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Agit-Vogue: Ideology Makes the Woman

Publié le 1 octobre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires
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This September’s issue of U.S. Vogue, touted as the “Biggest Issue Ever”, contains only 13% editorial content. Nevertheless, an aesthetic continuity ties the magazine’s advertising to its editorial features, betraying implicit ideological concerns in the content. Drawing on images of leisured femininity, popular in the 1920s and 50s, the latest Vogue reflects a deepening anxiety about the increasing impossibility of cultural stability in the wake of global economic and political crises.

 Marc Jacobs Shoes
Kekka, Marc Jacobs Shoes, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

Weighing in at 840 high-gloss pages, September’s issue of U.S. Vogue boasts being the largest in the magazine’s history. As those familiar with the title might expect, only a slim number of these are devoted to articles; the bulk of the issue – 727 pages – is instead populated with advertisements. Some articles simply function as advertisements, insofar as they implicitly promote designer labels that are Vogue’s major sponsors.

Vogue was founded in 1902, and has remained the longest standing and most successful of its genre, pioneering fashion journalism. The magazine provides the platform to both communicate with a specific clientele and provide a couturier showcase. It has, through its portrayal of high-end fashion for an elite social class, been instrumental in the promotion and formation of taste. September’s issue contains the usual fare: peep-toe pumps battle for visual dominance among synthetic stilettos and patent leather boots. Velvety evening dresses are shouldered alongside boxy manteaus, unnatural neon fur stoles and skimpy custom shifts. All sell at typically prohibitive prices, their value “guaranteed” by their designers. A mix of the practical and runway-ready impractical oscillate freely in a deluge of advertisements and photo spreads and the magazine appears innocuously banal, showing the usual fidelity to the fashion magazine genre.

Propaganda is generally associated with the use of rhetorical tricks, powerful images, and well-crafted sentiments to elicit a response commensurate with the ideological intention. Far from “fluff”, the newest issue of Vogue functions as a kind of catalogue of “fashion propaganda” which responds to an ideological set of values through the deliberate promotion of new styles reflecting sociopolitical trends. Fashion is a good marker to identify ideals, and operates through either overt or surreptitious methods. What appears on the surface – fashion as a floatation of signs – betrays deeper ideological currents.

One such marker that recurs throughout the September issue of Vogue is “retro”, or nostalgic fashion. In particular, many of the advertisements and editorials visually reference 1920s and 1950s fashions. Retro is in no way an innovative design method, as designers commonly reach back into the past to re-popularize old styles with nuances that refurbish them as something both new and traditional. At first blush, retro fashion appears to be apolitical and uneconomic. If either politics or economics enters into its sphere, it’s usually in the form of a soft flirtation that resists performing a critique but rather attempts to put style into higher relief through periodization. For example, in the Vogue editorial “Paris, Je T’Aime” by Steven Meisel, the depiction of a 1920s café lifestyle includes the prop of a newspaper on the table with headlines from the era to give the style a more “authentic” feel (1). Yet, more than “authenticity” is at stake in Vogue’s latest retrospective. The issue’s revival of 1920s and 1950s styles indicates trends in taste that are derivative of broader ideological currents. Fashion’s current nostalgic bent is not solely indexed on the 1920s and 1950s, but these eras recur with notable frequency throughout this edition.

Vogue’s nostalgic return to 1920s and 50s fashion in this issue demonstrates more than idle taste or coincidence. The 1920s has frequently been associated with feminine emancipation mixed with a cabaret-infused reassessment of gender roles and wealth. By contrast, the post-war period of the 1950s has generally been associated with uniformity, order, simplicity, and cementing of gender roles into set types. What unites these two seemingly disparate eras—which evoke, respectively, carnival and suburban stability—is that both had political preconditions allowing for an increased focus on leisure. While the juxtaposition of these two eras makes them strange bedfellows, it is this juxtaposition taken with the global uncertainties of today—climate change, the “war on terror,” wobbling markets, and hints of a renewed Cold War—that grants sense to a desire for their aesthetics. The styles and trends of the 20s and 50s may indeed reflect a desire to return to a time of perceived stability and prosperity, which Vogue accomplishes through an aesthetic revival. In sum, fashion’s championing of particular tastes could be construed as a natural response toward deeper cultural anxieties.

Accordingly, the ads featured in September’s Vogue betray an ambivalent re-definition of the feminine. In some, the models’ svelte physiques have been nuanced to exaggerate their “femininity”, suggesting the importance of maternity with an emphasis on lips and hips. The resurgence of fur (a primal code mixed with decadence and luxury) suggests an animalizing of the body. To replace “trailer park chic,” undulating shawls, long coats and dresses work to restore an anachronistic conception of femininity. By contrast, a Hugo Boss spread features muted androgyny, and in place of block-colour uniformity, are Ralph Lauren and Bebe, who emphasize respectively, classic eveningwear and a refurbished 1940s-era femme fatale. Balenciaga, meanwhile, engages in a kind of postmodern eclecticism (we could also add to this the Warholesque clutches in the Kate Spade collection), and Via Spiga infantilizes the female figure with baby-doll dresses. A Juicy Couture spread is also of note, as it brings back a refurbished 80s look with head- and wristbands and a nod to punk in the addition of plaid, exaggerated lipstick, and eclectic shock-clothing.

The most prominent advertisement in September’s Vogue, however, is a Lord & Taylor eight-page spread depicting scenes of moneyed family life at leisure. It features 50s hairstyles, riding boots, babies, antiques, croquet, tennis wear, wholesome nature scenes, and even a Tudor household complete with family patriarch. Significantly, the spread appears half-way through the volume, forming both the physical and symbolic centre of the issue. The leisured topos of the Lord & Taylor spread is also present, to a degree, in the issue’s Guess ads with their carefree 1950’s flavour. The use of children and animals in both suggests the importance of the submissive female and her function as child bearer. Both campaigns denote a shift in fashion, which has generally relied on a definition of femininity grounded in non-reproductive sexuality. In contrast, Lord & Taylor and Guess’s ads hint at the re-gendering of roles in a soft celebration of motherhood.

As theorists have suggested, the fashion model is overtly sexualized, yet untouchable. The model’s body is the site or surface upon which fashion fashions itself and by means of a calculated pose the garments are animated. In essence, the model haunts the clothing and this mediation of body and garment merge to convey myths surrounding femininity. Ensconced in luxury, amid feasts and festivals of frivolity, the notion of the feminine is made to resonate in a new key where idle pleasures and enduring leisure stand in for emancipation. The values associated with the aesthetic are made eerily textual in a caption accompanying Mario Testino’s editorial “8 ½”, featuring British actress Sienna Miller: “When we stagger out at 3am she is thinking, if I die now, I will have lived.(2)” On the next page, the hedonistic life is championed: “Why would food taste good? Why would sex feel good? Everything points to certain things. Life is about being happy.(3)” In the picture, Miller poses in a feather-bedecked dress, surrounded by sensuous chiseled marble statues of nudes. Even an article on Michelle Obama has its photos luridly annotated with the details of what she is wearing, a kind of ingredient label of clothing and accessories, effectively “modelizing” her (4).

The overt scenes of 1950s femininity in September’s Vogue contrast with the issue’s other major editorial, “Paris, Je T’Aime.” In this editorial there is a coalescing of 1920s café chic and goth. Here, the models are presented as gaunt and pale-faced with nuances of Rococo. They wear black veils, dark eye-shadow, fur, boas, and diamonds—an image of a liberated bistro vampire. Scenes of this variety may suggest death and decrepitude, emphasizing the liberated woman as unapproachable.

In his book The Fashion System, Roland Barthes suggests that fashion transforms the real body into the fashion-body ideal (5). Fashion is a prescriptive industry that dictates what goes with what. But it is also an image chained to its endless cycle, a simultaneous circulation of retro and neo where the distinction between these terms is effaced and the social fact of fashion is caught between two mirrors. Perpetually self-referential, fashion’s “ideological stance” is trapped in a tautological sign system of commodity-nostalgia, and yet is derivative of the social ideals imprinted upon it. These ideals are compressed into the figure of the model; she is the rack draped in that which grants meaning to the wearer. The model bears the signs of ideology fashions attempt to convey. Fashion broadcasts its “message” in its relay, as a caricature of the real and as an expression of deeper anxieties about shifts in the political and social economy. Explicitly, September’s Vogue celebrates trends in fashion; implicitly, it is a catalogue of what resides in the heart of contemporary ideology.

Notes

(1)Miesel, Steven. “Paris, Je T’Aime”. Vogue. September, 2007. 759-774.
(2)Singer, Sally. “8 ½”. Vogue. 726-745. 733.
(3)Singer, 734.
(4)Johnson, Rebecca. “The Natural”. Vogue. 775-781.
(5)Barthes, Roland. The Fashion System. Trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard. London: Jonathan Cape, 1983.

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