Rearview Mirror: As Seen in Vogue

"Vogue" Cover, June 1950

I wrote this post in 2009, almost twelve years ago. I thought I’d haul it out again, inspired by the Jewish Museum’s current exhibition, Modern Look: Photography and the American Magazine. In the intervening decade, so much has changed–and so much still remains the same.

These days I no longer believe that hard work brings its own reward, nor in the power of those “totemic names” to gloss me with glamour. Between the disasters of 2008/2009 and 2020/2021, it seems clear to me that the problems are institutional, structural. I’m still uneasy with my longings to inhabit these dreamworlds of capitalism. I’m also more attuned to the strangeness of creating these dreamworlds when the real world remains so marred and broken. Thinking, now, on the decades covered by “Modern Look,” the 1930s through the 1950s, I wonder at how people managed to make magazines then. Yet, after everything I experienced this past year or so, I believe that might understand them better now, the men and women who dreamt up fashion stories, worked on photoshoots, wrote up the stories that accompanied the photos.

On October 4, 2009, Condé Nast closed Gourmet magazine. Gourmet’s closure shocked the media and publishing worlds. The 68-year-old magazine had been a marquee name for the publishing house, and still maintained a healthy (though not phenomenal) subscriber base (at the time of its closure, Gourmet had about 900,000 subscribers). Founded in 1940, on the premise that “gourmet” cooking could be available to all, Gourmet took American readers on armchair travels around the world.

Gourmet is only one of many, many magazines receiving the axe this year, as difficult financial circumstances and changing media consumption habits force a sea change upon the publishing industry.

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that 2009 is one of “the bleakest” years for journalism since Pew began producing these annual reports in 2003. (Read the report here: The Pew Research Center’s 2009 State of the Media Report)

Much has already been written on the impact, on journalism, journalists, funding models, and “how news organizations would ensure quality and reliability.” Nothing, it seems, remains untouched. Even our habits—of reading, of knowing, of criticism and reflection—are transformed.

This piece is not, strictly speaking, about journalists or the journalism. I am not preoccupied, here, with the content, only the form: the physical object itself, the glossy, 8.5 x 11 magazine that hits my mailbox once a month, twelve times a year, and the sensual experience that accompanies that object.

* * *

A fresh copy of Vogue has arrived. I am twelve, almost thirteen, and the magazine’s arrival thrills me. I suppose other girls fell for boy bands. I fell for the cultured, sophisticated world depicted in the glossies.

The pages are glossy, heavy, and smooth to the touch. If I get in closer, and press my nose against the paper, I catch the ink’s metallic, slightly acrid scent.

In those first heady moments, when the paper is still fresh and the binding still uncracked, one can disappear into magazine completely. Forget the Dairy Queen, the corner drugstore, the mall with its three department stores and innumerable “country living” stores with scented potpourri and Hallmark Christmas ornaments. We’ve switched frames, to a world where princesses dine with countesses, and meals feature fabulous French concoctions on fine china.

* * *

I fell under Vogue’s spell when I was 12. We lived in Bloomington, Indiana, a charming Midwestern college town adrift in cornfields.

Bloomington, as a concept, didn’t bother me. A part of me loved living in a mostly rural county, one that still identified strongly with a certain type of very American rural culture. If ever there was a place that believed in Jeffersonian America, and held to a vision of America populated with yeoman farmers and small-hold farms, it was Southern Indiana. The lush, Ohio River Valley farmland produced wealthy independent farmers, though by the 1980s that wealth had largely evaporated, or perhaps been consolidated into corporate bodies. Still, I lived with “dry Sundays,” country radio, and the region’s strong orientation towards charismatic, evangelical Christianity, and it was all fine.

Vogue seduced me with glamorous, exotic locations—not just New York, London, and Paris, but also places with sonorous names like the Riviera, Bora Bora, and the mysterious, unpronounceable Gstaad.

* * *

If the experience were solely about voyeurism, I would never have fallen so hard.

To cement the deal, Vogue and its glossy siblings (Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, Elle) offered another possibility—the possibility of aspiration and transformation.

The tantalizing world depicted in its pages was available, and could be ours. A girl could shape her life to resemble the one printed in these glossy pages. There are potions and creams to create beauty, diets to sculpt the body, and designers to aid style.

When the latest issue arrived in our mailbox, I ran off with it, anticipating another delicious afternoon lost in a dreamworld filled with beautiful, expensive objects and beautiful, expensive people. I reveled in the beautiful images, of young women in bias-cut slip dresses (this was Minimalism’s moment), or in floral chiffons with granny boots (Grunge), shot on English country estates or in places with honeyed, Mediterranean light. And I dreamed: about being a city girl, with exquisite clothes and an exciting, artistic job. I read, at the same time, Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar and Joan Didion’s White Album, but couldn’t seem to put two and two together.

* * *

I accumulated stacks and stacks of glossy magazines. I made tear-sheets, imitating the editors, and pinned them to a giant corkboard on my bedroom wall. The individual magazines, with their vivid colors and glossy pages, functioned as talismans.

Can I call this practice “reading”? It seems more than that. Wish fulfillment, perhaps, or incantation. A finger rubbing the page, tracing the outline of things desired, hoping against all odds that a life could be transformed. I could wake up the next day and be beautiful, thin, well-dressed, elegant. I could wake up the next day and transcend myself.

My attraction to the “glossies” was only partially about consumption. Yes, these magazines did take me on a trip through consumer culture.  Yes, I was the only girl in my cohort who knew all the names of all the obscure designers—Dries van Noten, Marni, Yohji—and who had taught herself the names of the designers behind the ateliers. (Karl was already at Chanel, and at the time John Galliano’s star was just beginning to rise.) But it was also about acculturation, acquiring a kind of fluency in a certain language.

When the editors dropped a certain name or championed a certain aesthetic, I did my research. A Mademoiselle story led me to Sylvia Plath. A pictorial in Vogue led me to Poiret, and then to the Ballets Russe, and finally to Stravinsky and Russian modernism. I bore the marks of a true autodidact: I never could say the names right (I have a vivid memory of myself in college, sitting in office hours at Berkeley, annoyed at the professor, who was kindly taking the time to coach me, Eliza DoLittle style, to master the proper pronunciation for “literary” words). These magazines opened a world around me, and they promised that I, too, could enter.

Vogue offered a very American promise: the promise of self-advancement and self-fulfillment, of happiness procured through aspiration and ambition. It was a promise often extended, and it was also a delusion, and a mirage. But I was too young to know that, and too young to deconstruct its seductive pull.

I believed this promise with all my heart. I ran my fingers over that paper, and slept curled up with my books and magazines around me.

These magazines offer us a  strange world: a world simultaneously completely structured by class, marked by class divisions (are you “in” or are you “out”?) and yet utterly fluid, devoid of class barriers. Youth and ambition could—and would—launch me out of my ordinary world and into that world. One wanted to be “one of them”—beautiful, talented, cultured—and the world was divided into “them” and “not-them.” But in a neat sleight of hand, anyone who learned the rules could enter, provided they, too, could prove themselves to be beautiful, talented, cultured—and wealthy.

* * *

I suppose you know, already, how the story must go.

Much later, walking down Market Street in San Francisco, hurrying to catch the train, and deeply unhappy with my job and my life, I wondered what had brought me here. At the time, I was working at a contemporary art gallery, working too hard and for a pittance. I was beautifully dressed, in the sort of clothes that one might see in Vogue, and I was tired, very tired, and like Didion, I didn’t know my script anymore.

Things were falling apart around me—we were heading into the first wave of failed subprime mortgages—and no one, it seemed, knew the script anymore.

I wanted to know how I’d gotten there, how an intelligent person could be fooled into believing that hard work and ambition could really overcome any disadvantage.

The seeds had been planted in those Indiana years—perhaps on a dreamy June afternoon, lying in the meadow behind our house, reading magazines and watching the clouds pass overhead—when the city life had seemed so sweet, and the crowded urban streets were painted, still, as a place of promise.

I had believed, through college and even after, that a girl could come to the city and make a life, a good life, not a hard one. And why shouldn’t I have believed it?

I believed, even then, hurrying to catch the train on a cold winter night, that beauty, hard work, and ambition would collude to create possibility, and then, success. I still carried those totemic names around—Prada, Gucci, Chanel—and hoped that they would help transport me. Earn the accoutrements, and the rest would come.

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