Fashion Do's

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July 17 2001 9:00 PM

Fashion Do's

Marie Claire. Vogue. Harper's Bazaar. What's the difference?

{{Marie Claire#112071}}If you're not a devoted reader of women's magazines, you may have been mystified or even slightly appalled by all of the anxious hand-wringing over the recent rotation of editors in chief. Why, you may wonder, is so much time and ink being wasted on these anachronistic magazines? Who cares if Harper's Bazaar turns into Marie Claire; aren't they all the same anyway?

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Well, not yet, though they're getting close. Women's magazines today are a far cry from the luscious and sophisticated fantasy escapes that many of us grew up with in the '60s and '70s. Instead of helping to create women's highest aspirations, they now appeal to the lowest female common denominator—they're increasingly obsessive, gossipy, insecure, and conformist. But the fact that women's magazines have gotten dumber and weaker as women have gotten smarter and stronger is not the result of a backlash conspiracy. Rather, it's a pragmatic choice on the part of publishers (many of whom are female), who have very consciously selected quantity of readers over quality of content—even though, in this field, snob appeal can sell almost as well as crude sensationalism, emotional purging, or ditzy chatter.

{{Glamour#112072}}Which is why the current round of firings has caused so much angst and confusion. Kate Betts was ousted from Harper's Bazaar, supposedly because she had taken the mag too far from its elegant and sophisticated roots. But she was replaced with Glenda Bailey from Marie Claire, which is kind of like the female version of the raunchy Maxim. Meanwhile, Bonnie Fuller, who was hired away from Cosmopolitan to tart up the staid Glamour, was fired for sexing it up and replaced with Cindi Leive of Self, which was even more staid than the old Glamour.

Obviously, the economics and identity politics of women's mags are kind of like the magazines themselves: It's better not to read into them too deeply. Instead, the magazines should be enjoyed for what they are and evaluated according to their basic, service-oriented mission: to dispense information and advice on what to buy and wear. Here's a subject-by-subject rundown on how they currently stack up:

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Clothes."Fashion changes; style remains," Coco Chanel famously stated, and all the magazines like to quote her endlessly. Unfortunately, not one seems to fully understand what she meant. Each offers what's hot, whether or not it's innovative, of good quality, or wearable. Of them all, the fashion editor at Elle has the best eye for clothes that are edgy but don't make you look like a 14-year-old. If you want to look like a 14-year-old, reach for Lucky, which offers the most exhaustive, nondiscriminating survey of trends. While the other mags feel content to offer only three versions of the of-the-moment, paint-splattered T, Lucky will give you at least 12. In Style has a marvelous feature in which you ask, for instance, which bra Jennifer Love Hewitt wore in Heartbreakers, and they go find out for you (Malizia by La Perla, $156).

Accessories. Hands down, W offers the most innovative and high-quality jewelry and bags.

Sex. Well, it depends on what you mean by sex. If you want to find your man's G-spot, go straight to Cosmo or Glamour. (Reach fast for the latter; Leive, who's now editing Glamour, made Self almost medicinally asexual.) If, on the other hand, you like your sex accompanied by a healthy relationship, Elle is the better choice. Though many of their relationship pieces merely regurgitate conventional wisdom, nearly all are lively and well-written.

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Beauty/fitness. For the most obsessive details on the best way to eat, exercise, and take care of your skin, you want to read Self. Fortunately, you don't have to read it every month (not much new news in this arena). As for makeup, most of the magazines do trend reports, which are pretty much interchangeable. (It gets amusing, though, when on one page they counsel on which specific colors and products are "in" and on the next they'll tell you which colors and products go with individual faces.) Allure is for those who want detailed guidance; it's obsessive, but at least it knows it's obsessive. It's also handy in beauty emergencies (blush overdoses, wedding-day breakouts, streaky self-tanner).

Psychology. Again, Elle is the only one that tries to focus on this stuff. Half the articles turn out inane ("The Pretty Girl Discount"), but the other half are really smart. The current issue has an excellent piece on the difference between self-perception and peer perception.

Kultcha. True, this is not what we read women's magazines for. (Though we used to.) But if you want to keep up with what's "hot" (as opposed to what's good) and if you're more interested in the artist/writer/choreographer than her work, turn to Vogue for a fairly articulate roundup. Vogue also wins points for featuring the witty food writing of Jeffrey Steingarten. (Which unintentionally deepens the magazine's illusion of perfection. Steingarten is unabashed about his Rabelaisian appetite. Being able to eat like him and then look like the size-4 model on the next page—now that's what every woman wants.) Elle does a good job as well, though it focuses mostly on books. And this is where Lucky's exhaustiveness can be really useful; the current issue has a wonderful survey of Cuban music.

Celebrities. Most of the magazines do an appetizer of socialite/celebrity looks and gossip; in W it's the main course. W is important if you have a need to keep up with today's rendition of ladies who lunch ("it" girls who do coke?). But if you really want to get into celebrity closets (and bathrooms and gardens), you have to read In Style. Voyeuristically satisfying, it also confirms on a monthly basis that money and/or fame do not buy taste.

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Snob factor. With its obsession with brand names and its cartoonishly pretentious editor in chief, Vogue wins hands down. Unlike the other editors, Anna Wintour understands the desire women have for a monthly escape into a more glamorous, luxurious world. Unfortunately, she confuses glamour with cliques, making Vogue only slightly more sophisticated than high school. (She's been known to reject job applicants because their clothes are "too matchy" and to kill pieces because the writer's picture wouldn't look good on her contributor page.)

Not coincidentally, the closest magazine in recent years to offer women anything near the real sophistication they crave is Wallpaper, which was intended to appeal more to men. Wallpaper offers a world in which travel and culture are expected and brains and beauty are natural. While Wallpaper is far too caught up in its own particular brand of style to be of long-term interest or importance, it does get the idea that fashion/design magazines are about fantasy, not reality.

On the other hand, sometimes it's nice to nurture aspirations no greater than figuring out which brush goes best with which chemically processed hair.

Karen Lehrman is writing a book on the substance of style.

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