The September Issue

SeptIssue300I’ve always been a fashion magazine addict (I delivered newspapers as a kid in order to support the habit), and the September issues were always the most important to me. Turns out, I’m not alone. One in ten American women consults the September issue of Vogue magazine, and it made me wonder: what does the most recent issue tell us about ourselves?

Working as I do at the Norman Lear Center, I can’t help but notice evidence of the elaborate symbiotic relationship between the entertainment biz and the fashion biz. The September Issue, the new documentary about Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington’s efforts to churn out a fashion bible, may be the most obvious. But references to Hollywood and its dream factory are everywhere in the print edition as well, from the Charlize Theron cover (have you noticed that models never, ever appear on the covers of fashion magazines anymore?) to the Halle Barry, Jennifer Connelly and Marion Cotillard ads, and Michael Kors’ new ‘Very Hollywood’ perfume. The fantasy that we all need to ‘get red carpet ready,’ as the Kors’ ad instructs us, bleeds quite nicely into Emmy season, which, for many fashion-followers, is more about who wore what than who won.

While Vogue has always signified high-end aspirational fashion, the evidence of the financial crisis is clear in this September issue. Some may be embarrassed to suggest that shopping is a form of entertainment in the middle of a terrible recession, but Vogue editor Anna Wintour has no qualms about this. ‘Stores are fun, even if you’re not going to buy anything,’ she explains, and it’s Vogue’s responsibility to make sure people keep shopping.

And if you feel too guilty to buy something for yourself, why not buy something for the sake of charity? On September 10, Vogue sponsored ‘Fashion’s Night Out,’ a series of shopping events in major cities around the world. The event in New York benefited the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, as well as local retailers hit hard by the crisis.

Wintour invited bargain shoppers (I use the term ironically) to peruse the Index of 100 items under $500 (of course all the good stuff is over $450).

Needless to say, the absurd luxury is still there – let’s play croquet in Balenciaga! – as well as the wacky surreal stuff (witness Madonna’s psychedelic rabbit ears in her Louis Vuitton ad), but low, middle, and high-brow mix in surprising ways for a tony publication like Vogue, and I don’t think it’s just because of the recession. This issue of Vogue captures the fractured aesthetics of 21st century fashion and female identity. When you see a Waspy minimalist Hugo Boss ad across the fold from the multiracial bling bling bling of Baby Phat, you get the message: theoretically, at least, there’s room for everyone in fashion right now – no matter what your class background may be. Mall stores like Express are in the Vogue mix now along with low-enders like Payless Shoesource, which touts its line of accessories from Project Runway winner Christian Siriano. Maybe now more than ever the symbols of elitism have drifted further and further away from their obvious referents. In an age of instant communication, copying and remixing, potent markers for wealth and prestige quickly become available to the masses: now, when I see a Louis Vuitton bag in Vogue, I don’t think ‘expensive luggage’ I think ‘Canal Street.’ I’m surely not the only one.

In the past, I’ve felt like I needed a shower after witnessing countless displays of sexual equipment, strategic nudity, glazed eyes and pouty lips that are the bread and butter of high-fashion advertising. This issue strikes a very different chord. The nutty Lanvin ad, which looks like the model tripped over some exotic black cats with weird teeth, captures a certain kind of chic apparent in several campaigns: opposed to the S/M aesthetic so perennially popular in fashion, these ads dehumanize their models in a less sexually-charged fashion. More like robots than dominatrixes – more high-tech and a little less human – this trend criss-crosses the pages of September Vogue. Not all of these ads are asexual per se – Jean Paul Gaultier gives it a bit of a boyish lesbian twist, and Covergirl succeeds in transforming Rihanna into an anime character that is unreal, yes, but not without her sexual charms. Regardless, the no-holds barred sexiness of the Tom Ford Gucci era is virtually invisible now. The T and A factor is also extremely low in the arty photo spreads that start a full 463 pages into the issue. Despite the rhetoric of the introduction – ‘This is a season for smiles!’ – the set-pieces suggest something decidedly more business-like. While the ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ spread (I kid you not) captures some of the primal sexual energy of the fairy tale, there’s not one iota of doubt that she’ll escape unscathed. Classy spreads featuring coats and suits and lots of 40s hats suggest a fashion aesthetic that isn’t geared toward sexual objectives, but style objectives instead.

It’s hard to overestimate the impact of this magazine: localized editions appear in thirteen territories around the world from China to Brazil. Sure, fashion is a bit of silliness, but no one can seriously ignore a $1.7 trillion global industry (that’s the projection for 2010). Vogue magazine is its bible, and if we want to know anything about how women might think they ought to think of themselves today, this is one place we have to look. It is right there – among the ads for birth control pills, wrinkle correction systems, and butt-shaping jeans that we can glimpse our fantasies, our obsessions, our aspirations.

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