I’ve got a complicated relationship with fashion.
I tend to eschew trends for collecting odds and ends of clothing as hand-me-downs or in second-hand shops. Yet watching “Project Runway” and “America’s Next Top Model” with my sister are some of my fondest and most fascinating television memories. I recently viewed (and became appropriately enraged by) The True Cost, a heartbreaking exposé on the way the fast-fashion is damaging so many spheres of our world. But growing up, I also endlessly watched Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris, in which a lowly housekeeper (Angela Lansbury) travels to Paris to fulfil her lifelong dream of owning a Christian Dior gown.
I find myself somewhere between the spectrums, trying to balance a love of and fascination for beauty and whimsy with a general disdain for materialism, waste, and abuse of resources. What’s the big deal about fashion? it’s easy to wonder. But oh… those Dior gowns! Now that I’ve seen them, I’m not sure I want to live in a world without them.
In the documentary The September Issue, R.J. Cutler (If I Stay) gives us a glimpse into the complicated world of fashion deep in the offices at Vogue in NYC as the editors prepare for their largest and most iconic publication of the year. Anna Wintour, American Vogue’s editor-in-chief, is the sun around which this solar system revolves. A soft-spoken, sophisticated woman, she’s stoic enough to strike fear into the hearts of interns and brutal enough to (probably) be a major inspiration for Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.
When she speaks into the camera, Wintour is unashamed of fashion and of Vogue; there’s even a glint of fight in her eyes. She dares us to tell her that what she does is frivolous.
While Wintour is the Pope of the fashion world, Vogue’s creative director Grace Coddington is the rising tide that isn’t afraid to crash against Wintour. Their saga underscores the film, and helps us understand the different forces at work behind every publication.
Wintour is the Ice Queen – hidden behind a precise bob and dark shades, ready to slash a collection at a moment’s notice. But Coddington, with her mane of fluffy red hair, admits that she’s a romantic, ready to battle for beautiful shots when other editors are quick to dismiss. Their clashes and disagreements are fascinating to watch, especially as I’ve been a strong-willed artist who has played both roles on different creative teams over the years. Sometimes you have to cut. Sometimes you have to look deeper and bring out the beauty.
Despite the tension, it’s satisfying to watch each woman praise the other behind her back, once the cameras cut away from their quarrel to introspective private interview times. They know the other is brilliant. They need each other.
So much is illuminating about this documentary, especially since I don’t keep up with the industry normally. It’s been nearly ten years since it was filmed, but a quick internet search shows that these colossal figures at Vogue are still going strong, still standing as unshakeable foundations in this bittersweet fairyworld we call fashion.
There’s a lot to say about Anna Wintour. She brought back fur as a fashion staple in the 90’s. She foresaw the current mania of celebrity worship, and started putting stars on Vogue covers long before it became the norm. She runs an office where people discuss photoshopping a model into a frankenstein version of the original image as casually as lunch.
And yet, like me, like the fashion industry itself, she’s complicated. To her, in the 60’s, fashion was interconnected with everything: women’s emancipation, shattered class systems, the Pill. Now she has a daughter who vows she will never work in the fashion world. Wintour’s siblings are advocates and writers with solemn job titles. They are “amused” by her work, she admits slowly, with measured words. She gives into moments of stillness and pause when she tries to find the right way to speak the phrase.
“You can’t stay behind. You have to go charging ahead.”
The last moment of the film features a cut between the run-through of the October clothes, and Wintour giving the camera a coy glance. “So, what else?” she queries lightly. September is gone, just as it leaves every year. She doesn’t dwell there, even if it has been immortalized in film. She’s got big plans for next month.