Fashion Projects #4 Editorial Letter

by Francesca Granata

This issue explores fashion criticism through a series of interviews with leading contemporary fashion critics. It was conceived as the result of a genuine curiosity to delve into such a rich yet understudied area of culture—a curiosity which is in part personal. The other member of my household—Fashion Projects contributor Jay Ruttenberg—worked as a music critic for the best part of his 20s and 30s and, thus, discussions about the way in which certain areas of culture are so extensively covered vis-à-vis others (as well as more general discussions of the changing face of journalism) made for f requent dinner conversation. It seemed to me that, in the last decade, fashion criticism has been going through a phase of legitimization that other realms of popular culture criticism, such as rock and film criticism, had undergone decades earlier,when critics such as Greil Marcus,Robert Christgau, Pauline Kael, and Andrew Sarris emerged.What also made this issue particularly timely is that with the establishment of fashion as an academic field of study, one runs the risk of forgetting the important work done by critics, who often represent the first line of scholarship on a subject.

This issue does not aim to provide an exhaustive look at contemporary fashion criticism, and is clearly New York–biased, however, common threads do arise. One of the recurrent themes that transpires is fashion criticism’s struggle for legitimization. As Robin Givhan, previously of the Washington Post and currently at the Daily Beast, points out, “The fashion industry is a victim of terrible sexism,” which comes “from both men and women.” Significantly,  Givhan was the first fashion critic to ever receive the Pulitzer Prize—something which only happened in 2006. Perhaps more problematic was the statement that the Puli tzer released in conjunction with her award, claiming that Givhan’s writings, “Transform fashion criticism into cultural criticism”—thus implying, unwittingly, that fashion resides outside the realm of culture.

The relatively low status of fashion criticism was brought up by a number of those interviewed and is reflected in its history. Although the New Yorker had writers covering fashion from its inception in 1925 (the witty Lois Long), the NewYork Times didn’t use bylines systematically for its fashion coverage until the 1950s, when Carrie Donovan began writing about the subject regularly for the paper. Most significantly, the Times did not attribute the title of critic to a fashion writer until 1994, when it coined the title for Amy Spindler.

Current New Yorker writer Judith Thurman points out that although fashion criticism’s relative lack of status can be partially traced to its association with the feminine, there is something culturally specific to the phenomenon. This resistance toward fashion, she adds, is an “American puritanical thing,” which has to do with the “Eros of fashion and the relation between fashion and sex.” The New York Times writer Guy Trebay seconds this sentiment regarding the place of fashion criticism while underlining how things have changed with the increased importance fashion occupies within newspapers and general interest magazines. This increased attention to fashion mirrors Trebay’s own career. A cultural critic at the Village Voice for a number of years, he began writing about fashion regularly only later in life, when he moved to the Times as an extension of his interest in city life. The relevance of fashion to contemporary culture and to processes of identity-formation is a leitmotif of the issue. It is brought up by Thurman, who stresses how fashion is “a language dealing with identities,” while Trebay remarks that fashion is “about the other and requires social interaction to get off the ground.” Discussing her own idiosyncratic way of dressing, the former Village Voice critic and current Vogue contributor Lynn Yaeger remarks that “the way that we present ourselves to the world comes from a very deep psychological place.”

A different approach, which perhaps more closely mirrors art criticism, is discussed by Vogue Italia writer Mariuccia Casadio as well as Stefano Tonchi—the current editor-in-chief of W magazine, who previously edited the New York Times’s T Magazine. Both discuss fashion’s interaction with greater visual and material culture, placing fashion on a continuum with contemporary art, design, and architecture. This approach seems culturally specific judging from Tonchi’s early editorial work on Westuff, as wellas his lesser-known work as a curator (in collaboration with Maria Luisa Frisa), and the fact that Casadio occupies the unique position of both art and fashion critic.

Other recurrent points of discussion are the new temporalities brought about by changes in communication and the advent of new media, which ultimately reflect the increased tempo of the fashion industry itself. Yaeger discusses the dissociative effect of working simultaneously with different temporalities: in the present time when writing for online media and months into the future when working for print magazines. Another issue that is intertwined with new technologies is one of ethics. As the International Herald Tribune’s Suzy Menkes points out, as the lines between editorial and advertising content become more and more tenuous, in part due to the advent of blogs and social media, how do we assure the integrity of the information we consume? Perhaps the most interesting theme that arose amongst discussion of new media is the visual nature of the new forms of journalism—something that fashion criticism is well-suited to develop, as fashion magazines historically have beenvisually driven. (The development of multimedia platforms was discussed in the second issue of Fashion Projects by Penny Martin, then editor-in-chief of SHOWstudio, a pioneer in such arenas.) This issue, our fourth, discusses the less likely success story of Bill Cunningham. The octogenarian photographer has flourished in the new media world, partially thanks to the simplicity and improvisational quality of the online version of his “On the Street” column.

Hopefully, the advent of new technology will coexist and build upon, rather than diminish, the importance of language and of writing, which perhaps becomes more evident when one inhabits (as I have for some time) a language other than one’s own and thus longs to reconnect with what Casadio calls “the magical power of the word.”