An Interview with Margaret Maynard

by Nadia Buick Cover of Margaret Maynard's Out of Line: Australian Women and Style.

Associate Professor Margaret Maynard is one of Australia’s most respected dress historians. She has published widely in the field and taught for decades at The University of Queensland (UQ) at a time when dress and fashion subjects were few and far between. She continues to hold an Honorary Research Consultant position at UQ in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History. Maynard has contributed greatly to publishing on Australian dress and fashion. Her book Fashioned from Penury re-evaluated Colonial dress in Australia, debunked previously persuasive myths about the impact of the British Empire, class and gender while arguing for institutional acquisition of everyday clothing rather than ‘high fashion.’ In Dress and Globalisation she was one of the first to discuss clothing and sustainability and cross-cultural dressing practices. She also edited the Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands volume of the Berg Encyclopaedia of World Dress and Fashion.

Margaret Maynard and I are both based in Brisbane (arguably quite far removed from the ‘centres’ of fashion) and I have been fortunate to work with her on a project about fashion in Queensland called The Fashion Archives. We spend a lot of time chatting via email and I recently took the time to ask her these questions…

You are a dress historian whose work has also occasionally examined fashion. What is your working definition for these terms?

Fashion for me is the highly volatile aspect of attire and behaviour—the latest look and comportment at any one time. It is a transformative concept or social ideal (not necessarily just reflective). Shaping and reshaping the body, it is an active and material demonstration of change, the nature of its visibility inextricable from social and cultural experiences. The other point is that fashion is inseparable from the industry in which it is made and more recently the commercialisation of its marketing and promotion.

For me fashion is a form of dress, so the term dress encompasses all attire, irrespective of economic factors or class. My view is that one can’t fully understand the workings and nature of fashion unless one takes into account wider processes of dressing. In fashion photography, for instance, one should bear in mind technical processes and the whole marketing structure of the industry. It has been said that fashion is where ‘costume’ and ‘dress’ converge but I don’t think that fashion should be thought of in this way. There are also degrees of fashionability dependent on class and economic circumstances as well as aspirations to look stylish.

Is ‘dress studies’ no longer fashionable?

Yes, I agree that ‘dress studies’ has the lower rating at the present time. Fashion studies today have cachet largely because they have become almost professionalised by the academy and the obsession with dense kinds of theory has lent to a sense of superiority amongst some practitioners. There are also convenient links to contemporary interests in design and lifestyle. And there is no doubt fashion benefits from its association with visual pleasure, aesthetics and artistic creativity.

Dress studies on the other hand seem intellectually less demanding and its subjects can give an impression of being mundane even drab. It is often downgraded as mere social or working-class history compared to fashion. It is interesting that second-hand dress rates more highly perhaps due to its association with self presentation as a creative form. The media loves fashion as allegedly newsworthy, with its links to the latest upmarket designs. Thus most newspapers have columns on ‘fashion’ where they seldom have on dress. The term ‘costume’ used to have the same low standing but somewhat upgraded now it has become the accepted term for theatrical performance attire.

Many theorists and critics interested in dress and/or fashion have observed the field’s relationship to women and femininity, and suggested that this close link is the reason that dress and fashion studies have often been overlooked. Have you also found this to be true? Do you think this is something that continues to happen?

I think that the association of dress/fashion with women’s interests was prevalent until the later 20th century. Historically fashion has been associated with vanity and folly, thus contributing to the perception it is not a serious study. The topic has been disparaged, written about defensively and considered frivolous. But this has certainly not been the case in the last decade or so. In academic circles the subject is flourishing. Publishers like Bloomsbury have catalogues saturated with books on the topic. This said exhibitions of women’s fashions are huge drawcards, suggesting women are still objects of desire as opposed to subjects of analysis. Countering this are the many women who have in recent times written seminal studies on the complexities inherent in dress/fashion and forged new pathways for the study

What does dress provide us as a tool for examining women’s lives?

With respect I think this is only half the question that should be asked. Dress provides an extraordinary useful method to explore the nature of any culture and to examine both the lives of men and women and their relationships. In place of the old single time line of style or cyclical change, dress provides an entry point into any culture, its social interactions, commerce, sexual mores and is a key indicator of identity. Dress allows us to interpret the history of men and women in a unique way.

You are also interested in the dress practices found in other cultures, such as Aboriginal Australians and Pacific Islanders. Does dress studies, as opposed to fashion studies, allow historians and theorists to take a wider, cross-cultural view? Fashion can of course be very Westernised in its focus.

I feel that reinforcing the notion of a gap between dress and fashion studies is not necessarily productive. Cross disciplinary research appeals to me as more useful. I also think the answer to the question lies in how one understands and uses terminology. Under the rubric of dress one can certainly include analyses of Indigenous clothing and associated practices, that of Islanders and indeed so called ‘ethnic’ attire. But non-Western dress also expresses wealth and status in its own ways. Fashion with a capital F is driven by Western interests, global commerce and creation of novel products in order to increase consumption. Fashion with a small f is closer to a fad or slight alteration and this latter does inflect both customary dress and less obvious kinds of wearing and bodily adornment. We know customary dress is not stylistically static and, to varying degrees, incorporates new elements and slight shifts in style. So nuances in both fashion and dress can be considered in non-Western attire.

I believe you grew up in South Africa and initially worked as a costume designer. Was clothing and dress something that you were always drawn to? Were there many opportunities in those days to pursue dress history?

Since a child in South Africa I loved clothes and dressing up—a passion was collecting paper dolls. I trained in so called ‘Fine Arts’ but was always interested in ‘the Decorative Arts’ which were less prestigious than the former. I was fortunate to get my first real job with the State theatre company mainly making theatre, opera and ballet props. I was catapulted into designing costumes for major opera shows in Johannesburg and teaching theatre design with no prior training. There were no opportunities at all to study ‘dress’. It was a question of teaching oneself. The only other person I knew interested in dress was a woman artist recording tribal African attire in remote areas. I admired her work and would have liked to have taken this further but felt her lifestyle too dangerous.

You left South Africa in the 1960s after winning a highly coveted place to study at the Courtauld Institute in London – this was one of the only formal costume history courses at the time. It was run by Stella Newton, who was pioneering in her approach to studying dress using paintings and art history. Can you tell us about that? What was she like as a teacher? Has her approach remained with you?

As a student of ‘costume’ I felt totally at home. Stella was a marvelous and inspiring teacher. Her focus was painting and sculpture as a source of information on dress. We started with lectures on the Greeks and progressed up to the 19th century. She was less keen on contemporary dress. The visual source was our primary evidence in her view. But she drew from a wide range of information, especially art history. She was interested to contextualize dress and used archival and other social and historical material as supporting evidence. We were alerted to all classes of wearers. (She was especially interested in European so called ‘peasant dress’). She taught us to date paintings extremely accurately, something I can still do. This technique was useful to art historians and dealers who needed to give art works (with limited provenance) as accurate a date as possible. We were also asked to determine if works of art were fakes or not. Stella believed that forgers often got the dress of a period wrong where they could calculate painting style and other things more accurately. There are art historical precedents for this in the work of a 19th century scholar called Morelli. She made us feel we had special abilities.

I have since taken a different path. Whilst I had a matchless education, I don’t like chronological approaches to high-end style and I like to integrate material culture to a greater degree. Surviving dress interested Stella but in a slightly limited way. Unlike her I see much value in theoretical approaches especially related to material culture, consumption, etc and I feel that ethnography and anthropology have much to offer the subject. I aim where appropriate to forge links between material objects, theoretical considerations and what I know of visual sources. I am probably more interested in the dress of everyday life than Stella. Perhaps one reason I took a different route was because Brisbane has fewer examples of early international art than were available to me as a student in London.

You came to Australia in the 1970s and began working at the University of Queensland. There you pioneered fashion and dress courses and began serious research about Australian dress. Even today dress and fashion research in Australia is still emerging, but I imagine it was really an entirely new field when you began. What were those early years like?

When I first started at the University I was employed to teach art history. I did not teach dress studies for some years. The topic was seen as quite bizarre but it soon gained a bit of a following especially when I leaned more toward teaching fashion. Many people felt and perhaps still feel that they are qualified to discuss dress/fashion where they do not talk about other specialist areas such as archaeology. People wear clothes and thus consider themselves experts. This led to the perception that the subject could easily be dismissed as light on and also to a sidelining of dress/fashion expertise.

I was extremely lucky to feel I was the ‘first’ to look at certain archival material, literature and imagery from this new perspective. But it was isolating and my work was something of a curiosity. I did give papers at art and history conferences but I did not have the reassurance of a particular discipline behind me. On the other hand coming new to Australia from a conservative country, I found a critical openness in students that was refreshing.

I think you even had a radio program on the ABC? I often think there should be more radio and television programs about fashion and dress. What kinds of things did you cover?

Beginning in the 70s I was asked to do question and answer programs with one of the local announcers. They were comments on current trends in dress, or I answered questions on the origins of different types of clothes. I did one series of six on dress and identity. It was taped and one ran each week. I also did a taped radio program on dress of PNG where I had lived for a year. Over the years I have done a great many interviews on current dress. Some were round table interviews with different ABC stations and other experts. If some unusual dress was worn in Brisbane for the first time, perhaps new uniforms for Queensland Rail employees etc, I would be asked to comment. I worked on a film shown on the ABC a few years ago. It was very disappointing as it skated over the interesting issues in Australian dress. I also think far more should be done, but there is a tendency to go for superficial issues, rather than the really significant aspects of dress/fashion which I consider more interesting.

You’ve published widely. I wonder which books or articles you have been most proud of?

My book Fashioned from Penury (1994) did fairly well at the start but interestingly it has had a bit of a revival in the past few years. I am proud of this as there has been no equivalent publication. I am also very proud of the volume I edited for the Berg Encyclopaedia of World Dress and Fashion (2010) which was extraordinarily challenging. I am also proud of Dress and Globalisation (2004), the first book to discuss dress and sustainability, and the essays ‘The Fashion Photograph: An Ecology’ in Fashion as Photograph Viewing, and Reviewing Images of Fashion ed Eugénie Shinkle (2008) and ‘The Mystery of the Fashion Photograph’ Fashion in Fiction. Text and Clothing in Literature, Film and Television eds Peter McNeil Vicki Karaminas Catherine Cole (2009) – a transcript of my keynote paper given at the ‘Fashion in Fiction’ conference in Sydney.

It is fairly hackneyed territory, but you also have a fine arts and art history background. I wonder what you think of the art versus fashion debate. Do you see fashion as art? What about dress? This is quite a fraught area of debate for which there are no simple answers, as with the art/craft debate. Consumers certainly experience art and fashion differently and they have different value systems but many artists, for different reasons, have been designers of fashion. There have been frequent slippages and synergies between the two practices but also antagonisms. Both fashion and clothing/dress can be exhibited as installations in art galleries but does this make either ‘art’? ‘Putting oneself together’ in terms of dressing the body is akin to a personal art, and fashion and art have at times found themselves mutually useful. The answer to your question is not straightforward in any way. You’ve been working with fashion and dress across a period of dramatic growth within museums, universities, libraries etc. I wonder if you could comment on how the study of dress and fashion has changed? When I started out the study of dress and fashion was a great novelty. It was as if one could research in any area and opportunities were endless. Today publishers have almost overdone the subject and it is difficult to carve out an entirely new specialist area. Naturally the internet has made a huge difference to image access as well as access to other forms of information. In my early years of teaching there were practically no articles or books I could recommend to students. Now there is a huge range of material which is wonderful. Cultural Studies, Media Studies, Material Culture Studies, Women’s Studies, Ethnography and associated Critical Theory has lifted the bar in studies of dress and fashion. Without interdisciplinarity the area would have remained limited and esoteric. In Britain after I had completed by study, there was a strongly conservative attitude but this has changed dramatically. What do you think the future is for fashion and dress studies? What are you currently working on?

I hope that fashion and dress studies has a great future, especially in links with Material Culture Studies and Ethnography, even Archaeology. In some ways I feel too much has been published too quickly but many books are of a very high standard. Fashion is extraordinarily popular. One can see this in the crowds who visit fashion exhibitions and clearly museums use fashion as a draw card. I think that this is excellent, especially if displays are inventive. But it is important to also stand back from the glitzy aspects of fashion and look for other narratives that clothes can offer.

At present I am working on a project on Dress and Time. I am considering how the cultural phenomenon of time explains dress practices around the globe, given the vastly different socio/cultural, political, religious and imaginary concepts about it existing over millennia. Reflecting on the temporal in the widest sense shows how time has been coextensive with how, when and why humans design, fabricate, wear and preserve all forms of garment, fabrics and accessories.

Nadia Buick is a fashion curator, writer and researcher based in Brisbane, Australia. She recently completed a doctorate in fashion curation and is currently Co-Director of The Fashion Archives.

Fashion Criticism Panel: A Report and Recording of the Event

by Gisela Aguilar From left Francesca Granata, Robin Givhan, Guy Trebay and Stefano Tonchi. Photograph by Susana Aguirre.

For more reports on the panel, also see "Fashion critics defend their craft" by Kira Goldenberg in the Columbia Journalism Review, as well as "Fashion Criticism: No Respect!" in style.com

In celebration of the fourth issue of Fashion Projects, a panel discussing the current state of fashion criticism was held on March 12, 2013 at The New School. The panel, moderated by Francesca Granata, Assistant Professor of Fashion Studies at Parsons the New School for Design and editor of Fashion Projects featured three distinguished fashion critics, Robin Givhan (the first fashion critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize), Guy Trebay (culture and style reporter for the New York Times), and Stefano Tonchi (the editor-in-chief of W magazine), all of whom were also interviewed for the concurrent issue of Fashion Projects.

The frank conversation took many directions by addressing a number of otherwise avoided topics within the fashion press, from the struggle for fashion writing to be considered a legitimate topic of discussion within established periodicals due to its prescribed association to the feminine realm, to the cultural valence of aesthetics in America versus Europe and how this difference manifests itself in each culture’s appreciation or understanding of fashion. Trebay reminisced on a pre-millennial era when the fashion scene belonged to a small, contained world and where the knowledge of this niche community was not widely dispersed as it is today. Stemming from observations he made in his Fashion Projects interview with Jay Ruttenberg, Trebay remarked that the cultural force of fashion catapulted quickly after 2000 through strategic moves by the few multinational corporations that monopolized the fashion industry. Fashion stars were churned out, runway shows become these theatrical spectacles, and with the aid of digital media, the fashion scene became a globalized attraction. Givhan added that the alliance between Hollywood and the fashion industry has intensified the public’s interest in all things concerning fashion, yet she lamented that this now symbiotic partnership has damaged the credibility of the industry. As such, much of the fashion content published is dominated by celebrity and consumer driven stories that bank off the entertainment value of fashion while doing little to enlighten readers about its intricacies and creative nature.

The discussion brought to the fore a highly debated phenomenon amongst contemporary fashion journalists – the emergence of fashion bloggers. Indeed, the public access and participatory nature of digital media has opened the floodgates to an exorbitant amount of fashion interpretations, criticisms, and narratives, but it is precisely this lack of moderation that concerns the panelists. Between the three fashion critics there was an overall less than sanguine opinion of the fashion conversations found online. Givhan and Tonchi implied that the overt marketing objectives of certain popular fashion blogs compromised the ethics of journalism in that fashion houses and brands utilized these online personalities as PR tools, often times flying them out to Fashion Week or gifting them merchandise to promote on their personal blogs. In regards to the writing found in these digital spaces, Trebay and Tonchi not so subtly stated that the majority of the fashion conversations on blogs lacked a “compelling” factor and were subpar in that frequently the references to fashion history were inaccurate or the observations contributed no original perspectives to fashion discourse. Pointing to the main difference between print and digital media, Givhan observed that online there was no such thing as a correction – mistakes were rectified as “updates.” She went on to explain that because the barrier to entry is so low with digital media, Internet culture has cultivated a value to be placed on timely delivered and easily digestible content rather than well-researched information.

The panel ended on a more personal note with a question from the audience asking the critics to reflect on peers whom they admired. Givhan praised the author and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell as well as The Wall Street Journal’s fashion critic Teri Agins. Tonchi paid tribute to his fellow Italians, the late fashion writer and style icon Anna Piaggi and the author and Vogue Italia art and fashion critic Mariuccia Casadio. For Trebay, the work of author and fashion historian Anne Hollander was paramount in cultivating his perspectives on the intimate relationship between the body and clothing. Ultimately, the panelists’ critiques and observations advocated for fashion to be integrated and accepted as a part of a more informed cultural dialogue. Perhaps, the takeaway from this critical discussion could be best summarized by Tonchi’s obvious yet critical advice for the future generation of aspiring fashion writers in the audience – know your history!

Gisela Aguilar is completing her MA in Fashion Studies at Parsons the New School for Design. Her thesis explores the evolving modes of consumption and production of fashion discourse specifically within print magazines and online fashion media.

A Panel on Fashion Criticism featuring Stefano Tonchi, Robin Givhan, and Guy Trebay to celebrate the new issue

by Francesca Granata

NB: Change of Room Update: Due to high demand, we changed the location to the Theresa Lang Student Center at 55 West 13th on the second floor. Again to RSVP, please visit eventbrite (more seats have been added!).

Coming up this Tuesday March 12th from 6:00 to 7:30 pm in the Theresa Lang Student Center at 55 West 13th Street at Parsons the New School for Design is a panel on fashion criticism to celebrate the new issue of Fashion Projects on the same topic. The panel features Robin Givhan (the first fashion critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize), Stefano Tonchi (editor-in-chief of W magazine) and Guy Trebay (New York Times culture and style reporter) and will be moderated by me.

If interested, please RSVP here as space is limited.

The issue, the journal’s fourth print edition, features interviews with Givhan, Tonchi, and Trebay as well as Judith Thurman (New Yorker), Suzy Menkes (International Herald Tribune), and other leading fashion critics. Praised by the Columbia Journalism Review for covering “the discipline, accessibly, from an academic perspective," it includes contributions from alumni of Parsons MA Fashion Studies and MA in the History of Decorative Arts and Design. It was designed by Sarah Smith, a graduate of Parsons BFA in Communication Design.

The panel is made possible by the generosity of the School of Art and Design History and Theory and the MA Fashion Studies.

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.”

This is Not A Fashion Critic: An Interview with Guy Trebay

by Jay Ruttenberg

Illustration by Nathan Gelgud

Guy Trebay, of the New York Times, defines himself as a cultural critic and even when working the traditional fashion beat, allows his attention to wander into that broader realm. Although he operates without a column, Trebay’s articles are easy to spot. Like some debonair newsman of Hollywood lore, he reports from exotic corners of the globe. He is cynical without being closed-minded or small, and writes about glamour with neither aspirational veneration nor wanton bloodlust. His writing on style betrays a love for the fashion world, yet he does not hesitate to shiv those who have it coming. Most conspicuously, his every sentence is spun with a panache that seems perhaps too opulent for newsprint, even that of the Times. “The lush mane was ratted and back-combed into a frowsy beehive, the kind in which hoodlums of legend used to conceal their razor blades,” he wrote about Amy Winehouse shortly after her death. “Her basic eyeliner became an ornate volute, a swath of clown makeup, a cat mask.”

Prior to landing at the Times’ Sunday Styles section, in 2000, Trebay spent two decades at the Village Voice. Where his current post finds him traipsing between Miami art parties and Milan menswear shows, his Voice column—anthologized in the 1994 book In the Place To Be: Guy Trebay’s New York (Temple University Press)—sent the writer to more humble quarters, often up in the Bronx. If his change of landscape follows the New York zeitgeist, Trebay’s history also lends his fashion writing an unavoidable socioeconomic undertone. “Once it starts to be just about clothes,” he says, “I’m out.”

Trebay met Fashion Projects in a small conference room at the New York Times building, sandwiching the interview between reporting trips to Europe and Los Angeles.

Fashion Projects: You’ve said that you don’t consider yourself a fashion critic, but a cultural critic.

Guy Trebay: That’s right. First of all, what is a fashion critic? What is that? I mean, it’s not a very developed critical discipline. It seems to me that for decades, it was a kind of business reporting. But somewhere along the line, in a very wholesome way, it evolved into getting some critical discipline. I guess it’s like movies. In the beginning, there were no movie critics. At a certain point in our period, fashion developed something of the valence, culturally, that movies had.

FP: When?

GT: I’d guess the ’80s, but I really don’t know. When I first started writing about this, it was in a much broader context. I was writing about the city for the Village Voice—I wasn’t writing about fashion, per say. But fashion shows would come to town like the circus, and it would change the atmosphere of the streets. You were aware that there was this population of people coming in from who knew where, and models like gazelles were leaping over sidewalks. And you were like, “Well, this is interesting.” But in those days, it was a small and very contained world. The knowledge wasn’t widely dispersed. That has changed so radically. I came to the Times in 2000 and by then, IMG had gotten into the business. IMG was a sports promotion company, as everybody knows. But Mark McCormack, the founder, looked at the landscape and said, “Where am I gonna find another thing that is as translatable across cultures and—without the necessity for language comprehension—can sell as an image language. That’s when they got heavily into fashion and started these fashion weeks. They bought into New York Fashion Week and it became this global plague of fashion weeks.

FP: Before that was it simply an industry event? GT: It was a trade week. For all that I’ve poked fun at the proliferation of fashion week—the Bulgarian Fashion Week and whatnot—it’s very useful. There’s a circuit that people routinely follow in this business: New York, London, Milan, and Paris. Over time, people have talked about how it can all be done online, but that absolutely isn’t the case. The longer I’ve been around it, the more I’ve become aware of the way that information is transmitted through the tribes or the pack. It’s quite beautiful, actually.

FP: Why do you think it couldn’t work online?

GT: The same with everything else that has to do with person-to-person contact. It’s over mediated. For all that it’s so global, it’s pretty hermetic. Particularly with fashion, a lot of the cues, being visual, are too subtle.

FP: Do you mean not being able to see the texture of garments in fashion week slideshows?

GT: No, I think those are great. But I’ve always been interested in the sociology. And that’s a little more opaque online, which is more garment-based. Also, there’s another thing that happens online, which is the super narrativization around sites like the Sartorialist. That’s a very editorialized site. It’s one guy’s idea of what some kinds of people look like or should look like. It’s very successfully put across. But at the same time, when I look at the Sartorialist, I’m much less struck by the clothes—or whatever people think they are putting across with the clothes—than by the strings. The degree to which people want to create narrative around you based on a picture of you and your clothes is very compelling to me. People are telling themselves stories about other people based on the way they tie a scarf. Which we probably do in real life, but it has a little more practical utility in real-time encounters than it does online. There’s a little whistling in the dark happening, where everybody’s telling themselves a story that doesn’t really have to do with the other. And fashion is about the other—you require social interaction for it to get off the ground. [Pauses] God, I hate those.

FP: Tape recorders?

GT: Yeah. I never use them. When I was a kid, I wrote for Andy Warhol’s Interview

FP: Well, you must have used one there.

GT: No! Can you believe it? At first I did. This was like the dawn of time—the center of the earth cooled, and Andy started [the magazine]. And I was working there—I was, like, 19. Somehow, I had forgotten to finish high school. I did an interview with Christopher Isherwood. I tape recorded it and then my mom very helpfully typed it up, because I couldn’t type as fast as her. He had a very grating voice. When she transcribed the thing, it was almost like out of a John Waters movie, where the person throws a typewriter out the window and runs screaming from the house. I thought, Maybe I won’t use this tool anymore—it drives a very patient mother crazy.

FP: How old were you when you left high school?

GT: About 17. I mean, I just dropped out.

FP: You grew up in New York, right?

GT: My parents had an apartment here, but I basically grew up on Long Island. But by the time I left high school, most of my life was already here. In those days, I wanted to be a painter. So I came here and got an apprenticeship. I started painting and making videos. And I wrote plays. I’m not sure exactly why, but they were produced at WPA. In a world that no longer exists, you could kind of have that life.

FP: Did you get introduced to journalism through Interview?

GT: I backed into it through Interview. I went on to be their so-called Paris correspondent for a year. I was 19, maybe 20.

FP: Did you know Warhol?

GT: I knew Andy, but I can’t say I was an intimate of his.

FP: That must have been amazingly intimidating. GT: No.

FP: You were a teenager, hanging around the Warhol crowd. How was that not intimidating?

GT: It wasn’t an intimidating scene. I know that sounds weird. I think people have trouble understanding it because of the mythologizing of him, which is so extensive now. But the fact that Valerie Solanas could walk in there and shoot him speaks to how porous that world—and all the worlds in New York—were at the time. You could get in. In New York now, I don’t think it’s about how easy it is for you to get in. Anywhere.

FP: When did you start working at the Village Voice?

GT: Late ’70s, around the same time that Jim Wolcott went there.

FP: That must have been one of the newspaper’s real golden periods.

GT: I can say it was. It affiliates itself very naturally in my mind with the problems that I have with the general cultural relation to Occupy Wall Street. Of course people feel like it’s nothing and they have no goal: Nobody knows what a counterculture is [anymore].

FP: Your subjects at the Voice differed from your Times work. What was the thrust of your Voice column?

GT: I think I did the column for 20 years. I don’t know how you can characterize it. It was urban anthropology, maybe. The thing is, I was just going out and reporting on stuff that the mainstream media hadn’t gotten to. It sounds very self-aggrandizing to say this now. But I was talking to a friend the other day about having been in the Bronx project houses with [Africa] Bambaataa. And ABC No Rio, the Times Square Show, and also a lot of gay culture…there was a lot of emergent culture. There was a lot to write about. It would just be the normal part of what you would be reporting.

FP: In the Place To Be, your book collecting many of those columns, focuses a lot on the Bronx. Were you living there at the time? GT: No. Although when I worked for Andy, I did live in the Bronx. I’m kind of a Bronx nut. I just like the Bronx. I did some really early stuff about crack, which came after I was brought to meet the mother-in-law of Eric B., of Eric B. and Rakim. She lived in a certain housing project. She was a hard-working woman, and her life was being destroyed—as many people’s lives were—by crack all around her. I was really compelled by that, and went back and back and back.

FP: In the introduction to your book, you write about how the unhinged New York of that period differed from the buttoned-up town of your youth. It’s funny reading that now, when so much nostalgia is essentially the opposite—today’s New York being sedate compared to the wild city of the ’70s and ’80s. GT: There’s a definite arch. I’m not a fan of nostalgia at all. But I don’t  think my memory is falsifying to say it was a very yeasty period. Maybe not to everybody’s taste, and there were plenty of problems. But as I said, there was a porosity, culturally, that has been replaced by a kind of cultural paucity. You could move in and out of worlds.

FP: But weren’t you able to do that easier because you were a reporter?

GT: No, no, no. I always looked preppy, and people used to say to me, “Oh, you go [to the Bronx]—it’s so scary.” But as long as I was respectful to people, I was treated respectfully. In my experience, the city had a greater degree of openness. There was a mixture of uptown/downtown that’s gone out for real estate reasons—as usual. We all know that there’s a general trend to cultural conservatism. At the same time, everybody essentially got remarginilized.

FP: When did you join the Times? GT: In 2000. I came to the Styles section. I kind of morphed into doing more fashion as I came here. It was at a moment when fashion was really emerging as a cultural force.

FP: Was it strange to go from writing about the Bronx’s crack problem to fashion shows?GT: In a way—except not if you’re inside my head. I’ve always had these interests. I was talking about this with Judith Thurman. We were pissing and moaning, as people do who have an interest in these degraded subject matters and culturally disfavored subjects. She was talking about a certain correspondent for the New Yorker who writes about child soldiers in wherever. She was saying that that kind of thing—if you have the skills, the stomach for the work, and can stand all the risk—is like taking gold out of streams with your hand. It’s all there. There is something slightly perverse and masochistic about applying yourself to [fashion] and having to rehabilitate things that are considered culturally beneath regard. That’s been the most challenging part of this for me. Because it isn’t taken seriously, and never has been taken seriously. I hope to live to see the day when it is. Which can be done without sacrificing what’s beautiful and delightful about the ephemeral and frivolous part of it. Those are not opposing ideas.

FP: Do you think the disparagement comes from the tradition of fashion being in the women’s section of the paper?

GT: Of course. It’s women’s work. It’s feminine, it’s not worthy of masculine attention and regard. [When I started here], people said, “You’re throwing your career in the toilet to write about fashion.” Not that it’s such a big career.

FP: Oh, please. But do you think they would say that now?

GT: They may well.

FP: But you did say you noticed a cultural change in the last few years.

GT: The culture changed. I think people are interested in [fashion]. I was a contract writer at the New Yorker for quite a long time, paralleling the Voice thing, and I wrote for lots and lots of magazines. You never saw anyone in those mainstreamy magazines writing about fashion. I mean, Kennedy Fraser and then Holly Brubach did [at the New Yorker], but it was pretty much about the collections or the occasional profile. They didn’t have a style issue at the New Yorker. It wasn’t what we serious people—that is, people with testicles—do.

FP: Do you think that fashion writing needs a Pauline Kael? GT: I don’t know what fashion writing needs, frankly. It’s not one of my main concerns. I think writing just needs better writers, period. I could hope for the liveliness of Pauline Kael—kind of crack-brained opinion-slinging. Remembering back to the Voice, and that whole auteur/anti-auteur world, it was so micro, but so essential to groups of New Yorkers. That conversation is long gone. I haven’t encountered tons of people dissecting fashion writing. It’s pretty much been hijacked by the visuals, as it probably ought to be.

FP: In many ways, is fashion writing most similar to sports writing?

GT: That’s probably the closest analogy, yes. It’s specialist. I read the sports section very, very avidly. It’s one of the few places left where you find human interest. It’s very narrative, not to say novelistic, to follow sports teams and sports in play. Fashion is a bit like that, because the personnel set is not that changeable. It’s one of the weirdest and most contradictory things about fashion. It’s based on novelty, but in many ways very little is new. It’s such a stable population. All the editors have been the same forever. All the designers have been more or less the same forever. The only thing that changed was when Anna Wintour saw that nobody was developing a farm team, and got in gear. Because everybody was aging out and there was nobody to replace them. Because she’s a great HR person, she literally made it her business to make another generation to cultivate and anoint.

FP: Why do you think fashion is so stable? GT: It’s a very conservative business. And it is a business. [In the past], the city could support somebody who didn’t get into the business with a business plan and a backer. You can no longer do that—that’s out. You better arrive with a business plan and maybe an MBA and, whatever your design skills are, hope that Anna Wintour will take you up.

FP: Do you think that fashion from New York designers has suffered?

GT: I don’t know. I think there are a lot of people who do what they’re meant to do here. It’s a commercial center. It’s hard for me to pronounce on this, because I don’t know if my lack of interest in what’s going on in New York—across the board, culturally—is my problem or New York’s problem.

FP: Do you still cover the shows in Europe?

GT: Yeah, though not as much as before. I’m mainly writing about menswear. I’ve [always been] more interested in menswear. When I started, I felt like there were more ideas in play in menswear. Masculinity was much more up for grabs. There was a lot of gender play, when I started.

FP: You mean when you started at the Times? GT: Yeah. When I got involved with this as a full-time thing, there was a lot of change. It was a bracketed period. I didn’t realize it at the time. Starting around 2000, the multinationals saw what was happening. They realized that this was really gonna blow up—that this fashion thing that had been niche and not fully exploited could be globalized. And they invested heavily. Three of these multinationals—LVMH, PPR, and the Richemont Group—got heavily into reviving old marks and houses, then buying and creating stars, [in order] to put this thing across globally. We were all beneficiaries of that. That’s how Alexander McQueen happened. That post-mortem show at the Met, which had these staggering 600,000 visitor numbers, was a tombstone for an era in this business. Galliano being discredited, McQueen being dead, Tom Ford having morphed into whatever he has morphed into…. These were all showmen who were heavily funded by multinationals. Now, the multinationals have gotten what they were after, and there isn’t so much need for [showmen]. You don’t need the showpieces anymore—the marks themselves do the work. We’re in a new era. All the showmanship, which is very costly to sustain, can be reduced. They’ll have fashion shows, but you don’t have to pay $25 million salaries.

FP: Was the money there in the end?

GT: For the multinationals? Without any doubt.

Jay Ruttenberg is editor of the comedy journal The Lowbrow Reader and its book, The Lowbrow Reader Reader(Drag City, 2012). His work has appeared in The New York Times, Details, Spin, and Flaunt.