Fashion after Fashion. Essay by Maria Ben Saad

“Well, okay. I’m going to be a fashion editor at a magazine!” / André Leon Talley.

Recently, I was flipping through the pages of A.L.T.: A Memoir, the autobiography by André Leon Talley, one of my favorite larger-than-life figures in the fashion world. In one passage, he describes how he was “a true convert of fashion” by the age of twelve, reading everything he could get his hands on, especially Vogue under the reign of fashion editor Diana Vreeland. “While other boys may have been out practicing their fastballs or trying to break track records, I was on the couch, enrapt in the pages of the world Diana Vreeland had invented, a world of fantasy, style, and exquisite fashion.” I first read those lines in 2003, right after the book was published, and identified with the escapist attitude: being at one place and longing to be at another, using fashion magazines as a vehicle. Today, eight years later, I am also thinking about the power of fashion imagery as an agent for change; how it not only makes us dream but also gives us the energy to make things happen. Even though much of today’s fashion in my eyes seems to have more to do with reality shows than a “world of fantasy, style, and exquisite fashion,” I think we still need to engage in fantasy to keep moving forward. I don’t see any future for fashion communication in just producing mirror images of ourselves, how “democratic” it may seem. It so easily degenerates to something mass homogenized and stereotypical, what Michelle Lee coined McFashion – the fashion equivalent of fast food. In the end, it leaves you very empty.

André Leon Talley, born in 1949, grew up as an Afro-American in Durham, North Carolina, during a time when institutionalized race segregation in USA was a reality, far away from any fashion city (in the book he refers to Durham as the “home to tobacco fortunes and Duke University”). The odds of him becoming a fashion legend within the white and ultra-glamorous world of Vogue (the Vogue of the early sixties), sometimes even referred to as “Monsieur Vogue,” weren’t exactly great. But when Vogue started to publish pictures of black models Naomi Sims and Pat Cleveland, a career in fashion didn’t seem out of reach for André Leon Talley. In the book he explains that they gave him his “first inklings that a black person could have a place in the world of high fashion.” After finishing a master degree in French literature 1972, he left the academic world to pursue a career in fashion and landed a job as a volunteer at the Costume Institute in New York, where Diana Vreeland worked as special consultant. And as everybody could see in The September Issue, the documentary about the making of the 2007 fall fashion issue of US Vogue, André Leon Talley made his dream come true. Nobody in the film, with the exception of Anna Wintour, seems to be more Vogue-ish than him. In a celebrated scene, he explains why he plays tennis with a Louis Vuitton blanket draped around his shoulders and a Piaget wristwatch. “This is my version of a tennis watch. It’s a vintage Piaget from the sixties. But I would wear it to the tennis court. I would wear it all day long. It’s all a part of life, of being who I am […].” Interestingly, André Leon Talley defines fashion in terms of personal identity, which is totally in line with how he speaks about fashion in A.L.T.: A Memoir. It is not about the Piaget wristwatch in itself but rather how you wear it and why. Certainly, the watch is a symbol of luxury (and the world of Vogue), but on the wrist of André Leon Talley at a tennis court, new meaning is added. Instead of just a fashion item with a fetish value, the watch becomes a tool for self re-creation and self-presentation, an attitude towards physical appearance that resembles that of a dandy. As poet Charles Baudelaire put it in his essay The Painter of Modern Life, 1863, where he tried to define the dandy ideal: “It is a kind of cult of the self… a kind of religion.” The quote appears in Paris Fashion: A Cultural History by Valerie Steele and she points out that “out of his own being the dandy created an original work of art – not through self-indulgent artistry but by stoically emphasizing the uniquely modern elements of style. The perfect dandy was a kind of artist who created – himself.”

The fashion theorist Barbara Vinken argues that we are living in a “postfashion” era. In her book Fashion Zeitgeist: Trends and Cycles in the Fashion System from 2005, she writes that “the discourse of fashion is constructed by the correlation of three major conceptual articulations: the division of being and mere appearance; the division of the sexes; and – inseparably linked to the latter – the division of the classes.” Paraphrasing the well-cited words by economist and sociologist Werner Sombart that fashion is capitalism’s favorite child, she calls fashion “sociology’s darling” and proposes another reading of fashion, that takes into consideration fashion’s capacity to not only confirm existing gender and class divisions (the classical sociological perspective), but also to subvert them, expose them as artificial. She writes that she “would like to analyze fashion as a poetological activity, that, like any poetological discourse, thematizes itself and has performative power.”

Postfashion, according to Barbara Vinken, “breaks the dominance of Paris fashion,” corresponding approximately with the rise and fall of haute couture – la mode de cent ans. “Above all,” she writes, “it breaks the dictatorial privilege of the great couturiers” and fashion “becomes a co-production between the créateur and those who wear the clothes.” But postfashion also breaks with the notion of fashion as an ivory tower, deconstructing traditional power structures and views on status, gender, class, race and age. She argues that “the solitary star” of the new fashion is the transvestite, since the transvestite has to stage the opposite sex and thereby questions the concept of authenticity. As Barbara Vinken puts it: “Women have to dress as ‘women’, and more than this, they have to act as if they were not able to reflect on this process, in order to guarantee its efficacy.” Taking the film Paris is Burning by Jenny Livingstone as an example (released in 1990), she describes how the image of fashion is used to enact dreams among black and Latin American men in Harlem to become women. “The connection is forged between Paris and the enclave of northern Manhattan through the medium of fashion. The brilliant displays of the great names like Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino and Chanel, draw the young men of Harlem into the avenues of the Upper East Side. Their dream is Vogue; the object of their desire is the Other exhibited therein – another skin color, another class, above all another sex: at last, to be something, i.e. to be something different from what they are themselves.”

Fashion photographer Chris von Wangenheim once said, “A good photograph makes a promise it can never keep. By the sheer fact of being printed, it appears to be an attainable truth, when, in fact, it is an individual projection of a photographer.” Today, when fashion imagery tends to be more down to earth (an object of identification) this attitude may seem slightly anachronistic, but nevertheless I kind of miss it. When I open a fashion magazine, I don’t necessarily want to see myself in the pictures, but rather the Other that Barbara Vinken is talking about. And I want to get that energy to transgress my own borders that André Leon Talley got from looking at the pictures in Vogue in the sixties. That might be too much to expect from a picture in a fashion magazine, but as André Leon Talley pointed out in The September Issue, it has to do with getting up and approaching life in a certain way.

This article was first published in Contributor Magazine issue no 4.

Maria Ben Saad is a fashion journalist and senior lecturer in fashion communication at Beckmans College of Design in Stockholm. Photography by Marlon Rueberg.