The following article was written for TACK, a newly launched fashion web magazine that I shall be contributing to via my own monthly column.
Quality is often the first causality when quantity increases. This is certainly true of fashion magazines, which are appearing at a dizzying rate in both soft and hard copy. Whilst I have come across several new titles that I genuinely like, the articles within these publications, if they include anything more than photographs, are really just chewing gum for the brain. Some of the writing that appears between the deluxe paper covers or behind the highly stylized home pages online might sate a small craving that I have for fashion news, and I might even return to the publication later for further grazing, but my hunger for informed, intelligent and thought-provoking analysis on style and culture generally persists.
In a much discussed and retweeted article for the Business Of Fashion, Colin McDowell recently lamented the lack of critical thought in contemporary fashion writing.
Whereas most art forms are kept on their toes by informed commentary, the fashion world has virtually none. No wonder it is currently so unhealthy that the only news that it can proudly muster concerns store openings, profit reports and the continual musical chairs of designer appointments and departures. Never a word about creativity.
McDowell paints an unsettling picture of an industry where the majority of magazine editors are beholden to fashion houses run by capricious designers, who seek to quash critical commentary with speed and spite. The result is a perennial recycling of anodyne platitudes about “New Looks” that confuse consumers and commoditize our culture.
McDowell doesn’t reference the work of Theodor Adorno, his collaborator Max Horkheimer or Guy Debord in his aforementioned article, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they feature in his forthcoming book The Anatomy of Fashion. Influenced by Marxist thought and writing around the start of the Cold War, these sociologists were alarmed at the ease with which people had succumbed to the bright lights and catchy tunes emanating from their television sets and sound systems. Adorno and Debord foresaw the end of society as they knew it, certainly the end of culture. People had become estranged from one another; they lacked critical thought and swooned over objects that the bright lights and catchy tunes had persuaded them to purchase. In the introduction to Dialektik der Aufklärung (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944), Adorno and Horkheimer wrote:
[W]e had set ourselves nothing less than the discovery of why mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism.
Adorno and Debord’s bleak message was amplified by Roland Barthes, a contemporary sociologist who was interested in the way fashion magazines communicated about clothing. Barthes suggested that fashion writing, which labeled something hot or not with varying degrees of subtlety, constructed powerful meanings and evoked connotations that influenced consumer spending. As he wrote at the beginning of Système de la Mode (The Fashion System, 1967):
I open a fashion magazine; I see that two different garments are being dealt with here. The first is the one presented to me as photographed or drawn — it is image-clothing. The second is the same garment, but described, transformed into language; this dress photographed on the right, becomes on the left: a leather belt, with a rose stuck in it, worn above the waist on a soft Shetland dress; this is a written garment.
Similar to McDowell, Adorno, Horkheimer and Debord expressed concern that, along with music and television, popular writing was becoming a vehicle for consumerism: a commercial tool to persuade people to purchase, rather than an independent voice to encourage them to ponder creativity and culture.
Considering the power of the written word in fashion writing, which Barthes was really the first to appreciate, I sincerely hope that McDowell’s clarion call for criticism is heard and acted upon. I’m aware this will take time. Style magazines with the highest circulations have not always maintained the best editorial standards, and the slew of new magazines that purport to cover fashion, art and culture have mostly followed their wayward lead. Many of these newly launched publications court famous names and brands that they tend to feature in photographic essays — an oxymoron if ever there was one. Want-to-be editors are too quick to respond to incipient sartorial trends, seemingly without devoting much thought to the values or voice they wish their journals to espouse.
It might seem as though my argument is morphing into a moan every bit as annoying as a bellyache, but if this means I am heard and get fed, then so be it. I long to feast on a style magazine that leaves me feeling bloated after I have shamelessly devoured it. I want to remember and mull over articles long after I’ve read them the way I would savor a delicious dinner. Unfortunately, until the majority of editors realize that intellectual nourishment is probably more likely to provide interesting and edifying content than vacuous catwalk commentaries and banal blandishments about what to wear, my hunger pangs will persist.
By contributing to TACK, I hope I can offer something of interest to the many people I know who are just as hungry for fashion writing informed by history, literature, philosophy and the arts as I am.
So without further ado, let’s eat — I’m starving!