Liberti, Egaliti, Versace!

American fashion mags get democratic,embracing fat women, old women, etc.

Published December 8, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

In 1993 our commander in chief promised to give us an administration that "looked more like America," and credit the man for this: In his own inglorious way, he kept his word -- he improved on the Kennedy legacy with pluralistic sexual flare-ups involving, first, a plus-sized intern and,second, a White House volunteer of a certain age. Once again Clinton proved his finger to be firmly on the ass of the Zeitgeist, not only because the public rallied 'round its leader with obvious-in-retrospect affection (he thinks we're pretty!), but because the media has rushed behind him for a double date with the average American body.

This year the word in magazine fashion was attention to niche audiences-- "niche" here meaning the statistical majority of the readership -- with an increased emphasis on previously overlooked age groups and body types. One of the most praised recent start-ups has been Mode, a fashion glossy targeted at size-12-and-up women, which just announced that it's going from 10 to 12 issues a year. And this fall saw the premiere of More, from Ladies' Home Journal, aimed at women over 40. More's title must vex Mode's editors no end -- it's not only identical except for one letter but actually sounds more like the name of a plus-sized women's magazine than "Mode" does -- but More tries to resolve any newsstand confusion by helpfully putting the 49-year-old and still rail-thin Twiggy on the cover of its December issue (let's smash one pernicious body image at a time here, folks!).

And now the publishing mainstream actually seems a little anxious about the trends: Time Warner reportedly is considering its own magazine launch for older women, and the fashion-mag establishment is making increasing, if awkward, attempts to show a Clintonian affection for the meat on our bones. The December W magazine, for instance, includes a feature pegged with the, um, tasteful teaser "Living Large: Fat Is Back," lumping Emmy-winning queen-size icon Camryn Manheim of "The Practice" (who dedicated her award to "all the fat girls") in with marginally fleshy starlets like Kate Winslet and Christina Ricci. Of course, the tag line runs next to a cover photo of Gwyneth Paltrow's concave chest and collarbones with which you could slice tomatoes, but that W sees the story as a draw for readers is noteworthy in itself.

Now, the New Inclusiveness may be an old, recurrent story in fashion, but it's different in at least one way this time. The fashion world has long claimed it's starting to pay more attention to the rest of us. This time, however, the rest of us are finally deigning to pay attention to it: On TV in particular, fashion coverage is going truly populist. MTV, home of the long-running "House of Style," has added the star-search show "Model Mission" and the extreme-couture bash "Fashionably Loud," a runwayshow/concert with the ingenious added bonus of a camera in the changing area (can it really have taken this long for someone to discover a classy excuse for full toplessness on basic cable at 4 p.m.?); patrician fashion writer Carrie Donovan has signed on as the main pitchster for the Gap'splebeian Old Navy chain; even VH1, America's favorite network to vacuum to, celebrates the cutting edge of design with its own fashion awards. But the true pioneer of fashion TV is the E! entertainment network, which fills several hours a day with programs like "Fashion File," "Model TV," "Fashion Emergency," "VideoFashion!" and numerous specials such as JoanRivers' Oscar-night fashion critiques and Golden Hanger Awards; it's even spun off the Style. (sic) channel, "the first and only network dedicated to doing everything with style."

Exactly how did fashion become mass entertainment? Certainly, E!'s shows dovetail well with its general programming strategy: namely, to make sure that no program costs more than about $43 an episode (the network notoriously fills air time with waste-not-want-not collections of talk-showclips, movie trailers and cannibalized interviews from earlier programs -- and leaving Joan and Melissa Rivers to swelter for hours on the carpet at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is a dirt-cheap way to garner face time with multimillion-dollar marquee names).

More important, though, E! seems to have figured out how to make fashion relevant to those of us eating Pringles in our sweat pants. Flipping through a fashion magazine, even an empowerment-minded one like Mode or More, is essentially passive. On the new style programs, however,fashion is a participatory sport. As opposed to the more staid fare of,for instance, CNN's "Style," with the imperious, Mel-Brooksian-named ElsaKlensch, E! offers the audience stand-ins like Rivers, the wondrous walking id who greets rope-walking celebs with comments like "He lookslike a CPA dating a hooker!"

Part of that appeal, of course, has to do with E!'s linking fashion and celebrity, the same golden combo that's celebrated in In Style magazine. But it's actually on its celeb-free make-over show, "Fashion Emergency," that E! most successfully brings style to the masses. Hosted by Emme, Mode's Belinda Carlisle-esque model and ambassador, "Fashion Emergency" presents the make-over as religious-quest narrative. There is a prayer: A civilian Joe or Jill sends a plea for style help. There is a Grail: a wedding reception, a job interview, an old high school crush to impress. And there is divine intervention: fashion experts Brenda Cooper and the sprightly Leon Hall, a dapper, middle-aged Virgil who guides the disheveled petitioner from clothing store to salon to the inevitable happy ending.

"Fashion Emergency" is every shallow, commercial thing you could accuse a make-over show of being. It's glib, sappy, self-congratulatory. It's about buying self-esteem at Bloomie's; it's a shameless shill for designers. But it is also maybe the first truly populist fashion show on TV. This isn't just because its subjects are not models but real people with real fashion challenges (I mean, damn are they real! Pasty-faced office drones, an accident victim with facial reconstruction and a heavyset lesbian couple to name just a few). It's because they're
subjects, not objects. Whereas on the typical talk-show make-over the
subject sits like a passive lab rabbit for the studio audience's observation, Hall lets guests make their own decisions, explaining concepts without condescension. Best of all, Hall -- himself a portly gentleman -- gives straight, unsugarcoated, euphemism-free advice to his less-than-hard-bodied charges. "Any size 14, 16 or 18 can be just as self-confident," he says, "can have just as much a sense of superiority about themselves as anyone."

Aha! Wait! He said "superiority"! Is this not simply reifying the old aesthetic tyrannies? Is this not the whole problem with fashion in the first place? In the utopia of human appearance, should not the high places be made low, and the low be made high, and any uneven spots between them be leveled out inconspicuously with an inexpensive, cruelty-free, hypoallergenic base?

Yeah, whatever. Maybe a few consciousness-raising sessions would help these misguided souls emancipate themselves from the dominant social norms of appearance, discover their inner beauty, blah blah blah. But call me a sucker: What works best about "Fashion Emergency" is that it makes its topic relevant and understandable to everyday people who live neither in a Vogue photo shoot nor in an enlightened paradise where we judge each other
not by the labels on our Capri pants but by the contents of our character. The guests on "Fashion Emergency" -- the unconfident tomboy who's turning 30 and has never worn makeup, the chunky schlub who's trying to get respect in his career -- aren't really on the show to figure out how to dress. Like most of us, they're trying to figure out how to be adults: how to build relationships, how to deal with their personal limitations, how to deal with getting older. If a little vegetable dye and a Tomatsu pantsuit help do that for them -- at a cheaper price tag than therapy -- well, God bless Leon Hall's plus-sized heart.

Carson-o-genesis With the January 1999 issue of Esquire, one of America's most underappreciated critics (and if you think that's a logical impossibility, you've already stopped reading this sentence) promises to become, well, if no less underappreciated, then at least less underpaid. Tom Carson, who for years has been the best thing in the Village Voice with the possible exception of the "generous man seeking companionship" ads, begins that testoster-rag's "Screen" column. Carson's blistering and hilarious dispatches for the Voice covered entertainment, the print media and politics (his bemused, empathetic connection with Bob Dole was one of
few reasons to follow the 1996 campaign), and Esquire is giving him a similarly wide purview, including television, film, the Internet and generally all things screen-related (for the spring, perhaps, some tips on how to keep those pesky mayflies from massing on your screen door?). Carson's first Esq-riture looks at "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Charmed" and other spook shows, offering a catch-up course for those unfamiliar with his Voice-era preoccupation with the teen-TV genre. An apropos subject perhaps as he enters the glossy otherworld, where good writers imperil their souls, but Carson writes well and carries a big stake.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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