Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Intellectual Fashionista

A number of years ago, long before I had three children and settled into a Midwestern college, I spent the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas in New York City, interviewing at magazines. Although I consider myself to be nobody’s fool when it comes to magazine advertising and editorials, although part of my scholarship analyzes representations of women in popular culture, I still find fashion magazines alluring. It’s the line of the clothes, the color and embellishment that attracts me. I don’t need to see the clothes on a model; a hanger or form will do just fine. And indeed, I don’t even want to wear them, simply filing the textiles, cut, embroidery away in my memory bank is satisfying.

So, while completing my dissertation, I took an excursion to New York, having lined up interviews at the big three magazines, all owned by Conde Nast, but not yet under the same roof. My first interview was with an HR woman who was devoted to a high-end fashion magazine. I gave her a sample story I had written and illustrated on the history of the bustle (incorporating touchstones from the Venus Hottentot to AbFab’s take on Vivienne Westwood’s “bum cages”).

The HR woman pronounced me “too intellectual” for said magazine; indeed, no self-respecting Devil Wears Prada editor could be comfortable demanding coffee and bibelots from a highly educated assistant, lest the assistant start revising Foucault’s Death of the Author as Death of the Designer.

I think it’s time to revisit the following equation: fashion = emotion ≠ intellect.

On one hand, I can see how too much thought can get in the way of fashion. Take the designer Zac Posen, for instance, the current wunderkind of New York City. Several years ago he made a splashy debut with his Empire State Building dress, an art-deco-y cocktail frock whose collar followed the lines of that venerable building. Worn out on the town by Natalie Portman, it immediately created a buzz.

But Posen’s follow-ups, every year hence, have seemed to me to fail. For Posen’s constructions are the opposite of the Emperor’s New Clothes: they reveal every seam, every clever idea, but none of the magic that, say, a John Galliano dress conjures. Posen obviously works hard to think up his designs, and it shows. I find his clothes to reside squarely in the novelty category: many of them are amusing in concept, but the emphasis remains on that concept, with the result that the dress wears the woman.

On the other hand, a recent brouhaha in London over the publication of a book on domestic arts demonstrated how this divide functions on the home sphere. The Gentle Art of Domesticity, a gorgeously photographed and lovingly written book by Jane Brocket about her daily activities of knitting, quilting, and baking, was savaged by some so-called feminist critics in the London press.

Dubbed “pinny porn” by one critic (“pinny” being the British word for “apron”), the book was accused of glamourizing domestic arts to a guilt-inducing degree: how could women who work outside the home possibly achieve the same level of artistry? Why should they even try when their lives are already so overcrowded? In the outcry there was an assumption that the sensual pleasures extolled by the author (herself a highly educated woman who began work on a PhD) couldn’t co-exist with women’s intellectual or feminist pursuits. The critics saw the beautiful afghans, quilts, and tea cakes as threatening, not as inspiring, or, simply, as beautiful in their own right.

The kind of intellect that I’d like to see in the fashion world is the kind that turns a historical eye to the designer’s influences, evaluates the construction of the garment (and calls out the designer when something is over- or under-thought), and doesn’t engage in purely emotional appeals that create unnecessary yearning in fashion consumers who want something, but don’t know why they want it.

I like the idea of a thoughtful closet, a la Pronk, the brainchild of a Palo Alto designer who mixes beauty (Liberty of London fabrics, embroidery) with deliberate craftswomanship, or Alabama Chanin, formerly Project Alabama, who takes nineteenth-century appliqué techniques of rural southern women to a high art form.

What I don’t like is unreflective fashion, or an editor who said he’d be uncomfortable having a PhD candidate pick up his dry cleaning. Try getting it yourself; or better yet, buy natural fabrics that you can wash on your own.