For the train journey home from a recent conference I decided to buy a fashion magazine. This was quite a big deal because I rarely buy them, due to the disappointment felt by their inability to identify with my particular fashioned self. While Entwistle (2000) suggests that magazines can connect the practice of getting dressed with both the discourse and production of fashion, I think we still don’t quite know how that happens from an academic perspective. In other words, how do people who buy fashion magazines articulate what they read/see into their daily dress? Furthermore, do people challenge or critique what they read/see through their dress, and if so, how?
It is not my intention to answer these questions right now but they do seem relevant to a more nuanced understanding of how fashion and dress interconnect through the circulation and ownership of magazines. So, with some reservation about the extent to which magazines really hope to identify with me as their reader in mind, I chose one that claims to be focused on how women ‘actually look, think and dress’ in an attempt to see whether this was possible without any reference to the consumer.
This is how I came to read The Gentlewoman, a British based bi-annual publication whose distinguishing features include an academic editor in chief, a intellectual approach to the business of fashion and an aesthetic lineage that can be traced back to the emergence of innovative style magazines in Britain during the 1980s.
The current issue features a vibrant coral front cover that creates a frame around the black and white photographic portrait of Vivienne Westwood from the shoulder upwards. This singular image is given the simple banner of ‘Vivienne’. The magazine’s title is the only other wording on the front cover and both use black Helvetica typeface. There are no further captions alluding to the content within although on opening the magazine, there are approximately 62 pages of advertorial before I reach the contents and contributors lists. Despite the very minimal exterior, the first section seems no different to any other Vogue or Harpers Bazaar. In fact, The Gentlewoman seems no less keen on being desired for its ‘must have’ status than Vogue did when Condé Nast took over at the turn of the 20th century.
However, there are details throughout The Gentlewoman that suggest this is a magazine attuned to an audience that desires something more distinct from between its covers. Firstly, there is the use of heavy cream paper for a middle section devoted to the different ways in which ‘gentlewomen’ identify with cultural products. Here is an image of someone who practices yoga and seeks out drinking alone in bars. Someone interested in architecture as much as the latest cosmetic products. The more expensive paper is dedicated to interviews with well-established fashion related personalities, such as Westwood, by contributors known for their writing various liberal, intellectual broadsheets.
Secondly, the fashion editorials, which make up the third section of this particular issue, are accompanied by interviews with the featured models that reveal their intellectual and creative aptitudes. I discover that a display of swimsuits are worn by a fine artist, while a range of menswear is modeled by someone with a university degree. These models are not just clothes hangers but women who live lives beyond the two-dimensional realm of fashion imagery.
Thirdly, everything from the pared down photography with an emphasis on natural light and minimal retouching to a series of smaller editorials discussing the semantics of detailing within dress, with reference to pockets and underwear, are all underpinned by the presence of an editor in chief known for her fashion history credentials. Penny Martin, whose commercial experience includes working for Nick Knight’s SHOWStudio, studied fashion magazines for her PhD at the Royal College of Art while working at the Fawcett Society Women’s Library. With this background, which also includes curation, Martin’s intellectual clout is what arguably enables The Gentlewoman to classify itself as a magazine for intelligent women.
Breward (2003) suggests that magazines play a crucial role in imagining how we might play out a diverse cast of fashionable lifestyles. The published fashion image not only suggests what’s to come but allows us to dream of possibilities that are often far removed from our socio-economic realities. The difficulty with The Gentlewoman is that due to its self aware sense of academic and subcultural identity, suspension of belief is not an option. The Gentlewoman is too aware of its own ironies on the one hand, its commitment to historical accuracy on the other.
This is particularly noticeable in a photographic editorial that features five make up/hair stylists who are shown being made up by various assistants at branded make up counters in the department store Selfridges. The images reveal only the hands of those applying the make up while the faces of the stylists display a range of naturalistic poses. I was particularly drawn to the idea of juxtaposing the unknown make up assistant with the recognized achievements of the stylists yet neither are caught looking directly at the camera so we see a moment in action, a glimpse of both, just as we might if we were there in Selfridges.
However, I was interested to discover that the hands of the make up assistants were in fact those of two hand models and so throwing into question the entire premise of this being a documentary effort. I also wondered at the decision to recreate the experience of being at a Selfridges make up counter, how in doing so, to what extent does The Gentlewoman challenge the reader’s opportunities to dream of possible lifestyles?
Although I did find an undergraduate dissertation on the subject and would love to hear more from the student on this study, overall, not much critical analysis has emerged about The Gentlewoman. In a newspaper interview with Martin by Kate Finnegan last year, I was struck by the journalist’s description of the magazine as an ‘equivalent of Slow Food’. It suggests that while reading The Gentlewoman might be an act of subversion on the one hand, it is also imbued with the philosophical aim of eventually making the fashion world a better place on the other. The reader of The Gentlewoman is one who ultimately understands that fast fashion will rarely lead to a more authentic, and in this case, more naturalized, sartorial identity. But is that really the case?
As I said at the beginning, not enough has been done to understand the relationship between fashion magazines and how we dress in our everyday lives. While they have always been a means to understand the top down flow of stylistic trends, since the 1950s, they have also reflected the increasingly blurred distinctions between cultural practices and objects. In this way, fashion magazines invite the reader to identify with its language, to encourage us to learn their particular vocabulary. Yet, when it comes to academic research, we still seem to focus solely on talking to journalists, photographers and editors as important cultural mediators. Why don’t we also include discussion with the people who buy magazines, to explore how fashion as image is articulated through the embodiment of dress, as Entwistle suggests?
If you are involved in research that addresses some of these questions, please do get in touch as I would really like to hear from anyone who has either developed some of Entwistle’s ideas about dress, fashion and the body or interesting methodological approaches to documenting the daily experience of getting dressed. Also, if you have a particular view on The Gentlewoman, please do get in touch.