I have a strange love for fashion, I am far from a FASHIONABLE person, but I find there is something incredibly intriguing and beautiful about the spreads of the big fashion magazines. While one could easily lampoon the industry for its impact on our self-esteem, it’s glorification of a very narrow perception of beauty, and obviously the use of fur, among other products, I think too often it’s cast aside without any thought for its strengths. This is not genocide, it is not an industry run solely by evil powers to promote evil ideas, and there is a huge amount of artistry, passion and beauty involved. I defy anyone to open up a spread done by Grace Coddington, artistic director of Vogue Magazine.
In September Issue, the recent documentary about the most important fashion event of the year (The release of Vogue’s September Issue, the largest one of the year, that defines what will be in and out that year in fashion), Grace Coddington comes across as the most sympathetic presence at Vogue magazine. Her incredible talents, non-confrontational attitude (she stands by her work, and is perhaps the only one to stand up against Anna, but she still maintains a sort of meekness that seems out of place in the industry) and unconventional look, make her the obvious emotional centerpiece for most viewers. I think many will leave the theatre, and she will be the only person that they will have good things to say about. Personally, I think this approach is just as reductive as many people’s approach to fashion in general.
And if Grace Coddington is the film’s hero, it is no doubt, the infamous Anna Wintour (already immortalized on the silver screen by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada), who becomes the film’s villain. This approach is easy, and though I think the film explores the fashion industry on a very surface level, often opting for what most people traditionally search for in documentary cinema, a sense of objectivity… it is a misreading to see her as soulless, the film offers her up as the cold personality she is, but also affords her all the respect she deserves, and allows her to reveal her own struggles, though she rarely articulates it directly. Using a technique that Herzog seems rather fond of, and which, perhaps, distorts reality in a fascinating way, the camera remains on even once a question has been answered. The ensuing silence and attempt at composure maintained by the “talking head”, adds a strange discomfort and nuance to the interview. This is used to brilliant effect when Wintour talks about how her siblings perceive her career, and it’s perhaps the most affecting moment of the entire film, despite the fact that she only barely lets her exterior slip. It is a change that perhaps only a camera could pick up…
What is the value of fashion? A question that often results in heated name-calling and elitism from both side of the fence. Most people, who see fashion as nothing more than flights of fancy, perhaps undermine the fact that it is a very powerful mode of self-expression. No doubt, fans of cinema have seen in the past two years some brilliant examples of the value of fashion, especially for women. I think the most potent moment, is probably in the Duchess when on her wedding night, Georgiana is asked by her new husband why women wear such elaborate clothes. Her answer is not one we would immediately expect, perhaps because between me and my peers, the answer was obviously rooted in a sort of male dominance, because the clothes seem so restrictive. Though, in context of the film, and as a designer of her own clothing, there is something strangely empowering about her comment that in a society that has stripped her of all her freedoms, that she finds her sole mode of expression as being through the clothes she wears. As the film progresses, as do her costumes, becoming all the more elaborate, mirroring the growing complexity in her political understanding.
Sure, the world has changed a lot since the era of Dukes and Duchesses, but perhaps not quite as much as we think… September Issue is a grand example of this, as we have both Grace Coddington and Anna Wintour, two women with power that has such a scope, that it is beyond measuring. Though, Anna Wintour is more an extremely skilled editor and businesswoman than an artist, the impact she has on so many people is one far more powerful than most politicians hold. She is in absolute control, and has a hold on something that cannot be defined as pure egoism. Fashion is so much more than parading one’s wealth or beauty; it is a strong statement about yourself and the world you embody. Perhaps more than any other “arts” motivated industry, fashion is the more forward looking. It is always about what’s next, and the only way to stay a top is to be two steps ahead. Perhaps the film industry could take a few pointers from Wintour and Vogue, a woman and her magazine that is continually striving for something new and something better.