A Radical Marxist Critique Of Vogue's Culture Of Accretion

Journalists who interview sources only to twist their words into cages of rigid illogic are usually the coolest thing about the unabashedly partisan British press. How am I left feeling for British Vogue's editor here?

Alexandra Shulman, who's run British Vogue since replacing Liz Tilberis there in 1992, was treated to an extraordinary drubbing in the Independent last weekend.

Writer Deborah Orr opens her piece with a paragraph quoting Shulman on the problems for which the industry she loves is, in her opinion, sometimes unfairly held responsible: "Fashion is blamed for paedophilia, landfill, drug addiction, animal rights [...] Every kind of goody-goody projects on to fashion as the epicentre of all that is wrong with the Western world." Taking this as an invitation, Orr adds a raft of her own: "Eating disorders, the obsession with looking youthful unto death, the generation of a consumer debt unequalled by any other country on the planet [and] regular exposés of sweatshop working practices." Phew! But, the writer goes on, most importantly fashion has some kind of unacknowledged moral responsibility for the current crisis and recession:

All I'm trying to suggest is that the huge growth in demand for more and more new clothes, has played a significant part in fuelling the boom that has now been so clearly revealed as a hypertropic, transient bubble.

"All," indeed. Then, pitilessly, Orr has Shulman offer a mealy quote about how shopping can be, like, fun sometimes. It's at that point I actually started to feel bad for her.

The article never lets up. When Shulman tries to play up her attitude towards democratically priced chain stores, Orr hits back with sweatshops and "the glut of discarded cheap clothing that has become so great that only a small fraction of it can be recycled in any form." When Shulman downplays the extent to which she was interested in fashion prior to writing for women's magazines, Orr spends a paragraph accusing her of false modesty. Shulman even, to her credit, admits the endless manufactured cycle of demand for luxury goods may have been pushing things too far — that retailers asking designers to create fall/winter, spring/summer, pre-fall, and resort collections, to oversee eyewear licenses, handbags, shoe lines, regular unveilings of new perfumes, and all the other manifold icons of false plenty that her magazine, she admits, has held up as desirable status items, may have thinned the aesthetic broth. In response, Orr takes the opportunity to note that "Few people would find it easy to accept that fashion designers have been the helpless victims in the fashion boom, reluctantly labouring away at filling the shops with new stuff, and unable to protest because the gold that has been stuffed into their mouths has rendered them dumb." Shulman can't win for agreeing with Orr, and Orr never gives her any good word in disagreement, either. ("I totally buy into that idea that for a brief moment everything seems better, when you've got a new dress that you look good in.") The nicest thing Orr can bring herself to say about Shulman is that "she is not herself a super-thin, over-groomed, clothes-horse," and personally unafraid to say "I don't know." The main qualification of either of these statements as compliments is the comparatively subtle attack on Shulman they couch.

The thing is, magazines like Vogue do push a lifestyle of retail fantasy that is, for most if their readership, completely unattainable. And getting Tim Walker to shoot a $10,000 couture gown for an editorial on page 325 helps the maker of that dress sell us his perfume, handily advertised on page 116, and his diffusion line at H&M, the release of which merits a quick friendly mention on the fashion calendar on page 34. Shulman knows that's how the game works, and so does Orr. (Complaining on principle about advertisers' filthy lucre subsidizing the pleasures of seeing Tim Walker shoot a one-of-a-kind dress, however, strikes me as a jejune argument in the extreme.) But it remains true that living beyond one's means is not a tenable proposition, and as a culture, that's what we've been doing in the West for the past decade (at least). Consumer debt in the U.S. reached $2.55 trillion in 2007. Magazines in general, and ladymags in particular, played a role in promoting and normalizing that paradigm. You can lay blame at the feet of their editors for plenty of things: you can wholly legitimately criticize overheated consumer culture, the unsustainable lifestyle of accretion, and you can point out the heartbreaking naïveté of literally buying in to the idea that a new dress will change your life.

But Orr is out for blood. Fashion has to be responsible for the recession, because, I repeat, "the huge growth in demand for more and more new clothes, has played a significant part in fuelling the boom that has now been so clearly revealed as a hypertropic, transient bubble." This is just flat-out wrong.

Orr is working on an ancient set of assumptions about personal debt. Every major religion and culture has attached at least some level of shame to the idea of being a debtor; there are strong taboos against taking on debt for consumption, as opposed to for investment. But the bone Orr is picking about consumer debt ignores the fact that unsecured credit card balances, as much as they may have ballooned through the boom years of easy credit, are not the cause of this current mess. Ironically, the housing bubble led the most stereotypically anodyne kind of debt, the kind of debt with which Orr would probably have imagined no philosophical problem even five years ago, the humble home loan, to become the prime agent of economic destruction. The total value of outstanding residential mortgages in the U.S. totaled $10.6 trillion by the middle of 2008; $1.1 trillion of that was home-equity loans. Mortgages being bundled, atomized, divided into investment tranches, swapped, leveraged, hedged, by Wall St. was the problem. "Securitization" was the problem. The separation of borrower from broker from lender from bank from investor was the problem. Credit card debt may be at an all-time high, but it still makes up a tiny portion of the overall credit market. Orr shouldn't jump through this particular set of hoops just to try and make women feel bad for liking clothes; saying this recession is our fault isn't that different from laying blame at the feet of poor minorities who "connived" to get home loans.

The fact remains that, while freshman-level Marxist takedowns of Vogue masquerading as profiles of the publication's editors are fun and entertaining, fashion has vanishingly little to do with the recession we are currently experiencing, and it's in poor taste to construct this particular straw man when the fashion industry — reeling from massive layoffs, shriveling sales, vanishing capital, bankruptcies, liquidations, financial backers in retrenchment, and the shuttering of design houses at all points on the promising/established continuum — has been suffering from it so greatly. Orr is trying to critique consumer culture by hanging responsibility for the recession on silly women who like handbags and the silly women's magazines they read, and while I'm as ready as the next girl to question the status/disposability combo fashion pushes, I feel obligated to point out that Orr's argument is actually false. And sloppy, all too convenient, and more than a touch classist and sexist. This recession is, as always, due to Wall St. greed, not Hermès and H&M and the women who dare admit to liking the feeling of wearing a new dress. And insofar as this recession has an archetypal villain, it's not the editor of Vogue and the prissy ladies who read her prissy lady magazine. It's the rich white men who run everything. I'm only half joking when I say I think it is important women remember our common enemy sometimes.

Life in Vogue: The Fashionable World Of Alexandra Shulman [Independent]

Related: Credit Card Industry Facts, Debt Statistics 2006-9 [CreditCards.com]
Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve System, Release Z.1, 9/18/08 [Federal Reserve]