Media Circus: Dedicated Swallower of Fashion

If you can get out of the wayof the chortling supermodels and the Manchurian Candidate outerware, Vogue's 730-page fall fashion issue ain't half bad.

Published September 17, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

I had to break up a fight over Labor Day weekend. Actually, "fight" may be overstating things. Let's instead call it a thrashing, since the battle consisted of one of my little cousins clubbing the other over the head with the September issue of Vogue, which is 730 pages long and leaves a satisfying dent in the forehead of one's enemy when swung with enough force. "THE THRILL IS BACK!" indeed.

As it happens, I hadn't even noticed the new Vogue yet, both because the let's-put-Linda-Evangelista-in-yet-another-bad-haircut-on-the-cover phenomenon has lost its charm and because of a traumatic experience in the lobby of the Condi Nast building when I was told by the woman who runs the magazine stand that it was a store and not a library. (Ever since, I have kept my eyes lowered when passing magazine kiosks.) That an outburst of random violence had dropped it into my hands, then, seemed like fate. Having scanned every one of the issue's pages, I have only now come up for air.

Scanned, of course, and not "read," because most of those pages are ads, most of which in turn are fine examples of the late-1990s passion for a world that's almost decadently wealthy but that somehow seems to have at least one foot on the ground. And of those pages that are not ads -- I believe they're called "edit pages" -- I wasn't really able to make my way through all of the words on them. I tried, but the piece on getting rid of "unsightly spider veins" vanquished me (and yes, it's probably true that if the piece had been about amazing abs I would have devoured it in a second), and twice I became confused when articles were interrupted by eight pages of advertisements before continuing on the other side. No one has that kind of concentration.

But then, even though the writing in Vogue is often quite pointed and clever, and even though scattered throughout this issue there are a number of pieces that are worth actually reading, the articles are in some sense beside the point. (In that way, it's like Playboy, only more so.)

For others who hazard a flip though Vogue's 730 pages, I've assembled here what you might call a concordance -- though the phrase "haphazard collection of random notes" also leaps to mind -- to Vogue's September 1997 issue. On second thought, this resembles a guide to "Finnegans Wake" less than it does the Harper's Index (tm). Think of it as an attempt to bring some order to, to discern some pattern in, the flood of images with which we have been blessed. Or don't. Herewith,


Dollar value of clothes in the various fashion spreads: $412,504. That total doesn't include shoes, nor does it include the $35,000 Louis Vuitton trunk, but it does include the items featured in the back pages, including a $4,050 Prada handbag and a $9,500 pair of Ralph Lauren boots that catapulted the total over four bills.

Pages featuring women with thick red stripes over their eyes: 17. I hope this is not a trend.

Fashion pages featuring red-headed models: 19. This was a difficult count to make, because of the fine line between strawberry blonde and blonde, but the general trend is what really matters. Redheads now inhabit the place of grace.

Fashion pages featuring models who smile: 25. I've always thought of high fashion as the home of severe looks and weighty sexuality, but the women in Vogue's pages are happy. They're not just smiling. In many of these photos they're laughing. There's something very sweet about it, actually.

Conclusions to be drawn from the Ralph Lauren Collection spread: Three. They are: Steel is in. Shoes that cover the entire fronts of one's feet while leaving the backs open look odd. And WASPs still don't smile.

Percentage of design houses which bear Italian names: Much larger than the percentage of people in the world who bear Italian names.

Lingerie ads: Three. Not surprising, really, that there are so few. Underwear is something that people actually buy, while one looks at the ads in Vogue not to figure out what to purchase, but to imbibe a certain sensibility about what counts as fashionable.

Pictures of Princess Di: Two. Very strange to look at the picture of someone who was alive when the magazine was printed.

Ad pages featuring Christy Turlington: 16. Two days before I saw the issue, I asked a friend of mine if Christy had lost supermodel status, because I hadn't noticed her around much anymore. But she's everywhere in the September Vogue. On the other hand, she doesn't appear in any of the fashion spreads. Go figure.

Obvious questions this issue raises but does not answer: Why is Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece hanging out with Yasmine Bleeth of "Baywatch"? What does this sentence about Paul Rudnick's charming love-in with Shalom mean: "[W]ill better half Amber Valletta be left behind?" Is Amber Rudnick's better half or Shalom's? How can a hair colorist afford an eight-page spread in the middle of the magazine? Carri Otis is still alive?

Woman I'm apparently supposed to know but don't: Kim Delaney. She's in an ad for Ultima II, staring intently at me, with "Kim Delaney" below her face as if it the name should mean something. Is she a new "Friends" girl?

Unanticipated coup: The overthrow of the Tommy Hilfiger girl -- you know, the one with the narrow face and cute teeth -- by a new, even blonder model. The first girl appears early on in the magazine, but the new girl gets four pages all to herself, wearing a cardigan letter sweater, no less.

Most unexpected resurrection: Celine as a designer. "'Death on the Installment Plan' and my anti-Semitic harangues were as nothing compared to THIS, my latest creation!"

Strangest name for a piece of clothing: ZCMI's "Long Manchurian Candidate coat." And here we have the perfect coat for those nights when you just can't figure out what to wear to an assassination. I would have thought that marketers generally try to stay away from a too-explicit association with brainwashing.

Model who most reminds me of a bright yellow taxi cab on a rainy Saturday night: The woman in the ad for Andrew Marc. I don't know what Andrew Marc makes. Nor do I care.

Worst ad: Misty cigarettes. When you think about it, in fact, just about all cigarette ads targeted at women are poorly photographed and garishly colored. Although it will be difficult to do if the tobacco deal is ratified, the ad agency that produced the equivalent of the Marlboro Country campaign would strike a gold mine.

Best ad: The killer eight-page Gucci spread, unquestionably. It looks like it was shot in Super-8, with the colors bleeding into each other, and flesh everywhere. Elsewhere in the magazine, Tom Ford says "Nineties sexiness is hard, violent," and the pictures are fittingly jagged. Herb Ritts' nine-page spread for Nine West, on the other hand, is singularly dull. The best single picture in the magazine is for J.P. Tod's footwear, and is labeled simply "London interior: 1997."

Smallest surprise: In Bruce Weber's spread on evening wear, the one really memorable photograph features buff boys wearing mud-stained Polo T-shirts and sweats.

Most depressing sentence: "As the hoi polloi out in the stadium listened to Rage Against the Machine, U2's opening act, the limousine crowd stood around sipping bottled water, feeling special, and quietly taking note of one another." Well I'm rolling down Rodeo with a shotgun/These people ain't seen a brown-skinned man since their grandparents bought one. Or something like that.

Best pieces: Wayne Koestenbaum's short essay on the photographer John Deakin, who took jarringly ugly portraits of the famous, is a nice marriage of author and subject. There's a terrific two-page spread of photos from Robert Rauschenberg's life. And Anna Wintour's eulogy for Gianni Versace is graceful and moving.

But enough. The September issue of Vogue is, of course, like most other fashion magazines. It's just more so. What becomes clear after wading through it, though, is the way in which Vogue is able to bring high culture into the mainstream without dumbing it down. In publishing, film, art, even music, the best and most provocative work has a hard time finding a large audience. Yet every month Vogue brings precisely that kind of work in fashion to millions of readers. You don't read the most sophisticated and difficult writers in Vanity Fair or even the New York Review of Books. But you do see the work of the most sophisticated and difficult designers in Vogue.

That doesn't mean, of course, that the millions are falling in love with Rei Kawakubo's latest creations. But the fact that the millions are being shown those creations is important, and it explains why Vogue ultimately seems serious about fashion in a way that most magazines are not serious about whatever they're covering. Save perhaps for its choice of photographers -- do we really need another Bruce Weber or Steven Meisel shoot? -- Vogue brings to its subject an intensely honed sense of taste that's rare in the magazine world. In a strange way, it does not talk down to its readers, and in doing so suggests that, in the world of fashion at least, highbrow and popular are not antithetical terms.

By James Surowiecki

James Surowiecki is a regular contributor to Salon.

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