Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: Vogue

Purple Shell Training Bra

I really liked this cover (turns out I’ll take Rihanna with dyed red hair over Gaga in a tired bobbed wig any day) until I noticed the resemblence to a certain flippered Disney princess. Now, it’s all I can see.

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Asian Beauty

Periodically, American Vogue acknowledges that not every woman has the ‘all-American’ blue-eyed, blond-tressed, blank-faced beauty of Russian models, and attempts to have some diversity on its pages. This has resulted in the ghettoization of the annual ‘Age Issue’ and ‘Shape Issue’ and the odd feature on Ethiopian, Brazilian or “curvy” Victoria’s Secret models.

French Vogue, on the other hand, works on the assumption that we’re all past the need for such tokenism, and then will have an African-themed photo shoot with black face.

The December issue (with Angelina Jolie on a cover whose pink and white writing so suggests Cosmopolitan rather than Vogue that I half-expected the headline ‘The Top Ten Jimmy Choo Clutches to Please Your Man!’) features a tribute to the classic 1948 Cecil Beaton photograph of impossibly-elegant debutantes,  but recreated with exclusively with Asian models. To add even more contrast, the Oscar de la Renta gowns and formal tea-sipping poses are paired with punky black Mohawks.  

While the juxtaposition of Mohawks, evening gowns and Chinese, Japanese and Korean faces is visually arresting (and drawing on Beaton’s legacy is the kind of witty self-reference that Vogue does so well) I can’t help but feel the picture and the accompanying article by Samantha Chang are a tad patronizing.

Chang quickly moves from recounting the difficulties of growing up as a Korean-American adopted by a white family (a mother-daughter bonding trip to the beauty counter ends in embarrassment) to interviewing designers on why they are allegedly choosing Asian models like never before. Big surprise, none of them have any intelligent explanation, and it’s depressing that the term ‘political correctness’ has replaced ‘feminist’ as the word everyone scrambles away from.

The booming Eastern economy is touched on, as is the fact that Vogue launched a Chinese edition in 2005, but for the most part the article’s about Asian faces for the Gap and L’Oreal, ie. Asian models being hired by Western companies who mostly sell to white people. The huge, and growing, influence of Chinese and Japanese fashion on the rest of the world, and the potential that in just a few years Chinese Vogue may write about how nice it is that white models are finally walking the catwalks in global fashion-capital Beijing, are ignored.

Asian models are beautiful, of course (as are models from India, Africa, South America and everywhere else in the world) and while it’s good that proverbial ‘main stream America’ is accepting different kinds of beauty, the globalized world of fashion is still learning what globalization truly means.

Nick Cave’s Wild Men

Every year the September issue of American Vogue lands with a thud both metaphoric and literal. Heralding the end of summer and the arrival of the oh-so-important fall season, the thick tome is the size of a bible. At the convenience store where I bought mine, it was the only copy on the shelf, presumably because one copy took up so much room. If the cover of Halle Berry with a tired 1920’s bob (like she’s Velma Kelly or something) doesn’t inspire you to shell out the six dollars, I will summarize the issue’s photo shoots for you: urban plaids, incongruous pairings (Evening gowns and sweaters! Leather and lace!) and 1950’s sweethearts (yawn!).

I’m often least interested in the accessories shoots, as I’m not as into shoes as everyone else seems to be, but this time the accessories spread saved the issue. Flipping through the pages, I halted when I saw pictures of figures in brightly-coloured furry costumes, dancing around with purses and heels, their hair flying wildly in the wind. They were the most intriguing pictures I had seen in Vogue in ages, though, they may break the cardinal rule of fashion photography: you have to force your eyes away from the costumes to notice the accessories!

The photos, shot by Raymond Meier, are of performance artist Nick Cave wearing his own creations. Cave’s full-body costumes have been exhibited at galleries in New York and San Francisco, but are best viewed when worn by dancers in rhythmic performances (hence their name ‘Soundsuits’). Performance art generally makes me uncomfortable; bizarre behaviour with the purpose of making people uncomfortable seems to me like the lowest form of theatrics. But Cave, who studied dance, visual art and fashion, has combined all three into a wholly original and beautiful art form.

His first Soundsuit was constructed with twigs, and since then he has used beads, sequins, feathers and, most dramatically, long strands of fluorescent hair, both real and fake. He has claimed that part of the inspiration came from the Rodney King beatings and the ensuing racial violence. When someone is completely enclosed in pink fuzzy fur, they have no race, age or gender. (It was only on close inspection of the Vogue photographs, when I discovered a glimpse of Cave’s hand, that I realized he was black.) He has described Soundsuits as being like “a suit of armor, protecting your identity making yourself hidden from your exterior,” but adds, “You have to settle with yourself before you can bring this association and other identity before you can let it completely take you over.”

He draws a lot of inspiration from traditional tribal African and Haitian costumes, but watching his dancers perform and hearing of the works’ transformative effects, I was reminded of the Wild Man legends of ancient Europe. My favourite pseudo-academic book, Santa Claus and the Last of the Wild Men by Phyllis Siefker, explains that practically every culture featured some sort of carnivalesque Wild Man tradition, in which a subversive bacchanal orgy would be topped off by the arrival of a bearded animalistic man costumed all in leaves, fur or sticks.

While our most recognizable modern remnants are Mardi Gras, Halloween, Newfoundland Mummers, and, the book argues, Santa Claus, in ancient times the putting on of a ceremonial and heavily-symbolic costume could almost transform the wearer into a mythic being. Be they ‘wodewose’ or Green men, these were powerful pagan deities, evoked to ward off bad spirits and perhaps to acknowledge and mentally tame the chaotic ‘wildness’ that lay directly outside the village. When Cave warns that his performers must have self-knowledge before donning the Soundsuits, he recognizes that you must know yourself before trying to transcending it.