A conversation with Holly Brubach

"Fashion is in fact architecture's feminine counterpart ... Buildings and clothes are the primary components of our everyday landscape."

Published November 11, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Generations of girls have grown up on glossy fashion magazines, drinking in photographs of soignée models and impossibly elegant ballgowns, and filling their heads with trivia about skirt lengths and the new black, the right shoes to wear with cigarette pants and the proper purse to take along to lunch at 21. Never mind the fact that most women will never be able to afford the clothes they ogle -- let alone wear them with the same insouciant nonchalance of the teenage amazons in the pictures. Even if many eschew the mandates of the fashion industry, there are few who are ignorant of its vagaries. Just turn on the TV -- have you bought your Gap vest yet?

Despite the pervasiveness of fashion, there is a void of truly great writers who consistently tackle the topic. Fashion is one of those subjects that -- like pets and hobbies -- is rarely taken seriously by the writing community; it connotes frivolous stories in Vogue and W that gush over the new pony-skin boot, Manolo Blahnik heel or transparent shift as if they were world-shaking epiphanies. It's not, many sniff, a "serious" subject.

Holly Brubach is one of the only writers to recognize that the fashion industry, with its idyllic visions of a perfect world, is merely a manifestation of our common fantasies -- despite how cruel and unrealistic those fantasies may sometimes be. "Fashion is one of the means by which we dream collectively," she writes in her new collection of essays, "A Dedicated Follower of Fashion." "It has a tacit logic that makes sense deep down to us all."

Brubach's writing is an antidote to fashion snobbery -- although she admires the perfect lines of a classic Chanel suit, or the whimsical heels of a Vivier shoe, her main interest is in dissecting what fashion says about people. Fashion is life -- more than any other topic, she writes, it reflects the quirks and idiosyncrasies of human identity and character: the "vanity, love, greed, snobbery, sex and other fun subjects." Contrary to popular opinion, it is a subject as loaded as art itself: "Fashion is in fact architecture's feminine counterpart," she muses in her book. "Buildings and clothes are the primary components of our everyday landscape, and they embody the ideas and the attitudes of the time in which we live. It is, I believe, incumbent on every generation to remake the world in its image."

Over the last 20 years, Brubach has covered nearly every aspect of fashion for numerous publications, as well as authoring two books -- "Choura: The Memoirs of Alexandra Danilova," a profile of the famous Russian ballerina, and "Girlfriend: Men, Women, and Drag," an examination of cross-dressing.

"A Dedicated Follower of Fashion," is a collection of her writings from the 1980s and 1990s, taking on subjects like feminism and fashion, the human relationship with the body (both fat and muscle), and the loaded meanings of the frilly white bridal gown. Brubach has also included profiles of fashion icons like Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent and model Kristen McMenamy.

With marvelously crafted prose and occasionally breathtaking insights, the book is a fascinating survey of both the fashion industry and the human psyche: "What is this atavistic Cinderella streak lurking deep in the heart of career girls?" Brubach asks as she ponders the pervasive white frou-frou wedding dress. "A bride, to my mind, should be dressed not as someone she has never been before and will never be again but in keeping with the woman she has been and is and will continue to be, and, as it turns out, this requires a lot more imagination."

Brubach grew up in the 1960s outside unfashionable Pittsburgh, Pa., and can track her obsession with fashion back to her junior high school years. Her prom dress, she relates, was a sophisticated silver-and-gray ballgown, in vivid contrast to the frilly chiffon pastels of her classmates; she copied her clothes from Vogue patterns whenever she could afford them. "I had my enormous pretensions; unfortunately in my case they were exacerbated by the fact that I could sew," she laughs. "In this way I indulged my delusions about who I was and how I looked and what was appropriate for me to wear."

Brubach began her career as a dancer, switching to writing after she was sidelined by an injury. Her first job was at Vogue, writing fashion blurbs and, eventually, profiles of opera singers and artists; becoming, as she puts it "the resident intellectual in the features department." From there, she moved on to be a staff writer at the Atlantic Monthly and then the New Yorker, where she faced the challenge of writing about a "soft" topic for one of the most respected high-brow magazines in America. "The funny things is that I went from being an intellectual at a fashion magazine to being a fashion person at an intellectual magazine," she notes. "It's not that [the New Yorker] regarded my work as frivolous, but I was clearly somebody who was championing certain subjects that had probably never made their way into the magazine before. That was an odd position to be in, and sometimes enormously gratifying."

Stints at those publications eventually led to a job as the style editor of the New York Times, where Brubach spent nearly five years before jumping the fence and going to work for Italian fashion house Prada. Today, she lives in Milan and spends weekends in Paris, while she directs Prada's home and sport collections -- what she describes as her "third career."

Salon People caught up with Brubach while she was in New York recently, and spent an hour basking in her mischievously self-deprecating sense of humor.

When did you realize you wanted to not only wear fashion, but write about it?

The epiphany came when it occurred to me that fashion wasn't just a subject like any other subject but in fact stood for something larger. It was when I started to see it in a feminist light -- as something that had been a woman's pastime, that had real value and meaning to it but that most people dismissed, partly because it had always been a woman's pastime. I thought this could be my own little personal crusade, to get people to take this seriously. Rather than women, in acquiring equal rights, being obliged to jettison everything that had ever been women's pastimes and adopt men's pastimes instead, maybe we could go at it the other way and get men interested in what women had always thought about.

Once I came to that realization, I had this higher moral objective and that was really when I decided it was my subject.

In one of your essays you note that "it is the worship of women that fashion and feminism have in common." Yet many feminists believe that fashion is something that is dictated by male designers, and that women are constrained by impractical fashion mandates like stiletto heels and pencil skirts.

Yes, men are designing this stuff, but finally the people who wear it are women and it acquires a certain expression in the wearing that it doesn't have just by virtue of its design. My problem with that position -- I call it the conspiracy theory -- is that it doesn't take into account the enormous pleasure that is to be derived from wearing clothes that you feel are completely in harmony with your identity. Because I myself have experienced so much first-hand pleasure from clothes, I have always been reluctant to write that off, and so I had to find some other position.

Women have a healthier identity with fashion than they did 20 years ago; it was a real battle for women in my generation, we were trying to sort ourselves out and it was hard to know where fashion fit in all of that. Now I see a new generation of women in their early 20s and they seem much more at home with all this stuff, partly because the generations that came before them dealt with it for them.

You say you sometimes felt like a "second-class citizen" as a fashion writer at the New York Times. Do you think it's fair to call what you do "soft journalism?"

If it's a choice between John Galliano's new collection for Dior or a war somewhere, I understand that the story about the war probably has more impact on people's lives in the world. However ... culture has changed so much and newspapers haven't kept pace with it.

I think 50 years ago people constructed their identities on political lines -- you were a communist, Republican, Democrat -- I don't think those things are the cornerstone of people's identities anymore. In fact, what people identify with is not a political party or a position; what people use now to construct their identity is brand names and labels, and there's this consumerist declaration of who a person is. To that extent newspapers have underestimated how critical fashion is.

However, that's maybe not a bad thing because one of the great things about fashion is that it's a forum for a society working out a lot of issues that are potentially subversive or uncomfortable for people.

Can you give me an example of what you mean by those "issues"?

The last book I wrote was about drag; one of the interesting things about drag and fashion in the last 10 years is there's this whole gender thing going on. One example is Jean-Paul Gaultier showing a men's collection in which men are wearing black tuxedo pants, classic white shirts, classic necktie, and over the shirt is a double breasted vest cut off the shoulder like a woman's evening gown, with a train. It brings up these issues: What exactly is a man and what belongs to men in clothing, and what belongs to women? What are the signals that men and women send out, and to what extent can you rely on those signals?

It's a very dangerous subject for a lot of people; many don't want to go there. If you presented it in a manner that was really straightforward -- said here's what the issue is -- they would turn and flee. But if you just show them a picture of the Gaultier vest, they laugh, and it's sort of a way to get to people; fashion gets into the back door of people's minds a lot.

One of the essays in your book deals with the way the fashion industry marginalizes fat people -- despite the fact that nearly half of the population is a size 14 or larger. Do you think that, with the recent advent of women's sports and overweight celebrities, the fashion industry has become any more accepting of different body types?

The fashion industry is always trying to persuade people that it has a new generation of models that signify enlightenment; either the models are shapelier and have curves -- which in the '80s version of the supermodel meant breast implants -- or they don't have curves, which means that they aren't obliged to get breast implants. And there's the "quirky" model -- we can applaud ourselves for recognizing her idiosyncratic beauty.

When I was at the New York Times I wrote this article about women in the Olympics, saying it was great that now people can appreciate women's muscles, and women can look strong and that's not seen as a threat, it's even seen as sexy. To a certain degree that's true. But I have to say that I don't think that's changed very much -- if anything, I've been proven wrong, and it's changing slowly.

I've been an athlete, a dancer -- I think women's muscular bodies are great-looking. I wish other people thought that too.

Who are your favorite designers?

I love Jean-Paul Gaultier; Rei Kawakubo for Commes des Garcons, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, and Yves Saint Laurent. If we include people who are dead, Coco Chanel, Balenciaga, Vionnet. It's all about cut for me, finally. It makes me high when I see somebody draw a line somewhere on the body where I've never seen a line drawn before, and I can see the body in a new way.

If you could change one thing about the fashion industry, what would it be?

I would do what I did at the New York Times, but I wish it were more successful -- I'd try to project an ideal of beauty that was more heterogeneous and would open people's minds to more unconventional forms of beauty. To that end, we did a "Fashions of the Times" issue with "real people" instead of models; and I think it was successful to a point, but ultimately we stopped it, because the fashion industry didn't like it. They didn't like it because they didn't think real women looked glamorous enough. Ultimately the pressure on us because of advertising was so great, we had to come around and return to using models again.

I would love to get other people to see the beauty that I see in other people that is not about the perfect geometry of their features. Ironically, the more time you spend in fashion, the more time you spend looking at people who look that way, and you come to cherish people's aberrations from the norm. The faces I really love are usually one of a kind, ultimately not commercial because they aren't blank enough to be a screen on which people can project their own fantasies.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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