The heated debates about the Vogue Empower ad have spun off many other interesting conversations including the place of fashion magazines in cultural debates and feminism. Here is the fourth and final piece in a series of responses. Read the first three by Mridula Koshy, Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan and Deepa Menon.
A few days ago, my almost-four-year-old daughter came to me, the lower half of her face covered with both hands, and tried to be nonchalant, “Amma, let’s play.” “What’s in your mouth?” I asked, suspecting chocolates. “Nothing,” she said, “nothing.” I started prying her hands open, and she ran away yelling, “don’t look, don’t look, it’s nothing.”
When I finally persuaded her to show me her face, it wasn’t chocolate, it was lipstick.
I am proud to raise a lipstick lover. Lipstick is one of the good things of life. If I have to run errands I am not looking forward to or do chores that I dislike to or call people I don’t want to, lipstick helps me get through it. My lipsticks are everywhere, in the kitchen, on my desk, in the pocket of every bag. I love their stickiness , their brightness, their glamour. I also love long flowing skirts. And curly hair products with their smell of possibility. And big rings. And colorful shoes. And lace. I love fashion.
You know how some people will tell you, I love food, but I am not a foodie? Or, I am spiritual, but not religious. That is how I love fashion. I do not follow fashion weeks or models. I love looking at clothes but couldn’t name more than a handful of designers. And fashion magazines, for the most part, leave me gasping for air.
But fashion seems to me one of the most intriguing topics in the world. Fashion is the intersection of identity and fantasy and anthropology. Every time we wear clothes and make-up and jewelry, we invent and reinvent ourselves. Every time we open our wardrobes, it is not merely clothes but stories that come tumbling out. Fashion can be playful and subversive, personal and political. When I look at laundry lines, I see flags.
So it seems to me that fashion magazines have a lot of catching up to do. There is a yawning gap between fashion and fashion magazines and so many of us have fallen in that gap. The young Asian-American man who uses his eccentric bow ties to combat his invisibility in the American mainstream. An Iranian designer who is reimagining the chador. The giant shipping containers of old clothes from America that arrive in Kutch to be recycled. The real cost of the shirt on your back. The fading tattoos on the sweet old faces of women in a refugee camp in Syria. Hilary Mantel’s brilliant essay on what we are looking at when we look at royal bodies and the clothes on them.
The problem with fashion magazines is not that they are deceiving us, it is that they are underestimating us. We want to know the latest eye make-up trends. We also want thoughtful journalism and literary writing. The world’s a closet full of stories that have not been styled or photoshopped or whitewashed. Look inside your own wardrobe. The dress that you won’t give up on. The jewelry inherited from a loved one now gone forever. The desires and disappointments, the smell of mothballs and memories.
And yet. Sometimes in the subway, I will smell Vogue or Vanity Fair or Elle. Their dense rich smell will come bubbling into my consciousness, a gift from another subway rider. It is the smell of designer fragrance in pudgy little pockets tucked between glossy pages, to be pried open by manicured fingers. And then my fingers will itch to feel the smooth wealth of the magazine paper, its promise that the world is a beautiful place and if you wear this coat, if you spray this fragrance on, if you paint your lips with this ripe shade of mulberry purple, you too can make others envious. And I will close my eyes and breathe in this promise. Till I gasp for air.
Shahnaz Habib is a freelance writer and the editor of Laundry, a literary magazine about fashion. She tweets @laundrylitmag.