While it is certainly an entertaining couple of hours, The Devil Wears Prada wasn’t exactly an accurate portrayal of a top fashion magazine. My very first job was at American Vogue, the publication on which the film is based, making Anna Wintour – the high priestess in the film played by Meryl Streep – my first editor. So, I consider myself a bit of an authority on this topic.
For one, Ms. Wintour would never deign to model the silver rimmed, mirrored wraparound Versace glasses Streep’s Miranda Priestly wields in the film (she prefers chic round Chanel frames, thanks). Secondly, you can rest assured that meager assistants don’t accompany their higher-ups to the Paris haute couture shows twice a year, and pick up goodie bags of designer freebies, as Annie Hathaway comically complained about in the film. And third, no one at Vogue wears the ethnic, oversized man-jewellery Stanley Tucci did in the film – even Andre Leon Talley, who is widely believed to be one of the men at the magazine that were pieced together to create Tucci’s character.
But the saving grace of the film, the part that gave it a sense of gravitas and provided a glimpse into a world so many long to understand, was easily missed by some. The heart of the story, for me at least, takes place in the scene just after Hathaway has started working as Priestley’s assistant – this is before the Chanel over-the-knee boots and new fringe makeover – when she clomps into Priestley’s office in a pair of rubber clogs and sniggers when she hears a lively debate over one blue belt being the same blue as another blue belt. For the record, it wasn’t turquoise, nor lapis; it was cerulean.
Streep, in character, launches into a venomous speech that is in equal parts nasty and accurate. She acknowledges Hathaway’s arrogance in judgment – noting how she thought she was above the superficial process of fashion – but then points out that after Oscar de la Renta, then Yves Saint Laurent, eight more designers showcased a blue similar to the very sweater Hathaway was wearing. The color cerulean “trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin,” pronounces Priestly. “However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.”
After the film’s commercial success, many paid attention to parts I didn’t count as integral. I would be asked, “Is it really that cut throat to work in fashion? Do you have to be skinny to work at magazines? Can you really get advance Harry Potter galleys from sexy book editors if you flirt with them at SoHo store parties?” Blah blah blah! Whether or not these sorts of things were true are irrelevant; for me, it was all about Streep’s monologue about cerulean. Right there – for me, for my parents, for my cousins in Arkansas who think shopping at Gap is investment dressing, for rich people, for poor people, for Wintour, for you, for all to see – in just a few minutes of cinematic snideness, there it was: the scope of how far-reaching this business about dresses and hemlines truly is.
The poignant parts of that monologue – how the choices of a few at the top of an enormous fashion pyramid filter to its giant base – are still a foremost factor in modern culture. Fashion’s tentacles have worked into nearly every single nook and cranny of modern society. I’m not referring to a “we-all-put-clothes-on”, “we-all-put-pants-on-one-leg-at-a-time” simplicity here, either. Yes, it’s true that everyone gets dressed, but the modern relationship between fashion and the rest of the world has only become more complex and interwoven.
Ms. Wintour, in a not-so-devilish role as fashion doyenne, was acutely aware of this newly redefined relationship last September, when she hosted a city-wide initiative (and later worldwide, as the initiative spread to as far away as China) called Fashion’s Night Out. It was a night when nearly every single store in New York City – even in Queens, where Ms. Wintour herself was signing t-shirts at a Macy’s – stayed open till 11pm, hosted parties and made attempts to stimulate the city’s retail market.
For a reminder of how important the fashion industry is to New York City specifically, look at the facts: more than 175,000 New Yorkers work in the industry, and more than $10billion is traded in New York City per year alone. While it’s easy to write off the entire fashion industry as a couple of vain, materialistic people playing dress-up because they have nothing better to do, the numbers are irrefutable. Here’s the other thing about fashion – it’s everywhere. It cannot be defined as merely seamstresses, or photographers, or make-up artists. It’s much bigger, more complicated, and way deeper than that. For one, it’s a mirror of other cultures. Like how John Galliano high tails it to India, stocks up on bright fabrics and shiny bits, and devotes a whole collection to that far off land. (Mr. Galliano loves a research trip.) Not that it stops with John in the Far East. Fashion dabbles in art, whether it’s Stella McCartney asking an artist to design a pattern she will put in a dress, or Marc Jacobs doing something more literal at Louis Vuitton, when he asked the likes of Murakami and Richard Prince to spice up the brand’s age-old monogram. Fashion is in art and music too, and not just as giant logos on the back of rappers or designers; last year Karl Lagerfeld designed the costumes of The Dying Swan at the English National Ballet.
Following the well-worn path of Jacqueline Kennedy and even Marie Antoinette, fashion plays a role in politics too. Wasn’t it amusing when the tabloids tried to pit Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni against each other in some sort of First Lady fashion off ? Yes, it was ridiculous – both women have looked chic and beautiful at all of their public appearances, no rank needed – but few could have anticipated, when Hilary Clinton was in the White House, the global focus that could be placed on a First Lady’s wardrobe again. Michelle Obama is largely responsible for shoving the likes of Thakoon, Jason Wu and Isabel Toledo onto a global stage, not to mention what she has done for J. Crew’s cash registers since working the campaign trail in a sensible yellow ensemble. Then there’s the entertainment industry. Beyond creating costumes for films – which isn’t a new gig for designers, lest we forget that Coco Chanel herself jaunted to Hollywood to make wares for films in the 1950s – there is the completely new and all-powerful world of celebrity dressing. An entirely new world, with power stylists and under-the-table deals for famous people to wear certain things, it can be startling. Angelina Jolie wore a Michael Kors black strapless dress to a movie premiere with her husband and within hours – YES, HOURS – the $3,295 dress was sold out on all online retailers.
Fashion overlapping with other industries is hardly a new phenomenon. Going back to the wonderful world of art, Elsa Schiaparelli put a giant Salvador Dali lobster on the crotch of a dress she designed in 1937 (which Wallis Simpson famously wore), and collaborated with Dali again on hats that were made to look like everything from lamb chops to ladies gloves. Those pairings are still inspirational – one Schiaparelli dress, on which she collaborated with Jean Cocteau in 1937, just sold for €175,000 at an auction at the Drouot-Richelieu auction house, where forty other similar works all sold too.
The fashion industry’s omniscient presence doesn’t look like it’s going to delay anytime soon. Look at Autumn: big shoulders (Dolce & Gabbana), 1940s seductress (Lanvin), bright lights (Balmain), rolled up sleeves (Marc Jacobs), biker jackets (Donna Karan), big colours (Prada) and big strict belts (Gucci). The modern girl isn’t messing around with her wardrobe – she’s dressing fiercely for the lean times ahead. With the recession, things have got harder for these girls, and they’ve responded with even harder looks. Kate and Laura Mulleavy from Rodarte told me earlier this year that their Autumn inspiration was Frankenstein!
Beyond trends or It bags or a “shoe of the season”, however, the purchasing power that the recession has given the fashion costumer is now greater than ever before. There’s a whole new dimension to shopping, one that previous generations needn’t debate – an ethical one. In the course of fashion history, garments – be they loin cloths on Native Americans or Botox’ed ladies who lunch in couture gowns – have filled a variety of needs. Early humanity’s clothes just needed to maintain modesty and warmth. Only much later in the history of man did clothes start to fulfill more roles. As humanity became more diverse, fashions morphed into specific styles, social indicators and a matter of taste. The big current discussion is the morality of fashion, namely articles of clothing that come from living creatures. And boy, do people take it seriously.
The topic of sustainable fashion is an engaging conversation that will be discussed for generations to come. The passion on both sides is something I find fascinating, and, indeed, I think future generations will re-evaluate where and how they cull their materials. Let us all remember that it wasn’t that long ago that a lady had to wear a corset, and that the chicest, most masculine of men would wear tights and a single pearl earring. Will realistic fake leather and artificial fur one day be the sort of topic that cerulean blue was in The Devil Wears Prada? Will the day come when Miranda Priestley can back track the trajectory of sustainable fashions to a single decision made in her office with her fashion team? Probably. One day. Because, in the words of that fictional character, what we wear will never, ever be just a “pile of stuff.”