A Lack of Constructive Criticism

Open any of the email promotions sitting in your inbox, flip through any of the standard fashion magazines from Vogue to V, or scroll through any of the seemingly never-ending fashion blogs available, and you’ll be inundated with the same hollow phrases—“absolutely gorgeous,” “perfectly tailored,” “just stunning,” “brilliantly simple,” “effortlessly chic,” etc. For how cutthroat the fashion world is portrayed to be, it’s also strangely and irritatingly positivist. Negative criticism is largely non-existent; I’m not talking about the criticism that stems from outsider media grumbling about high fashion’s extravagant prices and outrageous antics, but constructive and substantiated criticism as discussed by an informed critic. The industry’s refusal to engage in such a discourse only hinders it, confirming the sweeping generalization and public perception of fashion as being a trivial and superficial practice.

Glance at the table of contents of such a magazine and there are trend reports, a showcase of a few looks from the newest season, styling advice, advertisements, beauty product pages, party pictures of people wearing the described clothing, features on charity/art/travel/food, contact information of large distributors, etc. This is not a forum for discussion of high fashion on its own merits, but an endorsement machine—magazines serve to encourage people to spend money, as can best be seen in Vogue’s sponsored Fashion’s Night Out in September and upcoming Fashion’s Night In, events promoting in-store and online shopping

Cathy Horyn, the New York Times fashion critic, is an exception to this monotonous sugarcoating of fashion writing, penning strong criticism of the industry. In return, she has been largely attacked—designers Oscar de la Renta, Dolce & Gabbana, Helmut Lang, and others have barred her from shows (a tactic rarely, if ever, found in the performing or visual arts). This refusal to recognize the importance of writing like Horyn’s delimits fashion to fluff.

Recently, criticism has surfaced, but in the form of satire; the blog “The Man Repeller” and online-only DIS Magazine, a pun on the prefix ‘dis’ (as in discover, distaste, and dystopia), are capable of saying what seemingly cannot be said in more traditional realms. “The Man Repeller,” started by Leandra Medine, is her colorful confessional of why all her on-trend clothing from jodphurs to double denim is far from concerned with flattering the body and thus far from helping her love life—hence, the title. Medine does not criticize fashion the way Horyn does, but does highlight the most ridiculous and outrageous aspects of the industry, positing the questions of what exactly high fashion’s aims are and what the criteria is to judge collections. However, because Medine discusses the industry from this humorous perspective and is a participant in the sometimes esoteric culture, her blog is not rejected or alienated by the industry like Horyn’s writing is. Instead, its steadily garnering attention in magazines.

DIS Magazine takes a more scathing approach than Medine, posting “photo editorials” of individuals sporting orthopedic devices as the new “It Accessory” and women photoshopped with the trademark Balmain sharp elongated shoulders. DIS is neither a blog nor a website emulating the issue organization of a magazine; its format extends into multiple mediums—photo editorials, videos, music, animations, and text. This approach eschews the constraints and conventions—personal blogs that read like a laundry list of clichés (“Fashion is an art form” apparently never gets old); fashion websites that are a constant stream of the trend reports and celebrity profiles; magazines that are reduced to cheerleading. Instead of the positivist norm of the industry, DIS operates almost solely in the negative. With this construction, it occupies a novel position. It is not a blog aggregator taking a runway look out of context and ridiculing its impracticality, nor is it anti-fashion, but defining itself as an antithesis to the industry as it exists. In a way, DIS does what Horyn and critics in fashion cannot from more “legitimate” positions. Yet, DIS cannot fit in the industry either because it’s founded as a dystopia, or as it states, “DIS is a dissection of fashion, art and commerce which seeks to dissolve conventions, distort realities, disturb ideologies and disrupt the dismal dissemination of fashion discourse.”

If high fashion wants to be taken more seriously than a superficial adornment of the body, then it should allow writing to treat it as such and self-perceived antidotes like DIS will be no more.

—Columnist Kristie T. La can be reached at kla@college.harvard.edu.

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