen and I, Nahid Persson Sarvestani touches upon the difficulty of remaining objective about her subject, something many biographers apparently struggle with. Sarvestani grew up in an impoverished Iranian family and, as part of a Communist group, took to the streets in 1979. Both her brothers were murdered by the Khomeini regime shortly after. Yet she waits until the last minute to ask Pahlavi about her husband’s regime abuse of human rights.

She acknowledges two reasons for this: a fear of her access to the Queen being cut short and her growing fondness for the Shahbanou.

When Sarvestani finally asks Pahlavi about human right abuses, the answer is a very nuanced acknowledgement

I’m not claiming that Iran was a democracy like in Europe. You have to take the conditions of the time into consideration. That was the period of the Soviet Union. It was the Cold War and it was the wish of the Soviet Union to make Iran communist and to have access to the Persian Gulf. So for the security of the country we needed a secret service. They did things that were wrong in comparison to the rest of the civilised world. If Savak was so powerful, how come they couldn’t identify the mullahs? All the leaders opposing the Shah in Iran and abroad are alive and well.

Knowing how much the wife of a tyrant is involved in his dealings can be difficult. Some, like Leila Trabelsi in Tunisia, are integral to their husbands’ reign of terror. Others, like al-Assad and Pahlavi, are seen as little more than arm candy focusing on charity and cultural work. How much can you ignore of what is going on in your own country and of what your spouse is doing? At what point does willing or self-imposed ignorance become tacit assent?


Posted at 5:32am and tagged with: magazine writing, Vogue, politics,.

Apparently, in any actress’ career, there are three key moments: award nominations, becoming the face of a brand and posing for the British ELLE cover. Or so ELLE says in its February issue:

Thirty seven industry award nominations. Pulling power of £1.3 billion at the box office. Two campaigns for Marc Jacobs. And now the cover of British ELLE. All at the tender age of 17.

Never mind Dakota Fanning has also been on the cover of publications as prestigious as V, W, Dazed & Confused, Marie Claire, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan on both sides of the Atlantic.

Being on a magazine cover isn’t an achievement in itself. Being on a magazine cover isn’t either a sign of how good an actress is - Meryl Streep would have been in Vogue much earlier otherwise - but rather of how popular and “hot” she is perceived to be. At best, cover presence is an acknowledgment of an actress’ body of work, a confidence call that she can shift issues or a legitimisation of her fashion credentials which might result in additional business opportunities. Most of the time, cover girls are tied in with ad campaign from recurrent advertisers or with movies coming out soon. From a brand perspective, having the face of their campaign on a cover is additional earned media, with strategically-placed name dropping within the main feature.

Dakota Fanning posing for British ELLE is the result of an eleven-year-long career which has seen her nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award aged seven for I am Sam and play Jane Volturi in four episodes of the Twilight Saga, one of the highest grossing franchises of all times. She has six movies scheduled for release in 2012 and features in every US glossy magazine as the face of Marc Jacob’s Lola perfume. Being an ELLE cover girl, considering these already considerable achievements, is little more than the cherry on the cake and in no case the accomplishment or career milestone the ELLE feature introduction suggests.

Quote and picture: ELLE UK, February 2012 ‘Dakota will see you now” Words: Annabel Brog, Photo: David Slijper, Fashion: Anne-Marie Curtis, Dress: Dolce & Gabbana, Shoes: Prada, Ring: Zoe & Morgan

Posted at 7:48pm and tagged with: elle uk, magazine writing, Marc Jacobs,.

Lock the doors - it’s Style dot com.
Timmy, dear - you must obey!
I need aromatheraphy,
I had such vile reviews today.

Rip the mood boards off the wall
Throw the color charts away.
Burn the samples, trash them all
Look at what the papers say.

Yesterday I was divine!
When I commanded, they wore gray.
I cast my pearls before those swine
And now they say I’m so “passé.”

Tear the patterns of their hooks
Not a pincushion can stay.
Leave their name to history books
I’ll take the bonus severance pay.

Fashion Victims

Michael Roberts

Picture: Radley Scottie dogs at London Fashion Week, Debenhams Blog

Posted at 6:01am and tagged with: poem, book, London Fashion Week, magazine writing,.

American Vogue, July 2011 issue, page 108: Bold Type, by Jonathan Van Meter

British Tatler, September 2011 issues, page 186: Media Mogul, by Jonathan Van Meter

The publications, dates and even headlines might be different but both articles are about Tina Brown’s career, her switch from magazine to book writing to online publications and back. Both articles are the same word for word, the only noticeable differences being the focus of the introductory paragraph (on Newsweek and family life for Vogue; on her wide-ranging career for Tatler) and the lay out (Annie Leibovitz pictures only for Vogue; alongside social and personal photos for Tatler).

CondéNast publications the world round regularly publish editorials shot for one of their sister titles. This can be considered fair game, especially if the magazines are aimed at very different markets. US Vogue and UK Tatler however have a lot in common, including a love of high-fashion and en vue socialites.I haven’t been able to find any hard data to back this up, but I have a feeling that a lot of people reading Tatler would also read US Vogue. This means that, for the price of two magazines, those people got the same feature, twice. No matter how insightful or interesting it was, it’s a shocking lack of respect for the readers.

Picture: At home in New York with daughter Isabel, Photographed by Annie Leibovitz from Vogue’s website

Posted at 5:21pm and tagged with: Vogue, Tatler, Tina Brown, magazine writing,.

Paris Vogue isn’t exactly known as a hub of hard-hitting, objective journalism free from advertiser pressures. One section which never fails me to impress for its frankness, however, is the double-page spread on film reviews.

Written, month in, month out, by Yann Gonzalez and Jean-Sébastien Chauvin, those pages stand out thanks to their emphasis on words and their writers’ wit. Whereas cinema critics often self-restrict to summarising a movie and throwing in a few pseudo-cultured references, Gonzalez and Chauvin advise their readers. If they dislike a film, you’ll know from the first line. Despite their target public, they never write at length about wardrobe, focusing instead on the writing, the acting and the directing.

As an example, Gonzalez’s verdict on Water for Elephants:

Faced with this thin love story between a young vet and a circus girl, even the wild beasts are bellowing with boredom while the two stars shine by their haircut - a Jean Harlow-worthy blondness for Reese Witherspoon and sexy hair cream for Robert Pattinson.

Gonzalez and Chauvin’s reviews are often harsh, but I have come to trust them. Theirs are the first words I read in the magazine each month, long before the editor’s foreword.

Vogue Paris, May 2011 - Translation my own.

Posted at 7:16pm and tagged with: magazine writing, Vogue Paris, cinema,.

In its March 2011 issue, French Marie Claire published a fictional reportage by Elisabeth Alexandre: Et si les femmes dominaient le monde, ressemblerait-il à ça? If women ruled the world, would it look like that? And no, the idea isn’t that everything would be pinker and greener. If women ruled the world, men would be paid 28% less than women, only 12% of French MPs would be male and 78 000 French men would be raped every year. Sounds familiar? That’s because those are real statistics, which in the real 21st century world apply to women.

In her editorial, editor-in-chief Christine Leiritz explains

Imagine, for a moment only, that all those miseries inflicted to women were inflicted to men. Veiled, raped, repudiated men, men subjected to their wives, mothers, sisters, deprived from their basic rights, underpaid men, men forced to stay at home… in a word, martyr men? Weird how, all of a sudden, this world becomes obviously absurd, its unfairness evident! This would be unbearable, wouldn’t it? Yes, it would be unbearable.

Although the aim of the feature is laudable, I disagree with its execution. In Alexandre’s alternative reality, men can give birth, are objectified and hold to higher standards of personal grooming than women. In other words, she merely replaced the word man by woman throughout the article to get herself a feature.  It’s not men as we know them who would be bullied by women but rather human beings with a vagina called men instead of women. The article doesn’t work because the author didn’t push the utopia far enough. Of course it’s impossible not to find Alexandre’s statistics shocking and horrifying. It’s also impossible not to be shocked and horrified by the idea that for women to wake up to the injustices they are subjected to, they need to read about them as if they happened to men.

Posted at 9:20pm and tagged with: magazine writing, feminism, Marie Claire, france,.

In his US Vogue November 2010 profile of Anne Hathaway, Adam Green doesn’t mention her role in The Devil Wears Prada a single time. He lists at length her theatre, musical and big screen roles but Andrea Sachs is notably absent. I thought this odd for two reasons: Devil was the first Hathaway film to generate close to $125 millions in domestic lifetime gross (over $325 millions worldwide) and for thousands of Vogue readers, this is the film she is most closely linked to. UK ELLE took a much more expectable approach, not only naming the movie but using one of her references to it as a pull out quote.

Post title inspired by Anna Wintour’s interview on Letterman.

Posted at 9:27pm and tagged with: Vogue, cinema, magazine writing,.

If there were sub-genres in magazine writing, the first-person-narrative-makeover  piece would be one of the September issues obligatory exercices. Those articles are always the same:

Magazine editor assigns writer with typecast, borderline cliché style an article about a new trend which is the opposite of her usual style. Writer starts article grumpily, explaining how and why she has stuck to a particular style for years and how she really doesn’t like what she’s been forced to wear. She then tries on lots garments representing the new style, name-dropping as many advertisers as possible in the process. Inevitably, people start remarking on her new style. She isn’t convinced. In fact, in a display of suspense worthy of the best Kathy Reichs, she never likes the style until discovering a saviour item, generally made by another advertiser, which convinces her that the new trend, after all, can be worn by all. The fashion industry as a whole sighs in relief.

NB: The sub-genre also works with new accessory types. See for instance “The Return of the Kitten Heel”, by Anamaria Wilson in the September issue of US Harper’s Bazaar, which the top picture is taken from.

Posted at 6:03am and tagged with: magazine writing,.

The most common criticism leveraged against the fashion press is its closeness, real or perceived, with PRs and advertisers. This is nothing new, and dates back to long before adverts turned magazines into phonebook-size publications.

In The End of Fashion, How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever, Wall Street Journal reporter Teri Agins explains that as far back as Dior’s New Look,

Fashion journalism would always be known for its relentless boosterism, as fashion writers typically slanted their reviews to flatter their designer buddies with shameless flackery and rarely a discouraging word.

She backs up her claim with two quotes from industry figure James Brady, “publisher of WWD in the 1960s and of Harper’s Bazaar in the 1970s” and John B. Fairchild, WWD editor and publisher:

The women who covered fashion didn’t do a good job. The major papers would send reporters to Paris twice a year to get competent fashion show reviews - and they got to lunch with the designers. But I’m not aware they ever did a serious business story. (Brady)

The real issue is that in the fashion business, it’s almost against the law to tell the truth, and anyone who steps behind the silk curtain to show how raw the business is can expect a rough time. Designers go to grotesque length to exaggerate their concepts to the press. And the press is just as guilty when it swallows the bait and spews huge headlines. The self-importance of our profession is appalling. (Fairchild)

Picture of a 1967 Chanel front row (clearly, the celebrity phenomenon isn’t new either) from Cupcakes & High Heels

Posted at 8:56pm and tagged with: magazine writing,.