Orange is the new black

The fashion world tries the new post-9/11 reality on for size -- and it's a poor fit. Plus: This tough-guy White House needs more gays!

Published February 20, 2003 11:39PM (EST)

It's a strange state of affairs when the only relief in New York from an orange alert is a snowstorm that creates a state of emergency.

Acts of God keep happening lately -- a reminder of the futility of rhetoric. The shuttle explosion gave us a frisson about high technology. The snowstorm that envelops the urban world in silence, grounds planes and helicopters and forces Bush to make a two-hour car crawl to the White House is another rap across hubris' knuckles. Buried under 5 feet of snow at our house on the frozen beach in Quogue, N.Y., with the happy knowledge that it's impossible to get out, I feel almost drunk with safety for the first time in weeks.

We need an intermission from anxiety after the last round of the willies. It was anxiety, more than any abstract passion for "peace," that brought hundreds of thousands into the East Side avenues the day before the snow started falling. The same perfectly reasonable hysteria has people all over town wondering if they should turn their bathrooms into panic rooms. I go into mine and scream from time to time, but I don't find it reassuring. A banker friend of mine on the East Side pays for two parking spaces in the garage under his apartment so that when the next attack comes there will be no vehicle in front of him to impede his squealing getaway to his helicopter pad.

Comically, we have just been through Fashion Week. I went to a few of the shows and watched a Ralph Lauren model with a dazed expression high-stepping down the runway in a jaunty newsboy cap, tight little jacket, and svelte-assed loden knickers. It was all vaguely Siegfried Sassoon-era. Oh! What a lovely war! Given what was happening at the U.N. 20 blocks uptown, it was a valiant try. No fashion show has felt the same since the curtain came down on a former world the night of the Marc Jacobs show on Sept. 10, 2001.

Remember that night? Most people recall what they were doing on the eve of the day that changed it all. I was sitting restively in the front row next to Monica Lewinsky and the Donald Trump listening to the buzz of fashion trivia. After the show, Vogue's impeccably chic Anna Wintour advanced toward her limo under twin umbrellas held aloft by runway flunkies, and sped away in a splash of puddles and paparazzi. The memory of the last gaudy event before the tragedy is a snapshot from a carefree pagan past. The next day all those jostling fashion tents were empty. The gadabouts of the night before were out giving blood. Though the world resumed its homage to glitz, I haven't seen Monica anywhere since. The postmodern kitsch of inviting her to sit at a table at the Oscars or to the White House correspondents dinner has lost its charm. Monica's big, confessional eyes only remind us of the nonsense that dominated the news at the turn of the century, distracting us from the only story we care about now.

At the U.N., an uncharacteristically rattled Colin Powell delivered his almost plaintive plea for war, but in the fashion cave that day the Ralph Lauren girls whisked by in silver moonbeam skirts and white moire-satin Eskimo hoods. Who are we kidding? Retail, along with everything else except duct tape, is tanking. Even this crowd, which hitherto saw Dominique de Villepin only as a possible candidate for the best-dressed list, knows that to be at a fashion show at all is brunch at the apocalypse.

The soundtrack on the Ralph Lauren runway suddenly blasted an old Bob Dylan classic and there was a sudden rush of nostalgia in the shrouded studio space. The ratty followers of fashion glanced around looking, briefly, happy. Once upon a time it was perfectly OK for them not to care about public life. They could engage with the world when they wanted to, like signing up for an activity at school. They could be "up to speed" on politics, "actively engaged" in social issues, "deeply committed" to a cause. When it suited them.

Now the emotional tenor of their lives, like everyone else's, is being micromanaged by big-foots who have the power to color-code their physical safety and, even worse for fashion folk, darken their mood.

The youthful Dylan moment passed. At Donna Karan's in the afternoon the music was back to some kind of clanking, toilet-flushing, sci-fi cacophony that reminded us all over again that orange is the new black this year.

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Is it just the residue of Fashion Week that makes me wish there were more, or should I say any, gay men in the Bush administration? At the London Sunday Times in the '70s one top editor used to shake his head when the paper became too humorlessly high testosterone, and say that what it needed that week was "more pooftah power." In lieu of outright womanhood -- except for Condoleezza Rice, who crosses the gender barriers by becoming the most zealous enabler -- perhaps an injection of androgyny could be brought to bear on diplomatic relations in this moment of crisis. The Bush crowd's only management style, like that of many who subscribe to the outmoded cult of America's toughest bosses, is to unzip and thwack it on the table. As Sen. Robert Byrd put it in his speech last week, they deal in "crude insensitivities." The offense of it is enhanced by the fact that we know how inauthentic Bush is in this role of macho man. Unlike the war vet Powell, who never swaggers, he has no credentials for talking the tough talk.

Bush never said that the trouble with the French is that they have no word for "entrepreneur" -- that turned out to be an urban legend. But I wish we had a leader who did not believe "nuance" was strictly for cheese eaters.

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By Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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