This morning I was having the usual what to wear dilemma of everyone living in the UK during summer: it had pissed it down with rain the day before and now it was sunny, so what to put on my feet? Boots or sandals? While contemplating this daily dilemma John Humphrys was interviewing ex-Editor of British Vogue Alexandra Shulman on Radio 4’s Today Programme. The subject of the interview was meant to be changing fashion trends over 60 years but in effect the questions asked to Shulman can be summarised as: skinny, thin, skinny, skinny, Theresa May’s shoes, you’re not skinny.
At a basic bitch level this is a set of boring questions, asked by someone who clearly thinks fashion is frivolous, and is a dial-in what-to-ask-a-fashion-person-when-you-know-nothing-about-fashion. Kudos to Shulman for calling this out. However the disregard of fashion as frivolous plays into the unchecked political power fashion has. I don’t need to recreate the cerulean shirt scene from The Devil Wears Prada because you know it, because everyone has seen that film, because fashion in powerful. But you get my point – billion pound industries are not frivolous.
On the one hand the frivolity argument overlooks the inequalities in fashion: male ownership of fashion conglomerates; cultural appropriation of every culture possible; the dominance of white models, editors, designers, company owners, PR teams; the age of models, and yes the demands on them to be skinny; supply chains; labour standards and working hours, I could go on but these arguments have been rehashed countless times (and yet still ignored by interviewers obsessed with skinny).
On the other hand the frivolity argument ignores the close alignment between fashion and politics. This is evident in how magazines pursue political agendas – see US Vogue and the Democrats or British Vogue and the Tories – and can be a humanizing and legitimating force for political actors; fashion fundraising for politicians; and fashion aspirations for political office, see for example Anna Wintour as genuinely rumoured to being Hillary Clinton’s pick for US Ambassador to the UK. It is also evident in how fashion engages activism. This is often badly done, however most people in the know know that the Trump resistance is more likely to be found in Teen Vogue that the FT or the New Yorker.
Over the two minutes it took for Humphrys to interview Shulman and for me to choose to wear boots (never trust the blue skies), I could think of a list of alternative questions:
- What impact will Brexit have on the fashion industry and its contribution to the UK economy?
- What do you think of Naomi Campbell’s comments on the picture of the Vogue team in the latest edition of the magazine? Does Vogue and Fashion have a diversity problem? Or put more bluntly, Vogue so white?
- Should designers such as Gucci and Vetements be allowed to steal ideas from hip hop culture without attribution?
- What did you make of the Lucinda Chambers piece in Vestoj? Have advertisers compromised the artistic part of fashion magazines?
- Does high street fast fashion have implications for labour standards throughout the fashion industry (child labour, supply chains, and pressure on designers at the top end)?
- Are the number of fashion shows excessive?
- How can a new designer get into Vogue when it only showcases people you know or are related to? Ahem, Samantha Cameron and Deputy Editor Emily Sheffield.
- Is Teen Vogue the vanguard of the revolution? (Okay this is a bit far-fetched, but more interesting than why so skinny?)
These are uncomfortable questions, but not any more uncomfortable than the usual questions posed by Humphrys. The Today Programme missed two tricks here. The first, not delivering on the holding truth to power style journalism that is often claimed to be the programme’s core public good: here they had one of the most powerful women in Britain and they stuck to a tired script. My sense is Shulman may even have wanted to respond to the more difficult questions and offer her opinion without the constraints of advertising, publisher, and colleagues to keep happy. You don’t get to be an editor-at-large without some political savvy and it would have been interesting to hear how she responded or dodged such questions. The second trick is that in not posing these questions, Today missed an opportunity to create more news headlines – the benchmark of how their editorial policy resonates with the wider public – as had Shulman said anything with a smidge of controversy it would have gone viral.
The only saving grace of the whole interview was no-one mentioned or compared Shulman to Anna Wintour. That would have been the cherry of the dial-it-in yawn. The other source of optimism is that there are hints that the new Editor-in-chief Edward Enninful may take on some of these questions in the magazine itself, and perhaps political journalists may (wrongly, of course, this is a feminist blog) see Vogue as less frivolous if a man’s in charge.
Fashion is more political than Theresa May’s sodding shoes. I have personal reasons for writing this piece; one colleague looked at my Zara zebra print shoes and declared them ‘very Theresa May.’ This happened years ago but I’ve not forgotten and I have not worn these shoes since. But the more fashion is dismissed as frivolous and interviews continue to obsess over the skinny, the more insidious forms of power in the fashion world go unchecked and unseen.