In Defense of Fashion Criticism
Last week, Anna Sorokin, better known to the internet as scammer Anna Delvey, was found guilty of theft and grand larceny. The woman who pretended to be a German heiress in order to keep up the illusion of a high society party girl life was charged after becoming a viral hit when multiple stories documented the ways she tricked people, businesses, and banks into giving her large swaths of money. It was hard to avoid conversations over her style during her trial, as it soon became known that an anonymous benefactor was funding her designer wardrobe so that she looked good for the court. An Instagram account followed every sartorial display. Publications like GQ and The New York Times dissected the politics of courtroom fashion. Even I wrote about it. There was a lot to say about Sorokin’s charade and how her clothing choices spoke volumes about our ideas of gender, class, criminality, and so on. In short, it was further proof of the need for great fashion criticism.
Another thing that happened last week, which we discussed here, was actress Olivia Munn’s unexpected and highly misguided attack on fashion website Go Fug Yourself. In a mini-essay she shared on social media, Munn accused Heather and Jessica, better known as the Fug Girls, of perpetuating a level of misogyny comparable to rape culture through body shaming and unnecessary cruelty towards other women. It became abundantly clear that Munn has never actually read anything on Go Fug Yourself beyond the benign jokes made about her own fashion choices, none of which ever made nasty comments about her body or appearance, and that whatever crusade she was trying to launch through this attack was based on fantasy.
We’re not here to talk about this issue specifically, mostly because we’ve already done so on this site and the Fug Girls are doing a hell of a job of simply carrying on with their business, but there was something about Munn’s words and those of her defenders that stuck in my throat all weekend. I kept hearing time and time again that what the Fug Girls did — or at the very least, what these people thought the Fug Girls did — was utterly devoid of value and merit in terms of critical understanding. People (often straight men, that’s all I’m saying) couldn’t wait to inform the rest of us that fashion blogging or talking about clothes wasn’t ‘real criticism’, it was just trash talking or a pointless frivolity that didn’t deserve the same level of consideration as, for example, film or literary criticism. Surely red-carpet chat and focusing on clothes is shallow, another unnecessary distraction from ‘the real issues’. They’re just clothes, we all wear them, and there’s nothing else to it, right? I wasn’t shocked to hear this sentiment being used against the Fug Girls, although I was somewhat surprised at how much I saw it over the past few days, including from figures in the entertainment industry who I at least thought were smart enough to know better. People in my field — pop culture criticism and reporting — have enough of a hard time justifying the existence of our occupation to jerks as it is without us making it worse for people in an even more maligned area of journalism.
Fashion, like romance novels, YA fiction, and crafting, is one area of culture that is widely written off as an exclusively feminine interest, although it’s also one that is still primarily dictated by the business and designs of men. In the UK alone, the fashion industry is estimated to be worth around £32 billion to the British economy. According to McKinsey, worldwide the industry’s worth passed $2.4 trillion in 2017. It is something that encompasses every aspect of culture, economics, and societal discourse, meeting at the various intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class, privilege, politics, and business. Ever seen that moment in The Devil Wears Prada where Andy scoffs at two seemingly identical belts before Miranda Priestly reads her to filth over her faux-self aggrandizing and claimed exclusion from the fashion world? It’s basically the perfect response to anyone who has ever sneered that fashion blogging and criticism is pointless.
The business of Hollywood and red carpet fashion has changed dramatically over the past three decades. Go back to Oscar ceremonies of years past and a lot of the time actresses are simply wearing something they already owned. Grace Kelly won her Academy Award in a dress she had worn several times before. The entire system of the red carpet cycle didn’t really exist at the time, and wouldn’t do so until the 1990s. One reason for that was Joan Rivers. Her red carpet coverage became the spectacle of the season, the often hilarious and deeply vicious commentary brought greater focus to the entire charade. The mere question of ‘who are you wearing’ was pioneered by Joan, but so was that element of competition and deeply personal meanness that would come to dominate it.
As a result, you saw red carpet fashion get a whole lot safer (no Bob Mackies, way fewer swan dresses, and so on) and a lot more polished. There was money to be made here, and major exposure to be garnered. Everyone remembers the Versace safety pin dress Elizabeth Hurley wore on the red carpet. The money got bigger, the names more prominent, and suddenly there’s an entire financial ecosystem at play. Stylists enter the equation, as do exclusive branding deals and loans of jewelry to show off on the Mani-Cam. The red carpet goes from a fleeting moment to the entire point of the night, and that extends beyond the night itself. Go on any major celebrity’s Instagram page and the chances are they’re tagging every piece of clothing they’re wearing so you can see the designer and their stylist. There are people working behind the scenes to ensure these business deals go off without a hitch, and for many an actor, these agreements can often be more lucrative than their acting work. Kirsten Dunst has talked candidly about how her fashion deals bring in enough money to allow her to do indie projects that pay far less than, say, a superhero movie. It’s not just people in the entertainment business who play by these rules either. Think of how a certain brand will sell out in minutes once it’s been seen on Meghan Markle or Michelle Obama, or how some fashion houses refuse to clothe Melania Trump. Theresa May wearing leopard print kitten heels became a whole thing in the UK in a way that she clearly intended. Dissecting the fashion of politicians like Condoleeza Rice and Dick Cheney won Robin Givhan a Pulitzer Prize. When you know everyone is going to be looking at you, the best thing you can do is make sure you have something to say with what you wear.
Fashion criticism and red carpet blogging has changed dramatically since Joan Rivers’ heyday. It’s gotten much less cruel, thankfully, and there’s a greater understanding of the mechanics behind it. Now, more than ever, fashion demands our attention, be it for the discriminatory and overworked labour conditions of the people who make our cheapest clothes or the catwalk couture that dictates the trends of the masses for years to come. To ignore this or not apply the same level of cultural criticism to it that we do for books, film and so on would be to the detriment of us all. Besides, fashion blogging is also fun, and offering that kind of criticism through a humorous lens often makes it more accessible and less daunting to those who still see fashion as an elitist trend. It’s sad that doing so is still written off as either pointless or cruel because we understand art and culture so much better when we go beyond its surface and dissect the messages being sent.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.