Sunday, March 27, 2011

O Face: Poetry and Fashion and Oprah's Magazine





The image above is from the GLORIOUS film Funny Face, where Audrey Hepburn plays a bookish boho (her awesome finger-snapping dancing scene later coopted by the Gap for their Audrey pants commercial) who unwittingly becomes a fashion model for a Diana Vreeland-like  editor of a magazine called Quality (modeled on Bazaar), for a fashion shoot about beautiful young women who also think:"The woman who thinks must come to grips with fashionable attire. A woman can be beautiful, as well as intellectual. See facing page." Ha!) And then of course the Audrey character falls in love with the Richard Avedon-like photographer, played by an (old but still charming and heart-melting) Fred Astaire. And models some amazing clothes.

This is what I originally thought of when I heard the hullabaloo regarding Oprah magazine's recent fashion spread, "Spring Fashion Modeled by Rising Young Poets," where various comely young female poets modeled fairly boring fashion as would be expected from the middlebrow mag (and ripping off the felt-letter motif of Kate Durbin's costumes that are made by Mandate of Heaven, after originally contacting Kate to see whether she'd test for the shoot - although obviously Kate's costumes are far more delicious and revolutionary). Here's the link to the Oprah spread. Sunday morning I can't seem to figure out how to copy and paste an image here. But my point I mean is that writers and artists and fashion mags actually have more of a history than one might think (V. Woolf regularly profiled by British Vogue, Frida Kahlo's rings on the cover of American Vogue, think of the Surrealist  Elsa Schiaparelli, her sweaters with their trompe l'oeil images, Gertrude Stein wore the "new French style," Balmain, and once wrote: "Fashion is the real thing in abstraction).


 one of Kate's reading costumes, which to me is like a Warhollian subversion of Claude Cahun's
boxer self-portrait: Don't Kiss Me I'm In Training. 

  more Kate - I hope she was reading her Red Riding Hood poems


 even Gertrude and Alice loved their couture

This morning, I am reading David Orr's essay on the spread (the back page of the Book section - finally! something I want to read in the NYT Book Review! I am all aflutter and aghast) and felt compelled to stick my finger in here. Like most of the poets who were commenting on my Facebook feed, David Orr is formally "against" any sort of intervention between poetry and fashion, or at least between poetry and a woman's magazine. A lot of the comments on FB regarding it actually made me feel a little shameful for half a day regarding my love of both: fashion magazines and (higher-brow) fashion (sometimes we LOVE to look even if we cannot buy!), this idea circulating that poets must be above the allure of a gorgeous cashmere cardigan or a menswear blazer that is well-constructed or a lovely dress (although Cixous writes lovingly of shopping in Paris boutiques! of fingering these cashmere cardigans!) I mean, I wasn't into the O magazine spread because a)they ripped off Kate, and should have been smart enough to use her (well, hopefully real fashion magazines will get the hint someday) and b)the clothes weren't interesting.  Although I liked the bow-tie one and the one with the silvery dress with the white bouffant wig with the lettering (which is also uncannily like one of Kate and Aramanth's Excess Exhibit photos). Just think of what awesomeness Grace Coddington could have done! (I'm thinking of when she used all of these lions of visual arts like Kara Walker and John Currin for her spread on Dorothy and Oz with Keira Knightly). Pretty young women wearing clothes that could have come from J.Crew or Anthropologie is boring (although hey, I find pleasure in a well-designed catalogue), and there was no interplay between their poetry and the clothes, or about fashion and poetry.

David Orr in this piece at first admonishes himself for his initial aversion to this sort of lay-out (although coming back around against, a neat rhetorial trick). He writes: "it's all too easy for Important Literary Folk to sneer at anything involving fashion. It's so girly you know, and real writers are never girl - ah. So the lingering gender biases of the literary world are often at play when readers cringe at the pairing of poetry with the stuff of women's magazines." No, no, wait, Mr. Orr, say what you originally meant. Say what you thought. Fashion is too girly to write about for poetry, girly is too frivolous for poetry...I am reading so much about the modernists now, as you know, and again and again the male lions castigate the women writers for being too feminine ( too excessive, too emotional) while vampirizing these same qualities within their texts. The greatest compliment bestowed upon a woman writer of that period was that she was somehow androgynous (i.e. not feminine) or that she had a masculine mind (which Tom wrote of his Vivie). Fashion is too frivolous for literature, although writers like DH Lawrence and Gustave Flaubert (a pre-modernist, I know just go  with me) luxuriate in writing clothes and sensualism within their novels, a way both to luxuriate at beauty, and perhaps, sneer at silly women (I haven't worked this all out yet, I cannot decide whether they are in drag, a la Marcel DuChamp as Rrose Sselvay, or whether there is a sort of desire for the feminine). 

David Orr goes on to write about the "chasm" between poetry (of the higher culture) and fashion (of the "golden palace of mass culture"). One cannot bridge this gap.  Really? This morning I  laid in bed and read some of Andrea Quinlan's poems she sent me, that are both rapturous about fashion and super smart about fashion and film history (one of the poems draws not only from the wonderful and fashiony film Daisies by Vera Chytilova but also from images from a 60s issue of the British magazine Queen as well as names of butterflies from the Otago museum collection). Andrea, who lives in New Zealand,  had been so generous and wonderful to research the fashion of Katherine Mansfield for me, as she had a couple of books that show KM's gorgeous costumes, and she sent me her descriptions of her clothes in one of her notebooks, like this one (as Andrea noted, it reads like a poem): Is this a packing list? A shopping list? It's delicious.


belgian dress               a dark blue
purple coat and skirt     a flowered one or check
black silk dress            russian blouse
Chinese                       blue jacket
belts (?) for occasional  red jacket
travelling and skirt (2)    bulgarian jacket

Andrea also noted to me that she like other modernists were obsessed with the Ballets Russes (which Andrea is researching now for her own work), and one of her costumes close to the maiden costumes from the Rites of Spring: "Quite impersonally I admired my silver stockings bound beneath the knee, with spiked ribbons, my yellow suede shoes fringed with white fur. How vicious I looked! We made love to each other like two wild beasts."



 one of KM's cloaks that Andrea scanned for me - love the gold brocade, gifted by her companion Ida


These Literary  Modern Women thought of fashion as both a costume of their identity and a beautiful object. Think of how fashionable the poet Mina Loy was! Or Djuna Barnes! Gorgeous in their suits and heels and hats. Women poets at least since the modern era if not before were not exempt from being enthralled by fashion, both couture and at the department stores, and I don't think it divided or separated them from the art form of poetry. Perhaps, as in other things beautiful, it enhanced it (aren't many writers also aesthetes and enthralled to other art forms, like film or fashion or painting? I love fashion - it's ART you can WEAR. I know one can immediately take a view of it critiquing capitalism. But I feel still this is a gendered argument, similar to how the First Wave feminists dismissed the flappers as victims of consumerism and silly girls for spending their paychecks on dangling earrings and silk pantyhose and jeweled cigarette cases, that that sartorial liberation somehow set back the movement. I would add that the critique of capitalism in regards to clothes-buying isn't absolute. Everyone wears clothes. I prefer buying mine from young avant-garde designers usually bought at small local boutiques where the material is often sustainably sourced and the clothes are not produced using exploitive labor. These designers are often not written about just like the small press scene is ignored by the mainstream press. )


Mina Loy - the chunky chandelier earrings. The slim dress with three-quartered sleeves and matching . The Arizona Muse brows! Mina Loy wrote about fashion and about the "temples of intoxication" (Benjamin) that was the department store in her poetry.And the cloche hat! Ahh! I die! I have two cloche hats. And one red wool beret. Made by a German designer called Girl and the Gorilla. They are my most cherished objects. One is called strangely my "marriage hat." Because when John and I eloped to go live in London I didn't want a ring but I saw this first of the cloche hats and we bought it for me instead. If I'm in danger of losing one if I think I left it somewhere I will go into a terrible panic.


the Baroness, who recently inspired a Bazaar shoot with Brittany Murphy. Both Mina Loy and the Baroness appropriated ready-made objects as jewelery, part of their costume.




the man's fedora arranged jauntily! The silk polkadotted blouse! The red lips!


And how about our contemporary poets who write about fashion and are inspired by fashion? Besides Andrea, there's Kate Durbin, whose upcoming Fashion Issue borrows from the language of fashion magazines, there's Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Goransson writing about the fashion of Rodarte in their essays on poetics, the poems in the Gurlesque anthology,  there's the poetry of Robyn Schiff, which is enthralled to the history of the couture houses. (I have only met Robyn casually, but I remember upon first meeting her at a party she immediately went up to me because I was wearing a Vivienne Westwood dress that I had bought on super sale, and we talked about the dress and dresses. I tend to actually be able to commune more with women writers who I don't have to feel guilty about my love of make-up or fashion, which for so long felt like a dirty little secret, an impure thought for a writer to have.)
V. Woolf (who was ambivalent about fashion, she was sometimes horrified and ambivalent about shopping but was profiled in British Vogue and went shopping with the editor, and said she was interested in investigating a "frock consciousness") wrote in A Room of One's Own that the ways women writers are still stereotyped and denigrated is because "feminine" values in art aren't seen as valuable (like fashion), versus "masculine" values (like war, or I don't know, what is highbrow poetry about anyway?).  Of course, luckily I am not a poet (as I am reminded of everyday). Perhaps poetry is supposed to be more pure than prose. I don't know. My novel coming out deals a lot about the agonies of being at a gorgeous department store like Liberty and ravishing in the visual delight, like in a museum, or the painstaking pleasure of making up one's face. Both the rapture and critique of consumer culture.

 garments created by the Omega Workshop, supervised by Virginia Woolf's sister, the painter Vanessa Bell - Bloomsbury considered fashion part of the aesthetics of modernism, these garments were often painted and hand-dyed,with printed textiles in silks, linens and batiks, the prints inspired by Cubism 

Yesterday it was rainy and so I went to the mall and sat at the Chanel counter and sat there while a woman (who turned out to be the wife of one of John's colleagues) made up my face  and we talked about Pat McGrath's theories on eyebrows and the dramatic black brows of Arizona Muse and then I bought the compact for brows so and way too extravagant I'm still feeling a bit guilty about it this morning but the compact which is my first ever purchase from the Chanel makeup counter I had an old roommate who looked like Barbara Loden and was obsessed with Chanel makeup anyway it came with a black velvet pouch and lilliputian tweezers and comb and brush which I then took home and PLAYED WITH like I was a girl with dolls. That is me. I think I can spout theory and read the Great Novels or maybe even Great Poems  (although my list might be different from the New York Times) and also be pulled in other directions, towards sensualness, towards visual delights, towards material pleasures. I have given up trying to separate the two, trying to bury one and speak of literature through the other.