American Vogue's fawning, and roundly criticized, profile of Asma al-Assad, the First Lady of Syria, got me thinking about the almost-funny and totally abject stupidity of so much of that luxury rag's "coverage" of "serious" world events. From puff-pieces about dictatorships to homeless chic, models posed as oil-slicked birds to an urban guerilla fashion story, Vogue really has done it all! Never mind the fact that nobody in their right mind would ever pick it up for its up-to-the-minute reports from Benghazi: willful obliviousness on this scale has to be seen to be believed.
So, that Vogue profile! Did you know that the First Lady of Syria is "glamorous, young, and very chic — the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies"? And also, as evidenced by photojournalist James Nachtwey's accompanying pictures, very blonde? Did you know that Syria is "a secular country where women earn as much as men and the Muslim veil is forbidden in universities, a place without bombings, unrest, or kidnappings"? Did you know that the president was elected "with a startling 97 percent of the vote"? Wow, what an awesome, peaceful, equitable, stable place Syria must be to live! Except, as numerous news sources promptly pointed out, the Syrian regime keeps itself pretty busy doing things things like helping assassinate foreign leaders, trying to arm Hezbollah with scud missiles, and ruthlessly suppressing any sign of domestic dissent under "emergency laws" that have been in effect since 1963.
No sooner had that bit of puffery gone to press, however, than Vogue — and the Assad regime — found itself being overtaken by events. Heard about the unrest in Syria? Here's how the New York Times described some of the first demonstrations, last month:
Within minutes, Syrian security men beat and dispersed the protesters, arresting several. That was Tuesday. On Wednesday, some 200 people gathered in front of the Interior Ministry building here. They included relatives of longtime political prisoners as well as activists and students, and they began calling for the release of those in custody.
Once again, a large force of armed officers — more numerous than the protesters — charged the group, and arrested 36 people, witnesses and human rights activists said.
Among those arrested? A 10-year-old boy whose mother is a political prisoner.
That somehow didn't stop people from gathering! Nor did the Assad regime's decision to fire on protesters — human rights groups say over 150 protesters have been killed, with many more arrests and detentions — and three weeks into the unrest, the protesting crowds now number over 10,000. Assad warned yesterday that there is "no more room for leniency or tolerance," as though his response has thus far has displayed either quality. But, you know, Asma al-Assad is "a rose in the desert" who wears couture, like, really well, and what's more, she has taste. Asma al-Assad isn't all bling-bling-y like those other wealthy Middle Eastern women Vogue is too classy to name, so...priorities!
Vogue Italia's 24-page oil spill photo shoot — a cover story that was published when oil was still coating the Gulf coast — was a pretty, ahem, crude way to showcase Calvin Klein Collection black satin gowns and feathered designer coats. Vogue's caption copy really took the tar ball cake, however, by pointing out the little details — like that model Kristen McMenamy "keeps her skin golden thanks to Self Tan Face Bronzing Gel Tint (to wear alone or with foundation): it takes care of the skin, while giving it a hint of color."
I've parsed the long and unfortunate history of "homeless chic" before — and it's true, Vogue did not originate this particular trend. But American Vogue did decide to devote several pages of its April, 2000, issue to John Galliano's controversial couture collection. Which was inspired, he said, by the people he would see sleeping under the bridges of the Seine as he took his morning jog.
The answer to child poverty in India? According to Indian Vogue, it's a $100 Fendi bib. Vogue India drew sharp criticism from anti-poverty advocacy groups when it shot a fashion story in a slum, and outfitted the "real people" models with Burberry umbrellas and $10,000 Hermès purses.
"Lighten up," said editor-in-chief Priya Tanna to her critics. "You have to remember with fashion, you can't take it that seriously."
You know how you can listen to "The Sad Punk" by the Pixies and basically hear everything that would happen in '90s music in three minutes flat? Well, you can look at Keira Knightley's cover spread from American Vogue's June, 2007, issue and basically see every Vogue that ever went to press under Anna Wintour. This is her magazine in an oblivious nutshell: Skinny, model-photogenic British actress, flown to the other side of the world with a team of stylists and photographers and assistants and producers and prop people and location scouts, to act out a pith-helmeted colonialist farrago and take some pictures where some nice, "colorful," but definitely clean-looking natives serve as the model-photogenic actress's backdrop. (In the case of this editorial, the location was Kenya and the natives were Masai.) And then someone thought it would be a great idea to put a Louis Vuitton blanket that costs more than three times Kenya's per-capita GDP on a baby elephant. As Knightley herself admitted, "I've never seen anything more brilliantly stupid."
'Twas ever thus: In this 1969 issue of Vogue, a model poses with gun-toting revolutionaries for an...urban guerilla warfare-themed spread. Remember, ladies: Always wear white when fomenting political unrest. And a pearl-handled pistol makes for a chic side-arm.