This article originally appeared in Newsday.
Fall Fashion Special!
Civilization, "the magazine of the Library of Congress," quietly ushered in a small cultural breakthrough last month when it published an article about this century's "Top 50 Stylish People." Of course, there's an appropriately highbrow rationale for the magazine's curious traipse into the Peoplesque realm of celebrity quantification: as the subjects of "The Jerry Springer Show" and "When Animals Attack!" grow harder and harder to distinguish, a Paul Stuart double-breasted gray flannel suit may indeed be the last vestige of the "civilized."
Oh, and an issue devoted to style was also a smart business decision. The magazine, designed by guest editor Bill Blass and featuring nearly a dozen fashion-related articles, helped attract eight pages of clothing ads. Which may not sound like much, but it's about eight more pages of clothing ads than Civilization usually boasts.
This is the time of year, of course, when seemingly every magazine dons its Cosmo drag and unveils its big Special Fashion Issue. The New Yorker has its "Fashion Focus" edition, where even stories about Russia's current economic troubles are spun with a fashion thread: "What will people wear if the Communists succeed in turning back history?" Rolling Stone and Spin devote more pages to their "Style Portfolios" and "Fall Fashion Specials" than they do to album reviews. Even Forbes FYI attempts to interest its buttoned-down workaholic subscribers in the extracurricular pleasures of cotton moleskin pants and angora vests.
And why not? Fashion has reached a new plateau of popularity over the last decade. Supermodels and designers are even more familiar to us now than sitcom stars; live fashion shows have replaced theater for people seeking real-time entertainment experiences with minimal dancing requirements. Except for a few shows on cable, however, TV has yet to create programing specifically designed to attract fashion enthusiasts. And many fashion advertisers are interested only in a small group of extremely affluent consumers anyway, which magazines are still more efficient at aggregating than TV.
Unlike book reviews or movie reviews or any other type of editorial content that also helps in courting specific categories of advertisers, the negative fashion spread pretty much does not exist. Fashion pages serve wholly as promotional devices. This presents magazine editors with one of their greatest challenges: How to make what is essentially advertising seem like it's not; how to infuse the fashion spread with the magazine's unique editorial perspective, in a way that both pleases potential advertisers and also allows the editors themselves to maintain the notion that they're more than just ad reps. It's an exercise that inspires some especially creative work.
Most fashion spreads use text sparingly; a little is required to list prices and brands, and to introduce the magazine's "voice" to the ceremony. But too much can divert attention from the clothes, so the anonymous scribes who write such copy are generally kept on a tight leash. On occasion, a magazine will simply cut out the middleman and let designers essentially write their own copy. In the September GQ, for example, in a spread entitled "Three for the Road," Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan all assess their latest collections. It's the kind of set-up any artist would like; imagine if Rolling Stone allowed Marilyn Manson to review his latest album. "This collection embraces and reflects both a timelessness and a modern attitude," he might conclude, as Ralph Lauren did about his most recent line of timeless, modern apparel.
Frankly, I prefer the work of the anonymous scribes - they try so much harder. All of their writerly ambition - the stuff that was supposed to fuel novels and screenplays and epic poems in terza rima - gets compressed into hyper-evocative nubbins of clothes prose. The best place for such stuff these days is Esquire, which takes on a chatty, instructive, albeit paradoxical tone. It assumes its readers are supremely interested in and sensitive to the subtlest details of haberdashery, and yet completely ignorant about such matters as well: "Though it's as masculinely tailored as any blazer," a typical Esquire garment coach advises at one point, "it is completely unlined, meaning it hangs on a man more like a favorite old sweater."
Better still, however, are the passages that weave the rough strands of life and the hard cloth of commerce into rich, eggplant-toned swatches of irresistably persuasive copy. In a spread featuring two sleepy-looking Argentines duped into an inexplicable let's-squeeze-this-soccer-ball-between-our-heads-until-it-explodes pose, the writer explains, "For many poor Argentines, soccer represents the same difficult path to a better life that basketball does in the States. Left: Wool pinstripe suit ($1,570)." Elsewhere in the issue, another writer conjures historic images of imperial pillage to help sell really soft scarves and neckties: "Cashmere is of a lush galaxy all its own, and you can understand the amazement of Napoleon's soldiers when they first pulled the exotic shawls off their dead and captured Mamluk enemies in 1798."
Art directors, charged with making the same old khakis and button-downs look fresh and intriguing issue after issue, must also draw upon their full powers of innovation. At this point, however, they've used almost every available trick. Instead of using photographs or traditional fashion sketches, for example, Details has comic book-style illustrations. Other magazines have done fashion spreads using mannequins instead of mannequin-like people; Spin recently featured a spread of a young model hanging himself with a stylish, silver-buckled belt. Alas, when death is cheap and a single pair of Dolce & Gabbana pants can set you back almost two grand, it would probably be most shocking simply to dispense with the clothes altogether and photograph, in up-close, ultra-vivid detail, the sales receipts for them. So far, however, no one has yet dared run something so provocative.
Is all the effort that magazines spend on their fashion spreads worth it? Well, the spreads do offer at least one significant benefit for magazines sweating out the never-ending quest for product differentiation in the periodical marketplace. Even as they help sell their advertisers' clothes to readers, they help sell their readers to other advertisers. The models serve as stand-ins: This is who our readers are, and who they aspire to be, the spreads suggest, graphic testimony that's often more convincing than plain demographic data in helping to attract a suitably upscale assemblage of lifestyle advertisers.
Consider, for example, those Civilization subscribers. Until the
Bill Blass style issue, advertisers might have assumed they were a bunch
of frumpy librarians interested in little more than out-of-print books
and overly cryptic crossword puzzles. But now the word is out -
they're actually surprisingly stylish clotheshorses, whose true
enthusiasms run toward expensive suits, ornate watches and premium
liquor, just like everyone else.