Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Devil doesn't just wear Prada

When Lauren Weisberger published her debut novel in 2003 it was met with polarizing opinions. Some loves its insights and almost cruel mocking of the fashion world and its elite, whilst others detested its critical gaze on fashion and above all, it’s thinly veiled roman à clef of none other than Vogue magazine and Weisberger’s former boss Anna Wintour. Some critics accused Weisberger of writing ‘bite-back’ fiction towards her former employer whilst others loved the mocking images of the ‘clackers’ (dubbed so because of the sound of their heels against the ground) and people who consider “calling in fat” to work. When the movie was released in 2006 starring the incomparable Meryl Streep and the ever-demure Anne Hathaway we see the visual representation of that mockery from small touches like Miranda Priestly’s office being eerily similar to Anna Wintour’s (prompting Wintour to recorate) and the utter callousness that Miranda treats Andy with. In many ways the movie improved dramatically on the ‘chick-lit’ book, not least because of Streep’s performance and plot changes. But the question still remains however, even all these years later, is Anna Wintour deserving of the association with the character entitled ‘the Devil’? 
And I can assure you she doesn’t just wear Prada.
She also wears Chanel

Anna Wintour and Miranda Priestly

Lauren Weisberger was an assistant to Anna Wintour from 1999 to 2000, whereupon she quit to pursue a ‘more worthy cause’ (travelling writing) much like her character Andrea Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada. However the release of the book suggests that Weisberger harbors a lot of unresolved resentment towards her former employer and the fashion industry as a whole. The fashion world is one that has always been treated with contention, from the die-hard fans who will do anything to be a part of that world, to the people who find it frivolous and silly. As Wintour said herself, “you either know fashion or you don’t,” and it literally is that simple. Some people revel in the beauty and the glamour, people who crave drama of the runways and the majesty of the editorials, who love and appreciate the madness, luxury and exuberance that only the fashion world can give. However there are some who do not appreciate fashion, and they are not only the stereotypical geeks or fat people or ugly people (I myself am a scientist and in my profession it is very rare for someone to be a devotee of fashion). These people find the extremities of fashion bizarre and ridiculous and will almost never come to understand why some people live and die for fashion or go to insane lengths like choosing to buy Vogue over food (as Carrie Bradshaw did in Sex and the City) or saving up for months and months to buy a Louis Vuitton bag or a Chanel necklace (as I have). They don’t understand why we wear beautiful but painful shoes and they never will – and that is fine. The concept of it may be as foreign to me as Mars but it’s perfectly okay to not understand or like fashion, we all have our faults. I for one, am a Melbourne born and bred girl who doesn’t like football, rugby or cricket (which in this city is an almost punishable offense). The point is, Weisberger was clearly in this group of non-believers. She admits to feeling like an “outsider” and not really caring about the fashion world. This opinion is blindingly obvious in the book as well. Not that it should matter if Andy (her characters) does her job to the best of her ability. HINT: she doesn’t. She whines about how she’s destined for me and ruins thousands of dollars worth of dresses by accident, so of course Miranda doesn't pat her on the back and say congrats. 

Miranda is not impressed. 

In some review articles Andy is painted like the poor victim who was destined for more and who rose above the petty and frivolous world of her otherwise uninteresting fashion devoted colleagues. Her character feels as though she is above the clackers and has a great destiny awaiting her at The New Yorker (because you cannot get any more pretentious than that). Her job at Vogue (called Runway in the novel) is nothing more than a sidetrack or a speed hump – a means to an end. That in itself is something I’m sure most adults can understand. Everyone has at least one job which they do or did to reach a particular goal – I waitressed at a casino for a year to save up money to travel to Europe – but you don’t have to look down on the job that you do or feel that you are better than the others who enjoy their work. In the pages Weisberger, through the guise of Andy, mocks Anna Wintour – ahem – Miranda Priestly through her inner monologue of thoughts such as “throughout our weeks together I felt there was nothing I did not know about Miranda Priestly. Except, of course, what exactly made her so important that I’d filled a legal pad with [her] likes and dislikes. Why, exactly, was I supposed to care?” Um…maybe because she’s your boss? Or because she’s editor in chief of a prestigious magazine and you’re a lowly assistant? The passive agrresion in some of the pages couldn’t have been more obvious if they were written in neon yellow ink, and these examples I feel speak magnitudes about Andy and by extension Weisberger and what she really thought of her position at Vogue.

Miranda's office which is so similar to Wintour's that it prompted Wintour 
to redecorate. They even have the same octagonal mirror!

Positive reviews for the book hinge on the assumed fact that Weisberger has “bravely” spilled the beans on the fashion industry, a fact to which she has never admitted. Negative review however, such the one by Kate Betts, a former employee of Vogue and protégé of Anna Wintour who was editor in chief for Harper’s Bazaar for two years and is currently a contributing editor at Time and The Daily Beast, defends Wintour and insists Weisberger's book is the result of bitter revenge. Betts's calding review of the book is one where she does not pull punches and points out examples such as Andy’s belief that the fashion world and those who inhabit it are beneath her and that they exist purely to be mocked. Betts also highlights the similarities between the main protagonist of the novel and Weisberger herself which are particularly uncanny (Andy Sachs is definitely a Mary-Sue).  The fact remains that Andy found herself in a job that could open countless doors and that many girls would quite literally kill for. Even as Andy ‘adapted’ to the fashion world through access to the Runway closest, lost weight and earns the right to go to fashion week in Paris over the first assistant, she still plays the ungrateful brat who remains ignorant to the opportunities being presented to her.  As Betts’s puts it: “but if Andrea doesn’t ever realize why she should care about Miranda Priestly, why should we care about Andrea or prize the text for anything more than the cheap fission of the context?” From the conclusion of the novel and the movie it is clear that Andy has not grown from her experience and returns to her 'normal' state that her friends support - a fact which irritates me to no end. 

Wintour on the cover of the Wall Street Journal with her trademark bob and dark sunglasses. 
The Devil Wears Prada movie was released in 2006 and, in my opinion, improves immensely from the book. The character of Nigel the fashion editor (quite literally a pale imitation of editor-at-large André Leon Talley) portrayed by Stanley Tucci is a scene stealer. Emily Blunt as the demeaning bully of a first assistant (who is rumoured to be based on Plum Skyes a writer and former Anna Wintour assistant) is brilliant, but it was Hathaway and Streep who stole the show. Hathaway made Andy seem less whining and a little more real, whilst Streep could give the camera a look that I swear could melt your face off or make you require a change of undies. My favourite change was Andy deciding the leave Runway in a mature manner rather than reducing herself to dropping the F-bomb at Miranda in public at a runway, becoming a mini gossip star in the process and ending up selling stories to Seventeen magazine, which to Andy seems to be a big improvement (really?). The calm, respectable ending of the movie I found was much nicer and gave us that little bit more depth into Miranda as a character.
Anna at a fashion show with her usual expression. 
It is well known that Anna Wintour is not a warm person. Much like her immaculate bob and even fringe, impeccable clothes and dark sunglasses, she is infamous for it. Perhaps it is the British in her, or the driven ambition that got her where she is today (she’d already told her Vogue predecessor,  former editor Grace Mirabella, that she wanted her job long before she actually got it) and she’s managed to hold onto the Vogue reins for more than a quarter of a century for one very good reason: she’s good at her job. The release of the book and subsequent movie did little to render her a more likeable person, but in 2009  there was a release of one of the most talked about fashion documentaries, The September Issue. The documentary by R.J Cutler focused on the creation of the 2007 September issue of Vogue gave Anna Wintour a new way to present herself to the world. She certainly didn't shy away from being harsh to her employees but she did not seem the brutal caricature that Miranda Priestly was meant to be. It showed the work Anna put into Vogue, her cut-throat attitude that she directed at everyone within her world and the fashion industry. Fashion is not an easy or fair business and Anna seems more then well aware of this fact. In fashion nothing short of perfection is expected, for example when Grace Coddington uses one of the camera men for the documentary in a photo shoot, Anna wants his bulging (but not obese) tummy flattened to be more glamorous (Coddington doesn’t allow the change, thank Gucci). During her time as editor-in-chief of British Vogue Anna earned the nickname ‘Nuclear Wintour’ for her treatment of fellow staff and Vogue traditions. New York journalist and socialite Barbara Amiel claims that although she and Wintour are friends it doesn’t help the “cold panic that grips me every time we meet.” 

Left: the photo shoot styled by Grace Coddington featured in The September Issue. Middle: Anna Wintour's first Vogue cover showing a smiling, young model that was vastly different to the close up covers of Mirabella's time. Right: Madonna's Vogue cover in 1989. She was the first celebrity to grace Vogue's cover. 
In my opinion Anna Wintour’s work speaks for itself. She hasn’t been editor for twenty-six years because of her cool personality, she has kept it because she is good at her job and has revolutionised many aspects of the fashion world from putting celebrities on the cover to supporting young designers. Her charity endeavours have raised millions of dollars for the Metropolitan Museum of the Art and also millions of dollars for AIDS research – a disease that has claimed many lives in the fashion industry.It is a fact that many Vogue editors before her have been famously harsh to their assistants, although maybe not having Wintour’s ice queen personality. Diana Vreeland, for example, was famous for making her assistants cry. Not because she was aiming to be mean to the them, but because she expected them to do their job and to fail to do so would lead to a reprimand.

Wintour, Coddington and Blake Lively at Chanel's F/W 2010-2011 show. 
I believe that ultimately you either get fashion or you don’t, much like Wintour’s quote. It’s a simple and as complex as that. Weisberger, for what ever reasons, does not get the fashion world and chose to take her resentment of the fact out in the form of a book that she was “naive” enough to publish. To some fashion is how they follow social norms and keep warm in winter, whilst to others it is the armour we use to the survive. The movie explains this perfectly in a quote from Miranda about Andy’s blue jumper that she believes has nothing to do with the fashion industry but to Miranda is much much more.

"This... stuff'? Oh. Okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select... I don't know... that lumpy blue sweater, for instance because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise. It's not lapis. It's actually cerulean. And you're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent... wasn't it who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff." - Meryl Streep The Devil Wears Prada (2006). 

Fashion is a weapon; use it wisely. 

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