Friends, in our continued series exploring popular magazines of the past and the images they present of American fashion and lifestyles (particularly the roles of women), today we stumble upon 2011. Do you remember that troubling time?
Casting an objective eye on the present is much more challenging than, say, looking at the Forties or Fifties, when we benefit from historic perspective. We must step back and -- perhaps by comparing some of the magazines we've already looked at -- try to view the material with fresh eyes. It can help to pretend you're a visitor from the past or from a remote part of the world. Or a space alien.
Elle is published by Hachette Filipacchi Media, US., Inc., the American arm of a French media group (Woman's Day and Road & Track are a few of their other high-profile titles). It's primarily a fashion magazine, though it has general interest articles as well. As far as I could tell, there's very little that distinguishes it from the many other popular fashion magazines like Vogue or Glamour. I stumbled upon the February 2011 issue in the laundry room and took a peek inside.
First, I'm not sure what to make of starlet/celebrity wife Katie Holmes on the cover (up top). It's hardly an inviting image. Katie looks distraught and slightly sweaty; her hair is messy and her dress seems loose. It suggests a film still, which is likely the intention, but it's a dark and disturbing-looking film. I'll pass.
If there's one thing that you can't miss in contemporary magazines, it's the global luxury brand ads. They're everywhere, and the primary players are all accounted for: Gucci, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry, Yves Saint Laurent, Coach (Prada -- where's Prada?). These brands are so ubiquitous they're like wallpaper, and at a certain point I begin to tune them out.
The imagery communicates the same message ad nauseum: be young, be rich, be thin, be branded. Even when there's more than one person in a photo, they're rarely interacting or even looking at one another (though they're sometimes lying on top of one another). The models generally look either strung out and sullen or defiant and challenging -- sometimes all of the above.
Are there any fashion trends evident here? Long, straight hair is better than short and curly (of which there is none). Keep your heels high, your legs smooth, and carry a designer handbag, preferably in an exotic skin.
Makeup should be nude or Forties pin-up-style. Skin -- and the more displayed the better -- should be Photoshop-flawless. And speaking of skin...there are endless makeup and skincare ads (and today your makeup often is your skincare, thanks to unprecedented scientific breakthroughs) and tons of designer perfume ads (with those annoying scent strips)...cough, cough.
And, SO much lipstick, friends. My hunch is that this offers the average reader something they can actually afford, some way to participate in all the luxury being put on display. Most of these products are being hawked by mainstream celebrities like Beyoncé, Jessica Biel, and Drew Barrymore. Where once the fantasy was Hollywood-like glamour, today's fantasy is LUXURY, pampered luxury.
Experience the richest indulgence for your lips... (That's L'oreal's Colour Riche)
Pamper lips with a more polished pink... (Maybelline Colorsensational lipcolor)
The ideal image today is essentially to be a trophy wife or the stereotypical sexy mistress. You see it in the clothes, in the towering heels and gaudy accessories. It pretends to present female empowerment but looks like-- what else can you call it? -- prostitution (i.e., selling your sexual power for social position).
Even in the fashion spreads, women are spread out on the ground or sit wide-legged on beds.
As with every fashion magazine today, clothes are featured in great big assortments, arranged by either color or fabric type. (It's like, anything goes so we'll just throw it all at you at once and let you pick.) Nothing seems precious or new. Next month there will be new garment collages, and the month after that, and so on. Editors are obviously trying to identify some sort of trends, but it feels frantic (and futile). Who can make sense of all these looks, of so much stuff?
There's a short book review section and few articles, mainly of the Oh, great, something else to worry about variety.
Is your head too small/large?
How do you know when -- or if -- you should have a baby (waiting for a sign from (your) biological clock could be a huge mistake!).
Of course, there's much, much more (this is the TV issue, so it's full of articles about women on (and in) television.
Overall, a magazine like this Elle captures a very confusing time to be alive. We're sold day and night a slick and cynical image of luxury that most of us will never attain. Women are no longer assumed to be aspiring housewives, but regardless of their ambition and talents, they must be flawless, long-legged beauties, and dressed like a mafia wife or curvaceous showgirl (up top anyway). i.e. They shouldn't look like they actually hold a job.
I read a lot of ambivalence about the role of women today. Mogul or Marilyn?
Readers, what do you think? Does this feel/look like empowerment to you? Do you read fashion magazines today, and if so, what do you make of the messages they send? Do they leave you feeling inspired -- or confused?
I'd love to hear from you!
(More pics from the February 2011 issue of Ellehere.)
I'm a native New Yorker and sewing fanatic! I started sewing in 2009 and today make all my own clothes using vintage sewing machines and vintage patterns, in addition to sewing for private clients. Welcome to the warm and whimsical world of Male Pattern Boldness, where the conversation is sewing, style, fashion, fabric, and more!