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Fashionably Left By: Noemie Emery
Front Page Magazine | Sunday, December 06, 1998


OPEN THE PAGES OF HARPER’S BAZAAR for September, 1997, and you will find, on page 348, not the latest word on gracious living, but an impassioned attack on the welfare-reform act; on the president who signed it, the Congress that voted for it, and the people who urged that it pass. Stridently assailing the "mean season" in national politics, and the "thinly veiled racial and moral overtones" of the case made in its favor, it ignores the arguments made for it by rational people, and the growing body of evidence that an entitlement culture, as opposed to aid for short-term and specific emergencies, tends to do nobody good.

Extreme to a fault, ardently partisan, it is far to the left of The New Republic and other respected liberal voices, the sort of a piece likely to run in The Nation; thin, plain-paper sheets for the post-Stalinist faithful; or in the other fat, toney, life-style glossies, the only ones capable of folding impassioned appeals for the poor and downtrodden into 400 pages of ads and copy urging the most spoiled people on earth to spend $450 on a plain cotton t-shirt, $750 on a fun pair of sandals, $20,000 on a new sable jacket, or ten times that amount on a diamond, ruby, and emerald hummingbird brooch.

The left-wing slant of the women’s magazines has been copiously documented, with their constant support of big government programs and their breathless recitals of terrible dangers—from power lines, toxic fumes, and bad food and bad water—that can only be solved by big government programs. But these are service books, dealing with everyday problems, so the message, while slanted, is not out of sync. It is in high-fashion books like Harper’s Bazaar that the schism gets vivid: the sybarite image is far more dramatic, and the ideology far more intense.

Thus, one sees grim feminist screeds against rape and harassment next to clothes that appear designed to provoke it; whey-faced reformers bent on changing the system next to fist-faced tycoons who know how to exploit it; trophy wives enjoying their ill-gotten gains next to weedy environmental crusaders; the worst examples of capitalist excess next to ghetto activists, who spell America with a ‘k.’ There is a place for magazines that write about style, and there is surely a place for the partisan journal, which one reads to get a political viewpoint. It is when a fashion magazine becomes a partisan journal—and from a viewpoint that seems to be hostile to fashion—that it starts to give readers pause.

What sealed this odd marriage of high left and high living, of the politics of the guillotine and the tumbrel with the lifestyle of Marie Antoinette? A peculiar new kind of consumer compassion, in which conscience itself becomes an accessory, and inconsistencies are ironed out without sacrifice. "Awareness" rules; "concern" becomes painless.

And the consumer is always indulged. By rational standards, fashion and feminism would appear to be oceans apart. Feminism says that women’s looks should mean nothing. Fashion insists they are everything. Feminism stresses androgyny. Fashion emphasizes the specifically female. Fashion stresses the useless and passing; feminism wants its mind on higher things.

"The nature of feminine dressing is superficial in essence," says radical Susan Brownmiller. "Frivolous issues . . . trivial concerns," scolds Naomi Wolf, who herself makes an effort to look terrific, and who accused the beauty-industrial complex of working hand-in-hand with the worst male oppressors to depress and de-nature newly roused women by obsessing them with unrealizable ideals of perfection, forcing them to spend all their money on clothes and on facials, weakening them with cruel and unnatural diets, and of trying to starve them to death. "The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily images of female beauty have come to weigh on us," she says darkly, warning of "a violent backlash against feminism, that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement . . . the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact." Brownmiller notes the tendency of feminine clothing to impede and restrict female movement: the cinched waist, the tight girdle, the hobble skirt, the short skirt (which forces women to move with great caution), and, above all, the shoe. "To qualify as passably feminine, a shoe does not absolutely require a high heel," she writes correctly.

"All it demands is some ingenious handicap to walking more than half a mile on a country road . . . or street." Brownmiller says she has foresworn skirts forever; for others—Jane Fonda, or Gloria Steinem—a change to a serious feminist politics means a (perhaps temporary) switch from a previous glamorous image into plain, or androgynous, clothes.

But all this appears minor, next to more sobering trends. At the precise time the editorial content of these magazines began to celebrate empowered womanhood—CEOs, senators, cabinet officers—their fashion pages broke out in a contagion of subjugation and violence. As Wolf notes, "In an ad for Obsession perfume, a well-muscled man drapes the naked, lifeless body of a woman over his shoulder. In an ad for Hermes perfume, a blond woman trussed in black leather is hanging upside down, screaming . . . in an ad for Erno Laslo skin-care products, a woman sits up and begs, her wrists clasped together with a leather leash." Columnist John Leo picks up the refrain: "I first noticed the porn-fashion connection in 1975, when Vogue magazine ran a seven-page fashion spread featuring a man in bathrobe battering a screaming woman . . . possibly because he just hated her plaited silk crepe de chine separates (about $1,050 from Geoffrey Beene.) Some photographers rode to glory on shots debasing women, including the late Chris von Wagenheim, with his dogs-and-women shots, and Helmut Newton, who injected the leather and bondage themes of male porn directly into the high fashion world. . . . Guess jeans ads . . . are re-workings of familiar male porn, from the image of the docile young woman on her knees gazing submissively up at the dominant male." (Shades of Bill Clinton.) As Leo continues, "The psychologist Louise Kaplan argues that pornographers once groped for style among the fashion magazines . . . but now the fashion world and the porn world use each other quite openly as resource materials . . . . Kaplan notes, ‘Nobody knows quite how it happened, but there came a day when no one could tell who was emulating whom.’ "

What could link the left to a culture so steeped in debasement? Things of still greater concern.

Ironically, it is violence itself that binds them together, for, whatever else there is on which they may differ, abortion is the bloody crossroads at which the superficiality and self-interest of fashion and the feminist war upon nature converge. Babies interfere with a woman’s autonomy, and with her demand for sex without consequence. They also cause stretch marks, spoil one’s figure, and leave one less money for clothes. Thus, for many years, the one staple feature on the issue side of these magazines has been stories by and praising brave abortionists, brave people who work in abortion clinics, and brave lawyers who defend abortion rights. No indication is ever given that this is a complex issue, with a moral dimension, about which most people have most complex feelings: instead, it is a civil right, which all civilized people accept absolutely, or a medical matter, to which no objection should ever be raised. In these pages, there are only two sides to the issue (as opposed to the innumerable in real life): that of the brave people who defend abortion, and the crazed fold who oppose it; who picket clinics, and now and then even bomb them; who read the Bible, and sometimes quote from it; and who always wear all the wrong clothes.

The pickets are dismissed as extreme, which they are. What is never said is that the abortionists are also an extreme (and a minority); that their view—of an absolute civil right that cannot be diluted—is held by less than three women in ten. The most recent of these was a story in January Vogue, which had two sidebars by editors: one praising Clinton for vetoing the ban on partial-birth abortion (which is backed by most women), and blasting Congress for its "legislative assault on women’s right to choose," through bans on abortions paid for by taxpayer money, also backed by most women. The other attacked Norma McCorvey, the original Roe of Roe v. Wade, who dramatically renounced her prior position, dismissed here as the unstable tool of nefarious interests. (When on the other side, she was a working-class heroine.) The idea of a true conversion, based on real doubts, was never considered. What is there to have doubts about? Abortion anchors the fashion-and-feminist axis, for it is here that their interests entwine: in a culture assault on the mores of the masses, where one man and one woman make one singular unit; and baby, once started, makes three. As the editorial copy makes war on the bond between mother and fetus, editorials and ads alike hack away at sex roles and distinctions. (The gay male influence in the world of fashion matching the lesbian faction in NOW.) Thus, one sees ads that feature two women embracing; one model playing herself as a male and a female; ads that suggest same-sex-sex; multiple-partner sex; or orgies in general. Harper’s Bazaar runs features that urge women to discover pornography, and gives advice on what to do when one discovers one's husband likes men.

Now and then, a conservative voice—genuine Republican person—appears in these pages, but always in a more personal feature, and not to explain her ideas. When Susan Molinari left the House last year, there was a story in Harper’s Bazaar, but about career choices, and leaving old friends. The very conservative Barbara Amiel wrote for Vogue, but a harmless piece about the bland personal styles of Cherie Blair and Hillary Clinton. Julia Reed, who interned at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (and wrote fondly of George W. Bush for The Weekly Standard), broke ranks in Vogue last summer when she took a conservative line on women in the armed forces, stating that women were physically smaller and weaker than men are, and that dumbing standards down to pretend that they weren’t is silly and dangerous. But her next ideological piece was a plea against capital punishment. In February, 1998, Harper’s Bazaar ran an excerpt from Elinor Burkett’s book The Right Women, about young conservative women in Washington, with photos that made them look stunning. Written by a liberal, who set out to explore the enemy, and found she liked some of them, it was a straightforward piece that did not pass judgment. But it was reportorial—a "here they are" as opposed to an "aren’t they wonderful," which is the tonality granted welfare mothers and abortionists. (The article mentions that most of these stunning women are economic conservatives. It does not mention that they are also pro-life.) Accompanying an article in Harper’s Bazaar about brave lawyers who defend abortion, the writer said in a side note that she wished she could volunteer to go to work for these people. But of course, she already had.

Fashion and feminism have some legitimate points of contact, but fashion and "fairness"—the word of choice for liberals for redistributive group politics—"social justice," "racial justice," etc.—have none. Fashion in fact depends on unfairness: the kind of gross inequity in distribution of income that allows one woman to spend more on one dress for one evening than some families have to live on for years. It also depends upon greed, self-absorption, and other incorrect attitudes. It is shallow, concerned with externals, and frivolous in the extreme. "To care about fashion, and to do it well, is to be obsessively involved in trivial things on a serious basis," says Susan Brownmiller. Or, as Naomi Wolf huffs, "Things that do not matter." It is also regressive, as Brownmiller tells us: "Like the religious moralists before them, the New Left radicals of the Sixties used the expensively dressed woman as a hated symbol of selfish disregard for the ills of the world." Over years, however, this idea has been changed, not only denied completely by the fashion industry, but transformed completely into a situation in which a fervent concern for the ills of the world—poverty, pollution, disease, discrimination, you name it—has become in itself an accessory, something without which no fashionable ensemble can be considered complete. Since 1968, when the fashionable world discovered Eugene McCarthy; through 1972, when it found George McGovern, through 1998, when the trendies hang tough for Bill Clinton—no liberal campaign has been complete without rallies for film stars, concerts by rock stars, and fund-raisers at the homes of zillionaire media figures. Film stars sleep on grates to show support for the homeless, and then fly home to one of their many palazzos. They berate the greedy, as they buy their third house and their fourth Mazerati; speak movingly of the dignity of all human beings, as they treat those in their employ like serfs.

Following their lead, the yuppies behind them, at once the most over-indulged and most self-righteous generation in memory, engage in these acts of consumer compassion, the art of never letting a fleeting want go unsatisfied, while maintaining one’s high opinion of oneself.

The things that they read are the give-away: the papers and magazines that carry the ads for Barney’s and Bloomingdale’s; for estate jewelry and spas, for perfume at $250 the bottle and skin cream at $90 per jar; that promote the moderate restaurant, where one can dine for $100; the gourmet food, the fun fur, the fun blouse at $450, editorialize the most against greed and selfishness. The more ads for Rolex and for pave diamonds, the more predictably left the editorial content. The more pictures are shown of women as objects—posed, primed, literally coated with makeup—the more grimly feminist the line will be. AIDS is a crisis. So is homelessness. So is the plight of the migrant, the minorities, the inner city young people. So too is that wrinkle, just above the left cheekbone, that one is called on to battle, to spend $40 to prevent, $90 to minimize, and $5,000 to correct with surgery, when worst comes to worst.

This sanctimonious self-absorption was captured perfectly by Tom Wolf back in the late sixties, at a fund-raiser on Long Island for the grape pickers’ union, at which the concerned and social were asked to see themselves as migrant workers, rising before dawn for long days in the fields: ". . . They all stood there, in their Puce dresses, Gucci shoes. Capucci scarves, either imagining they were grape pickers’ wives, or wondering if the wind would ever stop. The wind had come up off the ocean, and was wrecking everyone’s hair . . . Andrew Stein’s hair was long, full, and at the outset had been especially well-coifed in the Roger’s of 58th Street manner, and now it was . . . a wreck." Roger of 58th Street equates to Christophe of Hollywood, recommended to the man from Hope by his liberal backers, who thought $200 for twenty minutes pretty much the going price. (They had gone to his inauguration a few months earlier, jetting cross-country with their personal trainers, to celebrate the election of a man of the people, and the liberation of the country from twelve years of greed.) Fittingly, Clinton went off to fundraise this summer at the Hamptons, where houses cost $200,000 to rent for the season. These are his most fervent defenders as scandals surround him. They will stay faithful, no matter what happens, because they know larger things matter. He is their defense against a Republican Congress. He is their defense against . . . greed.

Some months after Clinton’s tarmac diversion, studio heads in Hollywood gave five Mercedes Benz convertibles, worth over $100,000 each, to the principals of a hit movie, among them at least two vocal spokesmen for liberal causes, who stood to make between $5 and $12 million apiece from the film. (The producer, abashed, gave the car’s cost to charity. The liberal spokesmen did not.) The studio head defended this in language that lifted it to the spiritual level: "It’s not about the cars, it’s the relationships . . . the attempt is to make this a warmer, and more human place, where people feel part of a family." The affect of his New Age, caring Libspeak is to sanitize the whole gross gesture and wipe clean the casual acceptance of the gift. This is the point of consumer compassion: to negate the concern that goes along with possessions, and allow you to go and get more. Please note that the story about welfare mothers had no address listed as to where to send money; to let these women buy a little more food for their children, or perhaps some new shoes, or a coat. This is not what they want you to do with your money.

They want you to cluck, curse the Congress, remember the evils of Reaganism, and then turn the page to the ads about clothing and makeup, secure in the faith that you are a good person, and spend more of your money on that. Compassion then serves a true marketing purpose: the more that you feel, the better you are; and the better you are, the more you deserve things. And the more you should spend on yourself.

And the more you have, the further left you have to be, to reassure yourself that you deserve it. So the great beating heart of cause liberalism is no longer in the working or the middle classes, but in the entertainment and the fashion industries, where people make more money for less work doing sillier things than anyplace else in the universe.

So Harper’s Bazaar highlights welfare mothers, the Hollywood left tends to back Jesse Jackson, and the millionaire divas of the now-defunct Hollywood Women’s Political Caucus used to hold soirees where they would berate the likes of Ted Kennedy for moving too far to the right. Another such conscience of the modern-day Democrats is Warren Beatty, the prototype Sybarite Liberal, profiled here in the Washington Post: "Beatty’s passion comes through most clearly when he discusses his dyed in the wool liberalism. When he talks about President Clinton and the centrist DLC (Democratic Leadership Council) . . . he labors visibly to disguise his contempt. " ‘Personal responsibility’—can you fill me in on that?" he smirks when a DLC tenet is mentioned . . . ‘I don’t say that the DLC is corrupt . . . but has it done anything with its victory? . . . I feel that it isn’t fulfilling what I consider to be the mission of the Democratic Party—which is opposition to the rich.’" So Beatty must be working hard at the important task of giving away his money, the interviewer prods. "‘There’s a political answer to that—a very good political answer,’ he says. ‘But I’m not going to give it to you.’ Pressed further, Beatty explains with a pained expression that in order to make Bulworth for less than his usual compensation, he felt compelled to turn down four extremely lucrative acting jobs." And Beatty is hardly alone in his feelings. As Hollywood producer Rob Long wrote in National Review this past April, "Only a few years ago, the personal assistant of a major Hollywood actor was fired while driving his boss to a Democratic party fundraiser for mentioning that—since his boss was going to be introducing the President with a speech extolling his health-care proposal—perhaps now would be a good time to extend health-care coverage to his employee."

As Long continues, "Clinton’s slack-jawed disregard for reality and his monumental ability to deafen himself to the dissonance between his words and his actions are straight out of a Hollywood shrink’s notebook. Hollywood is filled with health addicts and hypochondriacs, environmental drivers of gas guzzlers, anorexic gourmands, and tyrannical socialists." "It’s a question of style," he tells us. "We understand Clinton out here."

And style it is. Open Harper’s Bazaar for October, 1997, and you will find, on page 221, a full page picture of a striking woman, all sleek dark hair, elaborate makeup, fetchingly dressed in a little black number, whose plunging V neckline and very thin straps show off acres of well-tended skin. Is it an ad for the dress, or the makeup, or for hair or skin products? Not exactly. It is not a model. It is . . . Anita Hill. Anita Hill, the law professor and one-time government policy wonk, whose testimony at the Congressional hearings on the nomination of then Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court of the United States set the country on its startled ear in 1991. The shot accompanies a devotional piece about Hill since the hearings written by Patricia Williams, who actually is a columnist for The Nation, and a law professor (at Columbia) of the class-race-and-gender school. As is usual with pieces like these in these magazines, this takes it as a given that Hill’s case is proven, and never indicates that there could be another side. Hers is taken as a clear instance of race-gender bias. Her critics are dismissed as bigots and lunatics. The many women—the many black women—who testified on behalf of Clarence Thomas are dismissed. Hill is praised here for her "lucidity and balance," her "courage . . . and her sense of justice," her "patient intelligence," her "sense of luminous resolve."

Alas, this "resolve" is not evident in another shot that accompanies the article, in which Hill, in a v-necked, tight-fitting black jumpsuit, a kitten-with-a-whip if ever there was one, seems almost audibly purring as she curls provocatively at the edges of what looks like a bed. Anita Hill, sex kitten. (Like Miss Hill, the welfare mothers shown in the fashion glossies all look like models, with big eyes, great cheekbones, good hair.) What are we to do, after reading this feature? Hate Orrin Hatch? Hate Clarence Thomas? Buy Miss Hill’s book? Look up her hairdresser? Copy her dress? And what is the point in a magazine about fashion? That this point of view goes with all the new styles? That you can’t be well-dressed if you like Clarence Thomas? That it’s dowdy to be too right wing? Anita Hill, sex kitten, has become just a mannequin, as her cause has become just another accessory, the finishing touch to the up-to-date outfit, without which no dress is complete.

But by now, this has become an old story. In his book, Money and Class in America, Harper’s editor Lewis H. Lapham records this party exchange between two blonde, pretty women, way back in 1968:.

"First Girl: ‘You’re working for Givenchy?’

"Second Girl: ‘No, McCarthy.’

"First Girl: ‘Well, it’s the same thing, isn’t it?’ "

And so it is.




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