Fundament of fashion

There’s quite an exciting tease on the latest Vogue cover. Under Alexa Chung’s lovely face, opposite the big sexy number hit,  the bottom right cover line promises that Vogue is going to tackle “The last taboo”. What could the last taboo in Vogue-land be? Maybe it’s being a size 12. Maybe it’s pedophilia. Maybe it’s acknowledging the existence of poverty (or at least, women who feel a bit sick at the idea of paying over 100 quid on a shirt).

Obviously, it’s not any of those things. Those things are worse than taboo – they’d be the undoing of Vogue’s special kingdom held together by dreams, where skinny teenage girls wear clothes you can only afford with an income that would serve half-a-dozen modest families. Anyway, I can’t wait around guessing any longer. Tell me, Vogue: what is the last taboo?

It’s poo. Poo, poo, poo, poo, poo, poo, poo (thank-you for chucking it all over the page, art editors). And because it’s so unspeakable, Christa D’Souza has written three astonishing pages on the subject. It’s a bit like the editorial team has had a momentary lapse of self-censorship and forgotten that an obsession with elimination is a symptom of eating disorders. (“Oh no, you’ve caught me being bulimic in the features section!”)

“So why, then, if it is such an integral, pleasurable part of our lives, are so many of us hung up about it?” wonders Christa, who then undertakes an odyssey of self-discovery in the lower bowel – which involves going to a Harley Street doctor who puts a balloon up her bottom and watches her excrete it, in order to assess her technique.

Because – and maybe you weren’t aware of this, what with this being the Last Taboo – there is a U and a non-U way to defecate. Yes there is. The fashionable shitter needs to consider “the shape and the colour” of her emissions. You see, without Vogue, you’d never understand all the very subtle ways in which your bodily functions can be shameful. And now you can go straining after the perfect movement. That, my stylish friends, is what aspiration is all about.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

[Film review] The September Issue

You go to watch The September Issue because you want to look at the gorgon. Sure, you might be fascinated by fashion, you might be the sort of magazine obsessive who geeks out on sneaking a look at other people’s flatplans (I am both) – but ultimately, what you want to know is whether American Vogue editor Anna Wintour is as monstrously frosty as her reputation claims.

Wintour won’t haunt your nightmares after you watch this movie, which charts the assembly of Vogue’s critical September Issue (the one which sets all the trends for the following year). That’s not because she comes over as especially pleasant, though. In fact, she has a way of crushing an inferior with a twitch of her lip so devastating, you can watch her victim’s heart break on screen in front of you. (Inferiors, by the way, include office interns who get in her way, junior editors who can’t fight for their photo shoot, and top-of-the-pile designers seeking US Vogue approval for their collections. “She’s the Pope”, explains one Wintour employee.)

Yet with the mixture of intimacy and remove afforded by film, though, there’s something arresting about Wintour’s combination of brutal decisiveness and evident frailty. Wintour is near-60 and very thin: the camera is not cruel or intrusive, but however glossy her bob and toned her arms, Wintour’s voice and skin are whispering her age. Gawker speculated that Wintour collaborated with The September Issue’s makers as part of a campaign to reinvent herself as likeable. I doubt it: she doesn’t approach the camera as someone looking to be loved, but as someone who knows that power is her trade and imperiousness her greatest asset.

If it was a charm contest, then Wintour certainly lost it to creative director Grace Coddington. Where Wintour is sleek business, Coddington is expansive art – her spectacular, dreamy combinations of garments and settings make up captivating spreads which define both the magazine’s aesthetic and the idea of fashion. Witty, appealing and determined, she even offers advice to her colleagues on standing up to Anna.

But it’s a mistake to see their relationship as purely competitive. At one point, Coddington reflects on the magazines move toward celebrity culture. She doesn’t like it, but she applauds Wintour for identifying the trend early and building it into the magazine. After all, Coddington explains, if the magazine doesn’t sell, she won’t have a job – and if she doesn’t have a job, there will be no venue for her work.

You get the impression that, while Coddington adores clothes and fashion and the magazine she works for, she sees the industry as more of a platform than an end in itself – whereas as Wintour is involved in every part of the chain, even acting as an ambassador for negotiations between stores and designers. For Coddington, fashion is only a part of the world. “We can’t all be perfect”, she expounds, forcefully: “It’s enough that the models are perfect.” In the aggressively perfect world of Wintour’s Vogue, where too-big cover fonts are dismissed as “large and pretentious, like it’s for blind people”, Coddington’s exuberance feels like the true soul of the magazine.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

The soft option: style and the Tories

Grazia knows what’s next. Thigh-high boots on the catwalks. Leather for AW09. And a Conservative government at the next general election. The Tories have been working their way around the style press for a while now – GQ editor Dylan Jones has authored a book of interviews with David Cameron and has taken several opportunities to celebrate Conservative politicians in his magazine, and Samantha Cameron’s role at luxury-goods firm Smythson has probably contributed to an uptick in pictures of her and her husband appearing in Vogue.

Grazia 1

In 1997, Labour made much of their supporters from pop music and the arts. For Conservative politicians, style mags offer the same sort of sympathetic access to mass audience beyond the political hardcore: the NME is very unlikely to turn blue, but fashion (with a business structure based on individual entrepreneurs selling very expensive things to very rich people) is probably wide open to Cameron’s “compassionate conservatism”. Tara Hamilton-Miller’s bizarre “How cool are the Conservatives?” feature in The Telegraph is just another push at the same angle, from a depressing world where banalities like “riding a bike” and “wearing Converse” count as achingly now.

In Jane Moore’s Grazia interview (15 August, above), David Cameron is presented in the same way as the next label or designer or model. His ascendancy is a fait accompli: the reader just has to catch up. Policies and politics don’t come into the feature: this is about learning to love David. He’s a “leader, campaigner and grieving father” according to both the ed’s letter and the strap. He talks about his admiration for his wife, his grief at the death of their son, his hopes for another child. Moore tells us that Cameron is hard-working (“David Cameron is addressing a packed hall of voters […] But, hang on, this is August”) and affectionate (when talking about Sam “his face visibly softens”).

The only questions that go beyond the warm domain of the personal are the reader ones, dealt with in a boxout where the splurge of figures and initiatives can go unchallenged. Fiscal policy isn’t Grazia’s domain, and there’s no reason for a politician to go looking for scrutiny, but it’s grim stuff to have a politician presented to you on these terms. Cameron is the object you will be adoring when the next collections arrive – he’s as inevitable as a new style of hosiery, and like the legging, you’ll want to know everything about him (how long? what colour?) but never question his fundamental reasoning. Flick to page 30 of the same issue and you’ll find out that the language of compassionate conservatism is a part of stylespeak now. David Cameron might be considerably less important than Cheryl Cole’s wardrobe, but he’s something you’ll want to consider buying all the same.
Grazia 4

Related: “Who is wearing what, and why!”

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

How to make a magazine: The September Issue

Everyone knows that Anna Wintour is imperious, dictatorial and impeccable. The trailer for this behind-the-scenes-at-Vogue documentary promises to reinforce that image. Good news for us, because the scene of her telling Oscar de la Renta what’s in and out of his catwalk show looks mighty entertaining; good news for Wintour too, because I imagine that her ferocious reputation is the most valuable thing she’s got.

But what looks most interesting – for people infatuated with journalism and publishing, anyway – is the way this film follows in detail the process of putting together an issue of a magazine. September is the big month in Vogue’s year, and Anna critiques everything in hand-stitched detail: the fonts, the message, and above all the looks.