Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

12 Sep 2009, 18:25 p.m.

Wintour Guide

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2009 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

I watched and enjoyed The September Issue with Elisa (who pseudoblogs as The Mad Fashionista and with whom I watch Project Runway). Some brief thoughts:

The September Issue is an office comedy ("comedy" in the sense that no one dies and the issue successfully comes out). And it's a portrait of a power couple. Editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and creative director Grace Coddington have worked together for decades, each admiring the other's talents but fairly relentless in the battle to pursue her own artistic vision. The creative tension between forward-looking Wintour and history-mining Coddington drives Vogue and the film. This film passes the Bechdel Test by leaps and bounds. It's lovely to watch unapologetically powerful women and learn how they use their power.

Coddington is marvelously resourceful in using any leverage or opportunities she finds. She gives lots of forthright-seeming interviews to the documentarians, so she gets to appear quite a lot in the film (contrast Wintour, whose famous reserve only goes away when she's at home with her daughter). Coddington asks Wintour for a larger budget for a project in front of the camera crew, and later grins that Wintour is more lenient on funds when she's on camera. And, most mischieviously, she gets the cameraman to appear in an inventive photo shoot for Vogue, and explicitly tells us that capturing and using him on film is a bit of revenge. Subverting their gaze and getting a witty, pretty spread is a nice twofer.

The film chronicles the development of the 2007 September issue of Vogue, which explains why everyone in the film is acting like the economy's fine. But even two years ago, was Vogue setting trends and making waves? Coddington credits Wintour with integrating celebrity culture into fashion culture faster than other mags did, but seventy years ago film stars' fashion choices got copycatted all over. Current events in fashion don't get discussed much, either; The September Issue doesn't mention blogs, or Project Runway, or Lucky, or counterfeit goods.

But there is a historical subtext in the film, a subtext that comes closest to the surface when Coddington stands motionless before elaborate Versailles gardens. The gardens are expensive and elaborate and required not just a wealthy patron but an entire edifice to support them (Si Newhouse is to Wintour as Wintour is to Coddington). Each photo shoot that Coddington orchestrates is as beautiful as a blossom. But any individual fashion that Coddington captures in her Vogue spreads is as ephemeral as a blossom. The gardens are still there, and still magnificent, and what are you doing that will last centuries?

Sherwood Anderson writes in Winesburg, Ohio of thoughts of mortality: "He knows that in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun." I reread bits of Winesburg the other day, and remembered that the really scary thing about that last image is the sun's betrayal.

Coddington calls herself a romantic. She loves old gardens and 1920s styles. And she remembers what got shot for a previous issue but didn't run, and notices when Wintour cuts a few spreads from the coming issue that represent USD$50,000 worth of work. She must know that she works for an enormous, ridiculous edifice. She must know that it's unsustainable, that her art form requires resources that only monarchies and this historically anomalous corporate media system can bring to bear. Anna and Coddington and Condé Nast are in a symbiosis to perpetuate a grand, dying art.

"High fashion" is a niche, like opera, regimented gardens, country dancing, &c., and getting niche-ier. Wintour says fashion is about what's next; does she know? The September Issue doesn't say.


12 Sep 2009, 18:36 p.m.

Something I meant to put in my review: Wintour's power means some people sort of cringe and backpedal a lot whenever she doesn't speak, or criticizes. Those who have their own articulated points of view, and stand by them, do better and look better. And people listen more to Wintour's silences than they do to my speech, which is proof of how powerful she is.