A Loss for Words

A Loss for Words

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.

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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.

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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.

There are heartening exceptions. One is Amy Spindler of the New York Times, who seems to take clothes seriously without excess or apology, deploying a quick imagination and an interest in detail that give her writing a fine attentive sting. (A Versace show "opened with razor-sharp bias-cut asymmetrical navy dresses, stern except for a frill at the hem and a swatch of black lace that masked eyes.") There was Kennedy Fraser, late of The New Yorker, whose witty essays on fashion published in that magazine during the 1970s have since, happily, been collected. Holly Brubach, who succeeded Fraser at TheNew Yorker, kept the standard high during her time there. A big exception is the fashion journalism of France, where a noticeable respect for fashion has been a standard common attitude since the 17th century. Fashion is as acceptable in France as any imaginative work, and criticism about it has certainly flourished there. Denis Diderot has much to say about dress in the theater, and Honoré de Balzac wrote an incisive treatise on neckties, among his many essays on elegance. Stéphane Mallarmé actually did a bit of fashion reporting in the 1870s, some under the name of "Mlle. Satin." (One good current French critic is Laurence Benaïm, whose thoughful pieces appear regularly in Le Monde.)

But fashion has been without honor in the English-speaking world for so long that we are afraid to take it seriously--solemnly, yes, as we take so many things, but not with ordinary seriousness. When we are not in raptures, or disapproving in the name of female realities, we are likely to wax sociological and psychological about fashion, to weigh it down with quasiscientific meaning--out of some ancient fear, perhaps, of its obvious debt to Eros.

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L ois Gould was writing about ready-to-wear fashion, which tends to be dealt with all the more hysterically (see Robert Altman's film Prêt-a-Porter) for there being huge amounts of money at stake in the success or failure of its collections. These clothes are designed for large-scale factory production, and the chief customer is a bulk buyer. Journalists feel responsible for protecting a serious financial investment each season. Trying to summon and express good judgment may be next to impossible--even good judgment about what will sell.

And so we still have the haute couture with its extreme apparitions twice a year, an enterprise frequently announced as dead but repeatedly revived as a well-publicized modern game. Haute couture was invented in the 1850s to serve private clients privately. The press was only grudgingly allowed into its by-invitation-only showings nearly half a century after famous Paris couturiers first began holding sway over the clothing of the world's elegant women. Reporters had to sneak into Ascot and Longchamps or modish restaurants and theaters, or crash chic garden parties to see what was being worn by whom. They could sketch or describe new fashions as accurately as their spying talents permitted.

In the present climate, it's the reporters and camerapersons who create the public event. The clothes seem aimed only at the news media, made only for models who exist only to be transmuted into media projections (verbal and pictorial), cooked up to be consumed by a public who not only won't wear the clothes but will never see them being actually worn. The prose and the images form the entire experience.

The couture client is, in fact, still private. The show is only partly for the distant world served by the camera and the commentator; the rest is for her and her like, seated in the front row. For the private client, there are still masterpieces of rare delicacy and breathtaking beauty or exquisitely simple practicality, all made possible by the materials and hand-workmanship available to couture houses, and conceived by designers modifying their ideas to suit each client's taste and figure. For the media, however, the designer uses the same resources for explosions of bizarre novelty or to indulge his wildest fantasies--not all of them benign--about women, clothes, and the world. Money is not the point here; prestige is. Writers could find true scope for their interpretive talents if they could gain true prestige from meeting the challenge.

These elements of each couture show--exquisite clothes for the super-rich, unbelievable costumes for the supermodels--together make up a vision of hope and glory, a kind of poetry about the possible beauty of possible women. Oscar Wilde, another great writer on fashion, said, "All art must be useless." Couture demands writers who will do its uselessness justice.