Friday, March 14, 2014

Fashion Writers: My Bad


I owe fashion writers an apology.

I imagined them as Mean Girls all grown up, perching in tiny chairs next to the runway and squealing "Ooh! Ruffles!" Nodding in approving unison as they see that the models have gotten even more skeletal this year, and whispering and tittering when they see a colleague wearing a skirt that's eight millimeters too long.

That's bad enough. But worse, I slipped and fell into the idea that primarily-feminine interests are superficial and airheaded. Well, not all of them, but with regard to fashion. It's related to a trap that digs itself rather frequently--the idea that women can be as serious, as intelligent, as worthy "as men". That idea sounds vaguely empowering for an instant, until it becomes clear that it makes men's worthiness the standard. Men as norm, men as yardstick, women as the deviation struggling to return to the norm. If men are the standard, then that leads dangerously to the idea that women have to give up anything uniquely feminine in order to be worthy, or at least normal.

And, yes, I know that there are no new thoughts here. Feminism has been fighting over traditional femininity since, well, forever. Whether to embrace it as part of a proud identity, whether to reject it as a male-imposed standard, and any number of other positions in between and scattered around, including the position that it's men, in being deprived of things like, oh, a glorious scarlet crystal-pleated skirt (I still don't like ruffles), who are being suppressed by a patriarchal society.

The point where I owe fashion writers an apology is in assuming that they're all trying to undermine the power of women. Actually, the bigger point where I owe fashion writers an apology is in assuming that they're stupid.

I'm sorry.

Now, this doesn't mean that I've seen any specific fashion writer as stupid. In fact, that's where I should have seen the fundamental wrongness of my premise. I've never encountered a stupid fashion writer. I just assumed that the writers that I encountered were all exceptions, intelligent people adding worth to a subject that has no inherent worth.

Linda Grant, author of The Thoughtful Dresser? Exception. Elizabeth Cline, the author of Overdressed? Exception. The writers of the articles in Fashion Projects magazine? The fashion critics that they write about? Amanda Stuart, the author of a biography of Diana Vreeland? Diana Vreeland herself? Every blogger that I've encountered in the perfume-blogging and sewing worlds who's written about fashion? Exceptions, exceptions, and more exceptions. Josephine Picardie, the author of My Mother's Wedding Dress? The final exception.

Why final? Well, reading My Mother's Wedding Dress was the point where I finally and firmly realized that when you can't find an exception to the exceptions, the rule is wrong. I think that this book did the job because I couldn't say, oh, well, she just happens to occasionally talk about clothes as a way to address bigger issues. The author worked for British Vogue, and many of the essays in the book come out of interviews that she did in covering fashion. She's a fashion writer. She's a fashion critic. There's no getting out of it. And she's very smart, with things to say.

Yes, she uses clothes to address bigger issues. I realize now that they all do. Fashion criticism is not all about ruffles and hemlines, any more than perfume criticism is all about analyzing the notes or movie criticism is all about special effects or camera angles. The narrower subject has inherent interest, yes, but the subject also has plenty to say about the rest of the world.

Sorry.

Why didn't I know this? Why didn't I assume that an area that fascinates so many women must also have something to appeal to intelligence? Why, when I know that people giggle at the phrase "perfume criticism", did the very phrase "fashion criticism" strike me as vaguely funny?

Again with the sorry.

I feel as if I owe someone a nice fruit basket.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

8 comments:

Ines said...

Are my comments disappearing or are they not even getting published?

Martha said...

Meep! They're apparently not getting anywhere, because I haven't seen 'em. (Well, of course, depending on when they were attempted, but I assume you mean really recently.) The blog isn't moderated--you should see them immediately.

Though of course I did see this one.

Martha said...

(And of course I wanna know what you said!)

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano said...

Love this—the list of "exceptions" is exactly what made me come to the same conclusion at some point. I've always worked in women's magazines, but I tended to look at fashion and beauty content as the stupid stuff ladymags had to go through to publish actual useful content about health and society and politics, even if those topics were often "pinkified." I kept wondering why there were so many awesome, smart women working in the fashion and beauty departments of these magazines; it took years for it to hit me that a junior fashion assistant may very well have the same aspirations I did as a junior editor—to create smart content in their field. But I was arrogant enough to believe all the brains would be in features, and when I finally realized that wasn't the case, it made my view of the industry more nuanced.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano said...

PS: I didn't realize you were an Oregonian! I went to high school in the Portland suburbs and college in Eugene, and my boyfriend is from Medford.

Natalie said...

Checking in after way too long not reading blogs, and just wanting to say I'm happy that you see more exceptions than conformers (it sounds).

Martha said...

Hey, Autumn! Yes; you'd think after reading all these smart blogs I'd realize that there are smart women in fashion/beauty publishing, too, but it took me a while.

Ha! Oregon! Do you ever get back there?

Martha said...

Yo, Natalie! Yep, I'm pleased too, though still rather disoriented.

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