By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Fashion magazine articles are specious and silly all year long, but the gargantuan heft of the September issues provides an especially rich goldmine of the hilarious, the incongruous, the patently offensive, and the just plain idiotic. On the assumption that you would never read this stuff yourself, we've combed the editorial pages of W, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, Elle, and The New York Times's "Fashions of the Times," and are ready to share an almost unbelievable cornucopia of sophistry:
Class antagonisms: Though every magazine assumes you have thousands of dollars to lavish on new ensembles every season, they go about worming the cash out of your pockets in different ways. Vogue invites you to wallow in a frank, lusty, self-congratulatory decadence, describing the redux hippie clothes of fall '99 as "Bohemian style a very expensive, richly decorated, real fur, real stones, real crocodile version," and nodding approvingly over the Fendi bag preferred by the politically aware Winona Ryder (its telltale Fs are overlaid with Tibetan embroidery). A feature entitled "A Couture Diary" doesn't bother with subtlety: it offers a laudatory review of Versace's latest collection ("Sleek Jackie Kennedy double-face pieces are worn over sequined underpants") right next to seven solid pages of Versace advertising. (Further on, "Couture Diary" notes with pleasure a Valentino coat made of crocodile that is lined with rosebuds crocodiles are big at Vogue this year and Erik Halley's "miniature top hat with a crystal-frosted cockerel's skeleton on top.") Another Vogueeffort, on the joys of shopping at Bergdorf Goodman with your mommy, quotes a socialite explaining, "I can't find anything at a cheap store." And a paean to a VIP health club that charges a $5500 annual fee and $85 to $145 per session (visiting three times a week for a year will run you $17,000) lists Wendy Wasserstein as a former client (maybe not the greatest advertisement . . . ).
If Vogue is haughty and insouciant, Harper's Bazaarexhorts you to become one of the cool kids, employing an annoying locution suitable to the cast of Dawson's Creek. Countless groovys, rockin's, kickin's, et cetera, litter its pages (Donatella throws "the most kickin' celeb-and-model party"; "Armani . . . threw a rockin' party" for Eric Clapton. "We can't contain ourselves anymore," froth the authors of a section called "Fashion FYI." "We simply have to acquire at least one of these cool rings.") This is particularly grating when the groovy gewgaws in question sport anything but junior high school price tags.
Race matters: The politics of class are one thing, race and religion quite another. While most magazines draw the line at overt prejudice, the eugenicists over at Voguewade right in: In an article about cover girl Gwyneth Paltrow the author writes, "her grace and charm are well documented. And sure, the DNA factor of her mother, Blythe Danner, has much to do with Paltrow's gamine elegance. She is a born WASP." Funny, we always attributed Gwyneth's gamine elegance to the other half of her inheritance, those Jewish Paltrow genes.
The money shot: Of course, underlying the fantasy world of the magazine is cold, hard cash. (They don't waste time ferreting out and interviewing chic cashiers, bank tellers, secretaries, or other wage slaves living paycheck to paycheck.) Wfrankly acknowledges the harsh reality, running a bubbly interview with hacienda-matron "Patricia Phelps de Cisneros of Caracas, Manhattan, Madrid, Aspen, and anywhere else she wants her G-V to take her . . . " (One photo shows a cavernous room filled with towering examples of Patty's rare 18th-century Venezuelan paintings; another shows a lone, unidentified black man in servant's garb setting a table on a lush veranda.) A terse profile of CNBC business anchor Maria Bartiromo (she's married to the son of jillionaire Saul Steinberg) quotes her as saying "People should be aware of what their 401k is investing in. . . . There's no reason to believe this stuff is over your head. A woman, particularly a woman, needs to know. It's not brain surgery."
Tell that to the author of Harper's Bazaar's "The Fashion $1000," an amusing series of interviews chronicling the first time various women spent more than a thou on a single fashion item which begins, "All this obsessing over the stock market has a particularly male cast to it. . . . I obsess over other numbers: whether my $300 round-toe Guccis will stay in style for the whole season. . . . " When this naïf asks Mrs. William F. Buckley Jr. what she spent her first thousand on, that lady sniffs and refuses to answer (maybe it was a pair of gloves or a camisole?), but not before she chides the author for her inattention to the market: "It is where our husbands' money comes from," she snaps.
Dead reckoning: Who says fashion magazines don't pay attention to late-breaking news events? Every book that went to press after July 18 took the opportunity to wax eloquent over the untimely death of poor Carolyn Bessette Kennedy; not one but two magazines list, among her major contributions, the courage to wear a peculiar skirt length. In W's epitaph, "Years ago, Klein was one of the first to push the 'New Length,' the then-awkward below-the-knee skirt proportion that has been ubiquitous ever since. At the time it was a hard sell, even among fashion types, some even on Calvin's staff. But when Carolyn walked into a party dressed in one of those skirts, a sweater, boots, and her gloriously disheveled mane, she converted countless doubters." Bazaaralso recreates this touching moment, albeit featuring a different designer: "She emerged from the couple's Tribeca loft wearing a Prada skirt with the new longer hemline. By being one of the first to wear it, she basically showed the entire American population how to wear that length. . . . "
Paging Madame Blavatsky: Nut cures have been a staple of the magazine world for over 100 years, and September is no different. Though an article in Voguecalled "Slim Pickings," about a cellulite-busting pill called Cellasene, is refreshingly candid (it doesn't work), a piece entitled "Fashion Feng Shui" sinks rapidly back into credulity, never once questioning the validity of a theory that argues that your personal fate depends on which corner of a room you put the wastepaper basket in. (On the advice of the feng shui "master" profiled in the article, a Dallas multimillionaire tore up the costly final-stage blueprints of her house. "The landscape artist freaked out, but the pool was in the wrong place," the master explains. "I told her, If you put water in that corner, it will destroy your relationship with your husband. . . . ")
Even when the mags turn their attention to more conventional medicine, their advice can be mirth-producing. A title in Ellepromises "Three Ways To Slim" but the trio of subjects is quirky at best: one is a strict vegetarian whose idea of a treat is a slice of green pepper; another won't eat pasta, bread, or even a piece of fruit (the sugar!); and the third, a flibbertigibbet who gorges on Snickers and macaroni-and-cheese and sloppy joes, just eats and eats and can't seem to gain an ounce.
Last year's models: In the hermetically sealed world of the fashion mags, the critical eye is exercised only retroactively. Every new collection must be met with puppy-panting enthusiasm; six months later, it's OK to slash and burn. (How else to convince you to throw out perfectly good stuff and buy something else?) Thus the "Fashions of the Times" declares: "No More Boring Fashion. Let's be frank. In the past few years, fashion got fat and flabby so lazy, so used to being the center of attention without even trying. Letting the supermodels sell clothes instead of ideas, putting all the creativity into advertising. But last season, things started to change. . . . " And Vogue, in a puff piece for a leather jacket, instructs the reader to "Turn your slick-jacketed back on last year's amorphous dirndls and floaty, unwhittled waistlines (did someone say 'unflattering'?). Instead, zip up, strap on, and shimmy into sexy molded pieces that won't leave onlookers wondering where your curves have gone." As if 704 pages weren't enough, the magazine comes packed with an insert called Vogue's Runway Guide From A to Z, a lexicon wherein "W is for Wait-lists." A roster of pricey, hard-to-find items follows, including Michael Kors suede pants, Helmut Lang biker jackets, pink-and-brown Prada mules, and hand-knitted Christian Dior sweaters. But before you rush over to Madison Avenue or down to SoHo and add your name to a list, shouldn't you try to figure out which of these wonderful treasures Voguewill fling on the dung heap next September?