Fashion Magazines Are Often Ridiculous (And That's Fine)

A crumbling but persistent zombie of a debate about the proper place of Serious Women in fashion photo spreads is again lumbering around the internet.

Politico recently wrote that such shoots are demeaning in their "triviality." New York's The Cut yesterday insisted the opposite, that we should "celebrate" these magazines for helping successful women out with their "fashion fluency."

Our choices, apparently, are these: either damn any Serious Woman who's worn lipstick while photographed, or take her Chanel habit as providing serious insight into her intelligence and/or soul.

How awful that sounds. Let's reclaim being ambivalent about fashion magazines, instead, if that's alright with everyone.

Forgive me for rewinding about a hundred years to do so, but a pretty good way to grasp the right attitude, I think, is to look at Dorothy Parker. She was something of a Serious Woman who ended up sour on fashion magazines, but it was a matter of direct experience. Though she's remembered primarily as a New Yorker writer now, Parker's first job in magazines was actually at Vogue.

In those days Vogue was not quite so cutthroat a place as it would become; it was helmed by a prim woman named Edna Woolman Chase, who (in an illustrative example) required that everyone wear white gloves to the office. Everyone there seems to have thought well enough of each other, regardless. (Chase remembered Parker as "sweet of tongue but vinegar witted," which I'd like on my own tombstone.) But the job bored her utterly. Not only did she say so in later life, she left traces of her irritation in the magazine proper. Charged with writing captions on photo spreads, she got subversive about it. One caption read:

There was a little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good she was very very good, and when she was bad she wore this divine nightdress of rose-colored mousseline de soie, trimmed with frothy Valenciennes lace.

It's a pretty nice send-up of the self-seriousness of most fashion copy.

Parker would continue to sabotage the magazine in articles she later wrote for them too, always tongue-in-cheek, staying just a hair outside the sensitivities of her superiors. (One article, about an interior decorator, was entitled "Interior Desecration" and began with Parker simultaneously describing the subject as her friend and as someone who "droops a bit, like a wilted lily.") Parker's biographer has written that Chase was, in the end, glad to be rid of her when Parker moved on to Vanity Fair.

Whatever trouble Parker might have presented her editors, it's hard not to admire her ambivalent approach here. She took the paycheck, bided her time, and meanwhile used her underminery powers to make her job of writing shopping catalogue copy that much more intelligent. But she also didn't lose sight of the corruption of the frame of fashion magazines generally. In 1956 she reflected, to the Paris Review, that:

Now the editors [of Vogue] are what they should be: all chic and worldly; most of the models are out of the mind of a Bram Stoker, and as for the caption writers—my old job—they're recommending mink covers at seventy-five dollars apiece for the wooden ends of golf clubs "—for the friend who has everything." Civilization is coming to an end, you understand.

Parker put her finger on the precise point of rot inherent in the fashion magazine there. It's this: if you have a magazine whose subject is what things people ought to buy, it will be tied pretty close to advertisers. And advertisers are not interested in Seriousness unless they can monetize it. They'd much rather the magazine move their lots of mink-covered golf clubs. Which is why the vast majority of their articles will always be written by aliens from the planet I-Regularly-Visit-Ibiza-And-St-Barts, in hopes of encouraging their striving audience.

We should not ignore that. Whatever abstract ideas you have about "fashion fluency" aside, it's important to remember that in reality, fashion is a business. It exists to take people's money. It doesn't give a damn about Women In The World, except insofar as it can convince them they will seem more credible if they wear the most tasteful of this season's selection of $4,000 cropped leather jackets.

And you know, maybe people are right that dressing to the nines still gets you taken more seriously. But the depressing fact of that is a lot more survivable if you keep a playful gimlet eye on it all.

[Image via Getty]