December 11, 2008

While flipping through Guy Talese’s Fame and Obscurity last night, a compilation of his profiles and reportage, I stopped at a story called “VOGUEland”. Fashion stories are somewhat beyond me; camellia and souliers are befuddling words on good days. At GQ, which shares an office with the Vogue production team, I sometimes felt like the resident mathematician who calculated, rather wisely, that he should take his style of dressing elsewhere. Stories about the business are more to my taste, and from the very first line of Talese’s take on fashion, I was in.

“Each weekday morning a group of suave and wrinkle-proof women, who call each other ‘dear’ and ‘dahling,’ and can speak in italics and curse in French, move into Manhattan’s Graybar Building, elevate to the nineteenth floor, and then slip behind their desks at Vogue – a magazine that has long been the supreme symbol of sophistication for every American female who ever dreamed of being frocked by Balenciaga, shod by Roger Vivier, coiffed by Kenneth, or set free to swing from the Arc de Triomphe in maiden-form mink.”

The rest of Talese’s story is extraordinary and, from my present-day perch, reads like a retelling by a historian with a sense of humour:

“While these fashion models in Vogue are merely stupendous, the socialites photographed for that magazine are rich, beautiful, indefatigable, vivid, vital, brilliant, witty, serve on more committees than Congressmen, know more about airplances than Wolfgang Langewiesche, thrive on country air and yet are equally at home in the smart poker parlors of Cannes; they never age, fade, or get dandruff, and are also (in the words of Vogue‘s battery of sycophantic caption writers) ‘amusable,’ ‘exquisite,’ ‘delicate,’ ‘fun,’ and ‘smashing.'”

A most interesting observation by Talese on a particular photoshoot, where “the Vogue model…later jets down to Puerto Rico to lunch with Casals while being watched from the hills by native women holding naked children – women who smile at her, admire her silk tussah skirt…, love her as she spikes up the nine-hole course inside the fortress of old El Morro”.

Some months ago, the Indian edition of this magazine found itself attracting attention of the most unwanted sort when some pooper took offence to a photoshoot of villagers carrying Hermes and Tods. The subjects were smiling as they went about their day (in a manner of speaking). This seemed to some a form of tasteless teasing, ignoring the point that perhaps there is no point. India provides good background for contrasts, as the caption for a strange pictoral in the inaugural issue confirms: “Travelling across India’s bustling cities, model Lily Cole discovers a country that – like this autumn’s fashion – is replete with contrasts”. Cut to Cole striking a pensive pose in Kiran Uttam Ghosh by the Hooghly; Cole in Vivienne Westwood and Sabyasachi lost in thought on the steps of a tram; Cole in an auditorium in a chiffon and silk patchwork dress and Metalscale platform boots by McQueen, surrounded by a policeman, a traffic cop, a harmonium player, a marching band, a butcher, and two chickens.  Cole then finds herself in a woman’s bedroom, a dressing room, and an akhada. This is, Vogue tells us, “an ironic take on sporty chic”.


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