The Big Lie – the complete book online - 19 Fashion

Article Index

 

Chapter 19

How to make a statement though completely inarticulate

Fashion

Fashion is only for people who don’t know who they are. Quentin Crisp

Fashion is fleeting; style is lasting. If you’ve got style, you don’t need fashion. In theory, observers of the fashion scene tell us, if a teenage girl were sufficiently self-actualised to wear her granny’s housecoat to a hip-hop rave, and cool enough to bring it off, the next week all the ravers would be dressed as Mrs Mop. (Remember granny glasses?) But few of us are self-confident enough to abandon the display which identifies us. Just as few people would have had the courage to walk the streets of 1930s Soho as a flamboyant cross-dresser, as Quentin Crisp did. Because the more usual result of eccentric behaviour is ostracism by the peer group. Otherwise men wouldn’t wear suits to the office and jeans at the weekend. As change occurs, society responds by ritualising it: to wear a suit to the office on Friday, at a company which has adopted a Friday dress-down policy, is equally unthinkable. In practice, acceptance of new fashions depends on the status of the innovator. Only the king could get away with wearing no clothes. Today the princes and princesses of popular culture wield that kind of power, their techniques of display proselytised and their status reconfirmed by the courtiers of the media. The merchants of advertising, hovering as ever on the verges of any new source of empowerment, are quick to clothe old ideas in new garments.

The need to conform is a powerful drive. Cultural movements which promise simple, complete answers to social problems thrive, from new religions to fashion magazines. They allow us to resolve fearfulness and insecurity without the labour of exercising independent judgement. Fashion commentators tell the teenage girl what to wear, whom to go out with, why she’s upset, how to deal with sex. They tell her mother the same. In 1999 women were putting their names on waiting-lists in London’s smart shops for the privilege of shelling out over £1,000 for a small sausage-shaped handbag with a distinctive logo: the Fendi baguette was the “must-have” badge of the season. In recent years, men and boys have succumbed to similar influences.

Department stores used to encourage individual choice by grouping garments together. There was a corsetry department, haberdashery and suits, available for inspection, each in its own area. Today these items appear all over the store, so if you aim to make a functional choice through comparison, it’s a nightmarish task. That’s because department stores, which advertise very little, have realised that most of their customers now shop for “designer labels” which advertise a great deal. We have chosen to become label victims, because it’s easier, and safer for our self-esteem, than venturing an independent evaluation. An important part of the appeal is that labels advertise our status, turning us into walking hoardings flaunting the brand name.

The mass marketing of fashion began with the glamour of Hollywood stars, ceaselessly invoked as female role models. In the 1920s Clara Bow showed her knees and millions of flappers raised their hemlines. In 1930 the studio photographer on the set of Hell’s Angels highlighted the glow of actress Jean Harlow’s blonde hair with a spotlight, and MGM’s publicists invented the phrase “platinum blonde”. Before that film was released most hairdressers were reluctant to apply bleach, but afterwards, according to her biography, “beauty parlors in every major city were overwhelmed, as tens of thousands of women demanded platinum”.

Hollywood showed women how they were supposed to look, and how to behave. Waves of fashion stimulated women to adopt Marlene Dietrich’s eyebrows, Joan Crawford’s squared shoulders, Jane Russell’s pointed breasts, Greta Garbo’s cheekbones, Paulette Goddard’s pert sophistication, Marilyn Monroe’s wanton vulnerability. The glamour machine could persuade women to do almost anything: bob their hair, shave their armpits, pluck their eyebrows, pad their shoulders, wear trousers. Advertising testimonials from Hollywood stars, and the society ladies who imitated them, promised to fulfil adolescent daydreams via everything from shampooing to smoking. Men were not invulnerable to such impressions. Clark Gable was single-handedly responsible for a decline in the sale of undershirts when he stripped off his shirt and appeared bare-chested in a film, and for the effective demise of the traditional industry of Danbury, Connecticut when he went hatless. The new reality of the permissive generations of the 1960s and 1970s threw up more attainable role models, until Madonna returned to glamour, with her sadistic, ironic interpretation of the old Hollywood values, while other pop stars encouraged women to shave their heads.

Celebrity testimonials are still ubiquitous in fashion advertisements, though now the selection of role models is eclectic. Glossy magazines are the medium of choice. The mannequins who feature in them have emerged from anonymity to become supermodels, making the transition from objective example to subjective endorser. The mid-1990s campaign for the retail chain Gap included writers and philosophers, as well as actors, in its roll-call of personality endorsers. The portrayal of the garment was incidental. The idea, captured in moody black-and-white photographs by leading impressionists such as Annie Leibowitz, was that the choice of apparel somehow captured the soul of the personality. An American advertisement featuring the druggy philosopher Timothy Leary shortly before his death was a portrait photograph of his head and shoulders, where the $34 chambray shirt he wore, though distinctively patterned, was barely identifiable. Added to your wardrobe, it was a magic cloak which could enhance your own perception of yourself. A 1998 advertisement for the American retailer Paul Stuart ran this copy beneath a photograph of a smart but ordinary-looking woman wearing a coat and trousers: “Create a picture perfect image of yourself. This savvy New York museum administrator understands that she too is always on display. With an inherent appreciation of the uniqueness of creativity, she reflects her own sense of style in our olive superfine covert wool ensemble . . .”

But fashion ads rarely need to be so explicit. Usually they leave the reader to imagine the world of privilege she seeks to inhabit. In an advertisement for designer Giorgio Armani it was deemed sufficient to add just three words to a black-and-white close-up of a well-known young lady wearing sunglasses. Two of them were “Giorgio Armani”, and the third the name of the lady in question. Photographs for fashion labels are often generic impressions identifiable as a clothing advertisement only by a barely visible hem or shoulder strap.

The power of visual imagery now dominant throughout advertising was first recognised and perfected in fashion. High-fashion photographers instinctively knew that they were not portraying a garment, but a mood of fantasy. Models were placed in unlikely, even surrealistic situations. Advertising simply picked up the lead. The American Banana Republic retail chain promotes its back-to-nature style with a wistful picture of a modern Eve by an apple tree. An Emporio Armani ad poses an equally wispy model wearing a black and white pinstripe cloak and trousers in front of the business end of a huge semi-trailer. Its message: butch but vulnerable. Neither illustration needs words.

From mood imagery it was a short step to attitude, and the fashion industry took it first. There was always a good reason for the vacant expression of fashion models: photographers knew that a vibrant human personality would disrupt the mood of ethereal fantasy, and models knew that smiling created wrinkles. But the mood soured. Now models scowled, sulked, eyeballed us belligerently, or hung their heads in listless despair. We saw less and less of the clothing, more and more exposed flesh. A 1996 American ad for Docker’s trousers by Levi Strauss laid it on the line. It showed a burly black man, bald, stripped to the waist, wearing only what one presumes is the product on a city street, with three nerdish-looking types wearing conventional suits and white shirts and ties, looking at him disapprovingly. One holds up a handwritten sign which reads, “To those who have completely missed the point, independence is an economic term. For everyone else, it’s a way of life. – The Mission, Chap. 2 p. 18”. The only other text in the ad is the advice that you can pick up a copy of the aforesaid document at your Docker’s dealer, listed below.

In Britain, attitude was adopted as the not-quite-so-unique selling proposition of several brands of jeans and trainers. Commercials for brands such as Levis and Nike consistently won creative awards. Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s 1985 commercials for Levis established a formula: an insouciant hero indifferent to social constraints, and a strip scene. In one he took a bath in his Levis. In another he took them off in a launderette. In a third a 14-year-old girl stripped to wriggle into her absent boy friend’s jeans. Allegedly these efforts revitalised a flagging demand for denim, also boosting competitive brands, such as Lee, which did not advertise. Imitators followed in droves. The British manufacturer Pepe attached an enigmatic one-world Weltanschauung to its jeans in a 1988 commercial which featured flickering Super-8 footage of a Hopi Indian rain dance, before cutting to a pubescent European youth and an American Indian girl sheltering from a downpour in a shop doorway. The lame connection was contained in the slogan: “Pepe Clothing – Worlds Apart”.

Inevitably, commercials for jeans returned to their American origins. In a Wrangler ad the hero demonstrated his rejection of society by quitting his yellow cab in a mid-Manhattan gridlock to clamber over stalled traffic to his goal. A Levis commercial was set in a hectic Wall Street financial trading room, where, as the script synopsis enthused, “out of the lift emerges a cool-looking motor-cyclist wearing sunglasses, leather jacket, denim shirt and Red Tab 501s, riding a gleaming Harley Davidson”. He steered his machine between the computer terminals and flung a pair of jeans on to the desk of an attractive female trader. She dropped her skirt, and the jaws of her shocked colleagues, to wriggle into the jeans. In the last shot, she was riding pillion into the setting sun over the 59th Street bridge.

In the logic of advertising, the way to protest against materialistic values is to go out and buy something. A 1995 cinema commercial for Pepe jeans substituted adolescent angst for teenage dreams: a disillusioned youth drove off in his father’s Mercedes and hung it from a crane in the shadow of Canary Wharf tower. While trashing a badge product of one generation, the young hero promoted another: life’s a drag, so chill out with a new pair of jeans.

As mass market retailers such as Gap and Next began to fill the pages of magazines with images as sophisticated as the editorial content, in order to distinguish themselves from the ruck, the haute couture fashion houses were driven to ever more extreme, less explicit, more allusive devices. Rather than showing clothes, the emphasis was on projecting the innovative spirit of the designer and his label. Facing a conventional model across the page we see a black-and-white portrait of a bald, moustachioed man wearing a pair of ladies’ sandals. This was top designer Franco Moschino’s way of selling his shoe collection. Another monochrome ad showed two bare-chested body builders. Only the waistband of Jean Paul Gaultier’s new jeans was visible. Comme Des Garçons showed no clothes at all – just two girls back-to-back, laughing, with braces on their teeth. The press handout explained they “represent vitality and energy”. This aid was not available to the general reader, who may easily miss the point of cryptic ads aimed at the cognoscenti.

In his film Pret à Porter Robert Altman satirised the minimalist approach when a couturière on the brink of bankruptcy made a desperate gesture: her models walked down the runway naked. It was not so far-fetched. A 1998 issue of Dutch, a tiny European style magazine with an influential international circulation, caught the attention of America’s important fashion newspaper Women’s Wear Daily when it published 83 continuous pages of black-and-white nude pictures by Mikael Jansson, a Swedish photographer. Each picture, without showing any clothing, was intended to represent the essence of a particular designer. Editor-in-chief Matthias Vriens matched the photos to the brands: “Some of the pairings are obvious, such as the feet in water with the shoe label Cesare Paciott; others less so. The Missoni picture features girls with plaited hair. The plaits represent Missoni’s knitting. Fendi, (known for fur coats) was also obvious. There was a little fur available there, on the pudendum”. According to Cristina Ortiz, the designer from the French house Lanvin, the symbolisation of her label as a bare-breasted girl covered in goose-pimples was spot on: “I wasn’t shocked at all . . . I think it is the Lanvin woman, sensual but not aggressive”.

Of course, all the famous couture houses which have survived are now big business. Christian Dior is owned by the luxury goods giant Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy. LMVH also owns Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Kenzo. Guerlain, Céline, Le Bon Marché (Paris), Christian Lacroix, and Sephora cosmetics as well as most of the champagne labels James Bond would have found agreeable. The reality is that the market for haute couture does not exist; there are fewer than 1,000 women in the world who can afford it. The famous designer names have prospered by extending their exotic appeal from the tiny international group of heiresses, dictators’ concubines, and trophy wives who buy exclusive gowns to mass market products. You can buy their neck-scarves, their sunglasses, their lipstick, their perfumes and creams, and stick them in their handbag with its indiscreet logo. The hoopla of the famous international fashion weeks in Paris, Milan, and London is aimed not at sales, but at publicity. At the 1998 Paris event the dresses shown by new designers such as Viktor & Rolf were not for sale. “We could sell thirty pieces a season, but we refuse to, because we don’t have the structure”. Designers do not hope to recoup the cost of creating a couture collection. They appear at these shows to gain acceptability and generate publicity for their ready-to-wear lines. A fashion house has to pay nearly £20,000 for one full-colour double-page spread in British Vogue. The publicity surrounding a couture show, with its invited cast of movie stars, fashion editors, and supermodels, replayed in the press and on television, is a cannier investment. That’s why there is intense competition to give away couture gowns to Hollywood stars scheduled to appear on stage at the annual Academy Awards. Not to create a market for £10,000 gowns, but to peddle stockings at £2.99 a pair and cellulite cream at £29.95 a jar under the same name.

In the hothouse atmosphere of fashion the exceptional iconoclastic advertisement has an air of wilting desperation. A 1994 ad for a brand of jeans called Everlast was a whinge. With its logo as the only illustrative device, the copy read: “Taking a bunch of plastic-looking models, putting them in ridiculous outfits and photographing them in places no one really goes. Is that fashion? Activewear by U.S. Classic Inc. are the real thing and everyone else’s sportswear is about having some sort of attitude”.

Fashion advertisers also generally avoid a humorous perspective; it is imprudent to poke fun in a product sector where consumer pretensions are so close to laughable. The ironic posture is ludicrous. “Ellesse is more” read the headline in an introspective 1997 parody of a press fashion advertisement. The copy began, “Pair fishnets with boat shoes and you’ve got the perfect sole for sole (look I’m really sorry)”. It went on to list all the apparel which did not appear in a long shot showing two figures just barely visible in a rowboat on a misty mountain lake, and which was “unavailable in Misty Buff, Lambsblood and Unripe Prune”, and concluded with production credits: “Words, locations, continuity & worm-charming: Jack O’Falltrades. The Ellesse team stayed at home as it’s only a stock shot from a photo library anyway . . .” In 1995 Levis took the bold stroke of satirising its own scenarios of rebellious youth. As a licence to indulge in lavatorial humour, it used a non-realistic technique, Claymation, a way of animating three-dimensional figures popularised by the Wallace and Gromit films. A scatological spoof of an adolescent “rescue-the-fair-damsel” scenario involved crapping pigeons, an old man squatting on a toilet, and a neon sign for the “Schmitt Hotel” in which the letter “m” was missing. Preparing to enjoy his sexual reward in the toilet, to the consternation of its occupant, the hero took off his jeans in homage to the brand’s famous “Launderette” commercial. The rescued damsel went berserk, thrashing her big hair about and grinning insanely. Her tongue hung out and she fell to her knees before him in ecstasy. Soberly assessed, it overspecified the fantasy.

Deviant experiments such as these are unlikely to make much headway. In this world of wishful fulfilment there is no place for dissidents. The boy who pointed his finger at the naked king will have been apprehended by the thought police. Has a salesman ever sold you a suit by taking the mick?

Rationality has no relevance in this emotional marketplace. In 1999 the Department of Trade and Industry championed consumer choice by backing retailers such as Tesco and Asda in their struggle to win the right to sell designer labels such as Levi’s jeans, Pringle sweaters, and Calvin Klein underwear at discount prices. These retailers argued that restrictive practices, sanctioned by the European Court of Justice, meant that consumers were paying up to 70 per cent more than they ought to. Tesco sponsored a test case in the courts “to bring better value to our customers”. But price is only one side of the fashion equation; how long would consumers bestow extra value on the Calvin Klein label if they found it displayed in Tesco at cheap prices next to the nylon shirts? What is the value of diamonds if beaches are made of them?

Fashion and its sister siren, cosmetics, indulge our fantasies by offering a simple panacea to our dissatisfactions: we can become somebody else. Both allow us to believe we have shifted the image we see in our mirror closer to our self-image. Shirley Polykoff, a New York copywriter who ended up running her own agency, wrote enduring headlines which offered self-transformation to millions of women. For Miss Clairol, the first effective hair colour lightener, introduced in 1956, she wrote: “Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure”, for Clairol’s Nice ‘n Easy shampoo-in hair colour: “The closer he gets, the better you look”, and for Lady Clairol’s platinum bleach: “Is it true that blondes have more fun?” and “If I’ve only one life to live let me live it as a blonde”. In the 1970s L’Oréal Preference hair colourant responded with another justification for self-realisation created by another female copywriter, Ilon Specht: “Because I’m worth it”. Between the 1950s and the 1970s the number of American women colouring their hair rose from 7 per cent to over 40 per cent. In 1997 L’Oréal adopted “Because I’m worth it” as a corporate slogan embracing all their products, and an astonishing 71 per cent of American women now link that battle cry to the L’Oreal brand.

 

Fashion is the ultimate triumph of style over substance. Expressing your individuality is its USP. “It isn’t me, somehow” is the way we reject a style. Yet fashion forces us to conform. To identify ourselves as part of a group we belong to, aspire to belong to, or to be taken for. Always avant-garde, the slick emptiness of fashion advertising has now set the tone for aspirational advertising of all kinds, from toiletries to booze to motor cars.