Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Our Vogues, Ourselves

After over 100 years of continuous publication, Vogue suddenly seems pretty tired. Recently, rumors lit the fashion world on fire with news of Anna Wintour maybe retiring due to falling advertising revenue and the magazine’s general staleness. Fashion is about the new, the now, but honestly, reading any of the latest issues of Vogue would be a choice cure for insomnia. Compared to the European and Asian versions of Vogue, the articles and spreads in American Vogue were flat, boring, and uncreative. For example, in the March 2009 issue of Vogue, there was not one but two—two!—spreads of models against a beige background, a theme that Vogue has been using for the past year. Some commentators claimed that the American readership was the root of the problem. Unlike the international editions of Vogue, American Vogue has a wide circulation. In Europe, only diehard fashionistas read fashion magazines, which could account for the visually daring spreads and genuinely interesting articles. But in my opinion, it’s an insult to Americans to assume that we don’t want anything daring, creative or beautiful. Perhaps we should blame the editors?
I decided to compare the content of an issue of Vogue Italia and an issue of Vogue to examine the cultural differences contained therein. When I read the May 2008 issue of Vogue Italia, I felt like I was being treated as an educated and cultured person: articles included write-ups on a drama and dance festival in Bologna; a new building in Turin; a French Islamic actor; a newly restored botanical garden in Berlin; and a profile of Eva Mendes, who happened to be the cover model. In comparison, the April 2009 issue had articles on Anjelica Huston’s half-sister; how to be a good godparent (seriously?); laser plastic surgery; a profile of Wangechi Mutu, who was featured at the Loeb a few months ago; an offensive profile of Adele; and a profile of Beyonce, the cover model. For the past few issues, American Vogue has had starlets and celebrities grace its covers: 2009 has seen Anne Hathaway, Blake Lively, Michelle Obama, and the aforementioned Beyonce. Yet Vogue Italia has had models, Pixie Geldorf (ugh, I know, but she’s some sort of fashion icon), Amber Valletta (a model), and more models.
One would expect the international editions of Vogue to be snooty, considering their limited audience, but in fact, American Vogue is just that—a publication obsessed with celebrity, plastic surgery (even in the so-called Shape Issue, which, by the way, had the gall to suggest that I should wear a bathing suit with halter straps. Hello, we hourglass figures have these things called boobs, we can’t wear halter tops!), and socialites, and maybe it mentions that little thing called the fashion industry once or twice. Of course, each edition of Vogue says something about its country of origin. Vogue Nippon usually features Caucasian models on its covers. Asian women are generally made up to look more Western. A quick Google search reveals that Vogue Russia likes putting scary dominatrixes on its covers. Vogue India either puts Caucasian women on its covers, or at least Indian women who have very pale skin.
Clearly it’s not the readers who drive the content: it’s the editors. They assume, for example, that the average Indian woman wants to hold up a white woman as a standard of beauty. They would also assume that the average American reader just can’t handle the artsy craziness that is W, a magazine that shares a publisher and cover price with Vogue. W essentially serves the same function as the international Vogues: it contains some articles about stylish people but mostly focuses on the industry and on interesting photo shoots. There’s no earthly reason why W and Vogue should be separate magazines and yet here we are. Instead of calling for Nuclear Wintour’s resignation, we should demand that Conde Nast not play it safe. Vogue readers want beautiful and interesting fashion spreads. They don’t want to learn how to be socialites.

-Ceci Cholst

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