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The September Issue (2009) – The Lair of the Clockwork God

September 28, 2009

Due to a lack of money, a lack of time, a lack of people to impress and a lack of a body that someone would want to make clothes for, I have little interest in what is fashionable.  I dress in pretty much the same way I did when I was 14 and I think I still have some of the same socks.  As a result, you might expect me to have little interest in R. J. Cutler’s documentary about the construction of the September 2007 issue of Vogue magazine.  Well, you might very well expect that, but you would be utterly wrong.  It is precisely because I have no interest in what is fashionable that I find the world of fashion so profoundly compelling. Films about the fashion industry are explorations of another culture completely different to my own.  A culture with a good deal of impact upon the world that we all inhabit.  Because of its power and the strangeness of its people and institutions, the fashion industry is a fascinating subject for a film.  Regardless of whether it is explored through mockery (as with Robert Altman’s 1994 Pret-a-Porter), hagiography (as with Rodolphe Marconi’s 1997 Lagerfeld Confidential) or thinly veiled contempt (as with David Frankel’s 2006 The Devil Wears Prada).

R.J. Cutler’s The September Issue approaches the subject with a mixture of awe and mockery but, despite some initial setbacks, the film provides some genuine insight into how it is that the world of fashion functions and why it is that it has so much power over our society.

Film Poster

Film Poster

Initially, Cutler’s film seems wide of the mark.  Because the film is reliant upon the access granted to it by Vogue’s editor Anna Wintour, it spends a lot of time following her around and trying to understand her.  But this was always profoundly wrong-headed.  Wintour has spent decades carefully building up a reputation for being distant, cold and autocratic and she is the editor of the most influential magazine in an industry that is all about the projection of image.  At this point, to suggest that there is a real, thinking and feeling person behind the façade would be devastating to Wintour’s credibility and it will take more that a camera crew to do her that kind of damage.  Indeed, aside from a few rather fruitless interviews with Wintour about her childhood and her feelings about the job, we mostly see her politely trying not to cringe and effortlessly shooting down the carefully constructed and exquisitely produced lay-outs pieced together by her long-term collaborator and foil, the wonderfully sardonic former model Grace Coddington.  Perhaps realising that he was getting nowhere with Wintour, Cutler then switches the emphasis towards Coddington, who works with Wintour enough that we at least see the impact of her editorial style and choices, if not the motivations behind them.

Anna Wintour in armour

Anna Wintour in armour

Coddington is very much the star of the film.  Where Wintour is carefully poker-faced, Coddington is an open book.  A striking woman with a mane of wild red hair, a slightly asymmetrical face due to a car accident and a fondness for almost shapeless black dresses, she mutters and grinds her teeth as she pops into the lay-out room to discover that even more of her precious photographs have been binned by the autocratic Wintour.  Wintour’s refusal to explain herself often has Coddington close to tears, laying the basis for one of the film’s real achievements.

Grace Coddington

Grace Coddington

The September Issue argues that, beneath the glitz and silliness (provided by the wonderful Vogue Editor at Large Andre Leon Talley, who arrives at a tennis lesson with a suite of Louis Vitton luggage filled with towels and bottles of water), fashion is an institution with roots firmly embedded in artistic soil.  To watch the way in which Coddington seeks inspiration and carefully constructs the wardrobes and looks of her shoots is undeniably to see an artist at work.  The photos are not about selling clothes, they are about communicating a mood, a feeling and a trend that is currently central to the global fashion community.  It is a process reminiscent of the Renaissance : Decisions are made about what is in and artistic people are sent off to find ways of visually representing the intuitions and the diktats and the management.

Andre Leon Talley

Andre Leon Talley

However, while The September Issue undeniably fails to come to grips with Anna Wintour, its resulting decision to look at the ways in which she influences the people around her, does yield some real food for thought.  In particular when it comes to answering the question of why it is that Wintour has so much power.

The Aristotelean Universe

The Aristotelean Universe

We are told, repeatedly. that Wintour gets it right.  However, what this means is not particularly clear.  We learn that Wintour hates black and loves fur.  We also learn that she pre-empted the rise of celebrities but what this actually means is not clear either… were there no celebrities prior to the late 80s?  As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Wintour’s power is not due to any particularly refined aesthetic sensibility, if anything, the film presents her as a philistine, playing her decisions for laughs and pathos as she is forever shooting down the much more sensitive and sympathetic Coddington.  Nor does it flow from any particular  insight into what the punters want.  Vogue has no interest in what people like.  People will like what they are told to like.  Instead, Wintour’s power seems to flow from a sense of responsibility.  Indeed, Wintour is responsible not just for everything that goes on in Vogue, but also everything that goes on in the fashion industry.

An artistic depiction of Aristotle's Universe

An artistic depiction of Aristotle’s Universe

Due to its bizarre combination of art and commerce, the fashion industry is not just a pretentious way of talking about the rag trade.  It is not a nakedly Darwinian case of survival of the company who gives people what it wants.  Instead, fashion is a much more top down market-place where the clocks are re-wound every season. Indeed, a designer might well have a terrible autumn but there is nothing stopping them from bringing out a great collection in the spring and taking the world by storm.  So, rather than being like a Darwinian jungle, the fashion industry functions more like the clockwork universe of Aristotle : There are commercial forces sure enough, but they are stopped and started at arbitrary points.  As with Aristotle’s metaphysics, the clockwork economics of the fashion industry requires an unmoved mover; a spark of change that will set the artistic agenda and re-start the market forces.  Wintour, according to Cutler, is that unmoved mover.  She is aloof and impenetrable because she cannot be second-guessed or be seen to be making arbitrary decisions.  Because of this, she wears a poker face in meetings and attends fashion shows wearing huge dark glasses that hide any involuntary emotional reactions she might have to the clothes.  Wintour has power because she is willing to take responsibility.  She is willing to cut a swathe through the commercial concerns of clothing retailers, the preciousness of designers and the opinions of her staff and say that she wants the September issue to have lots of textures and colours.  Everyone willingly surrenders this power to her and she happily carries it on her shoulders.  She is the great decider.

Louis XIV

Louis XIV

Of course, why it is that the fashion industry should require such an unmoved mover is never really touched upon.  Wintour is a clockwork god to whom the fashion world owes obeisance and because this film required her consent and access to her and her offices, we never get an outsider’s perspective on the weirdly co-dependent relationship between the editor of Vogue and the institutions of the fashion industry.  Indeed,  The September Issue is clearly a film in which agendas are advanced : Coddington gets a name for herself as an artistic genius (Wintour drops the G-bomb towards the end of the film) while Wintour bolsters her reputation for being the fashion world’s answer to Louis XIV : L’Etat, C’est Moi.

Film Poster

Film Poster

However, despite the tangible sense that the film is ‘spun’, The September Issue’s thesis of Wintour as a clockwork god of fashion is a compelling one that provides some explanations of why Vogue matters to people and why people allow themselves to be told what to wear.  The film is essentially arguing that people are sheep and they yearn for someone who will tell them what to do and while this vision of humanity may well be deeply misanthropic, it does make sense.  Given so many choices of how we should look, is it not natural to want someone to tell us what will make us look good and what will make us fit in?  In Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre speaks of people who, when they realise that they are free are crippled with fear.  They would rather surrender their free will rather than accept responsibility for not only their actions but also the moral codes that bind their actions.  In fact, Erich Fromm saw this urge as central to explaining the rise of Fascism.  He called it a desire to Escape from Freedom.  If making our own moral judgements can be such an alienating and unpleasant experience, why should the same not be true of decisions as to what colour of jumper to buy or what kind of shoes to wear?  Someone has to make these decisions… will you?

Cover picture of Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom

Cover picture of Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom

6 Comments
  1. September 29, 2009 7:07 pm

    The difficulty is, while to some Vogue is a commandment that must be followed, to many others it’s a source of inspiration from which they pick and choose such items as speak to them. Many people in the fashion world, or simply who have a deep love of fashion, look to a range of sources and look to them as means to be alerted to what’s out there and what’s new, who’s doing what. They’re not abnegating thinking for themselves, they’re outsourcing research.

    Equally, to many others it is merely escapist reading, wholly unconnected to reality, with no implications at all for their own dress. I’d guess that’s true for most its readers.

    In explaining it, it’s too easy to say those into fashion are simply afraid of thinking for themselves, that they seek another to act as arbiter of their own taste. I don’t think it’s that simple, I think that’s just one part of the Vogue audience.

    And that part which does look for confirmation of what to wear is I suspect not driven by fear of freedom, but fear of ostracisation, with wearing the right item a marker of social inclusion in certain elements of society (upper class New York for example). When your class position, and hence financial position, is dependant on wearing the right clothes, it’s not fear of freedom that makes Vogue matter – it’s fear of ruin. A woman in those circles who doesn’t know how to dress is a social liability, and will soon find herself cut loose. She has very practical reasons for paying attention to what Wintour says.

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  2. September 29, 2009 7:49 pm

    Actually, I was thinking less of Vogue’s end consumers than I was of people within the fashion industry.

    The film suggests that people will like what they’re told but it doesn’t really have much of an interest in the world outside of the business.

    It’s more that the designers need some kind of structure to work in and the purchasers need to know what’s “in” and rather than base this on second-guessing the public, they all latch onto the opinions of Vogue (to a greater or lesser degree obviously).

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  3. September 29, 2009 7:59 pm

    Fair enough. Within the business I suspect you’re right, though even there I wonder if fear is a big issue (obviously for some it will be, but not necessarily the main one). You talk of the unmoved mover, and the need for such, that feels right to me.

    I don’t think that makes people sheep though, rather the market can only function if there is some arbiter, some reference point. Given that, people can follow, pick and mix, ignore as they see fit, but with no reference point there’s no fashion at all – nothing to push against.

    Put another way, I agree with your whole piece but the final paragraph, and I think the Aristotelian comparison is a good one, I’m just not sure it leads to a people as sheep end point and if the film goes there I suspect that speaks more to the film-maker’s prejudices than the reality of the industry. Those with no interest in fashion routinely assume those who do are recipients of the instructions of appointed gurus, passive consumers of another’s style choices. But, in the main, that’s not really true.

    Oh, and as I forgot before, I thought The Devil Wears Prada a profoundly cowardly film, one that celebrated excess while condemning it in a comfortable and predictable way at the end, a film that went both ways and so ended up saying nothing at all.

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  4. September 30, 2009 8:53 pm

    In the context of your average Vogue-reading punter, I think that Wintour’s job is not really that different to that of a critic. She edits a magazine and says to people : Here’s what you should be thinking about, here’s what’s new and important. People are free to accept or ignore it.

    What is odd is that this relationship then continues across to the business side of things. Rather than ‘pushing against’ public tastes, the fashion industry resets the clock and allows its agenda to be set.

    This is actually quite odd for an industry and a sub-culture that likes to present itself as creative and even artistic. The designers could engage with what people like and what people buy but instead they have this slightly odd structure that squares the circle of people producing highly commercial and mass produced ‘art’.

    I see no reason why this structure is necessary. Most industries don’t share it.

    If you work in a creative industry and you need a critic to tell you what to care about then you’re either not creative enough or you’re afraid to be properly creative.

    There’s an element of personal cowardice involved here but I agree, I may have over-stated its importance. What this is, is commercial risk aversion : People are afraid to make commercial decisions without someone holding their hands.

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