A Loss for Words

Fashion and its victims.
Feb. 5 1997 3:30 AM

A Loss for Words

Why there's no good writing about fashion.

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For a recent piece in the New York Times Magazine, Lois Gould went to see the latest ready-to-wear fashion collections--not as a reporter, but as a guest. She then wrote about reporters and runways together as a tout ensemble, accessorized by camera crews, designers, clients, and others present. A novelist and feminist, Gould has the stance of a resolute outsider; her mother was a fashion designer, and Gould has built her identity on having none of it. She approaches the undertaking in the spirit of satire--the serious writer's favored mode since the Middle Ages for dealing with fashion--and, since fashion now has no existence without its spin doctors, Gould included them as part of her target.

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She quoted one of a group of reporters: "Can't we call it something--so it souds new?" And another: "If I can stick to information, I won't have to say I hate it." She overheard equivocal efforts to "call it something," so that " 'I like the concept' usually meant ugly"; and that when "Miyake had baggy prison garb, the word on that was 'intellectual' "; or that "if it looks like an old pinup of Rita Hayworth in a nightie, it's a return to femininity." And so the news media, Gould marveled sardonically, "manage to explain it all." But while journalists feel they must sneer at the "same old" character of the handsome wearable designs, clients and buyers greet them with applause.

Gould was discovering an unfortunate dilemma in the profession of fashion journalism: Since writers don't feel allowed to come right out and say they "hate it"--a collection, an item--or to praise what is really praiseworthy but not new enough, their writing tends to develop an oblique, distorted character. It's often clear they hate something, if only the horrid jostle and pressure of covering the shows; or, maybe, it's dislike of their own contorted rhetoric that's rubbing off on what they say about the clothes. It gives the phrases that "explain" the garments an over-the-top quality that only adds absurdity to an art already taking big aesthetic risks. ("The master of clean, Calvin Klein pairs thongs and a strapless dress with symmetrical slashes in silver, lending an Eastern flavor to his minimalist ethic"--Vogue.) Since this prose is often all the public gets, along with a few minimally informative photos, the long-term effect is to keep fashion looking much sillier than it actually is.

The effect is compounded by the steady pressure on the public consciousness of ad copy, which consistently overpraises fashion goods and so debases their real aesthetic value. Of course, hysterical praise has always been lavished on finery by folk in the business ("It looks terrific, it's fabulous, it's YOU")--and not just in this century, but back through the two previous ones. In Fanny Burney's Evelina, published in 1778, there is an early scene at a London fabric shop:

I thought I would never have chosen a silk, for they produced so many, I knew not which to fix upon, and they recommended them all so strongly, that I fancy they thought I only wanted persuasion to buy everything they showed me. And indeed they took so much trouble, that I was almost ashamed I could not.

At the accessory shop, the country girl is surprised to be served by men:

And such men! so finical, so affected! They seemed to understand every part of a woman's dress better than we do ourselves: and they recommended caps and ribands with an air of so much importance, that I wished to ask them how long they had left off wearing them!

Nothing the matter with buying lovely new things; it's the invasive verbal hype that interferes with personal judgment and turns the happy effort into an embarrassing burden.

Credit for most good writing about clothing during the same three-century period must go to the poets and novelists. Tolstoy's rendering of Anna Karenina's magic in her black ball gown, or of Princess Betsy's décolletage at the theater, stand out as examples, along with Henry James' magnificent glancing allusions to the emotional power generated by a rustle, a ribbon, the drawing on of a pair of gloves.

Lately, however, there is less and less of this in literature. Fashion journalists and sensational fictioneers like Danielle Steele have co-opted the field, and other writers are scared off. Fashion now seems like a club with a private jargon that leaves no room for the play of sensitive literary exposition. And good critical writing about clothing hardly exists at all. There is no tradition of clothes criticism that includes serious analysis, or even of costume criticism among theater, ballet, and opera critics, who do have an august writerly heritage. This fact may be what makes the fashion journalist hate her job--the painful sense that real work cannot be done in this genre, that it would be better, more honorable, to be writing about something else.

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