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Posts Tagged ‘New York Times Style section’

In the era of information overload, of Facebook, of “personal branding,” of Rachel Zoe–a woman famous for dressing other famous, ahem, grown women–how do we define ourselves? Have the little things come to mean too much? Have we sacrificed nuance in favor of a slick and quick elevator pitch, or swapped the legwork of figuring out who someone is deep down with the convenient shorthand: What do you do? Have we replaced being ourselves with being our brands?

I got to thinking about these questions after reading the cover story in Sunday’s New York Times Styles section: The Power Stylists of Hollywood. The piece is a well-timed tease–especially for me, an admitted and unrepentant stylephile–whetting the appetite for red carpet season, which kicked off Sunday night with the Golden Globes. The only thing was, rather than talking about trends, or even really about the stylists themselves, the piece is about the business of styling. And a bit of it gave me pause:

“Dressing for a major red carpet isn’t simply getting ready for a big party and looking pretty,” said George Kotsiopoulos, a stylist and a former editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine who is now a host on “Fashion Police” on the E! network. In recent years, he said, “it’s been about selling yourself as a brand.”

As insiders see it, that investment is worthwhile: the right red-carpet turnout can help a performer change lanes. “If your client plays nefarious characters,” said the stylist Jeanne Yang, you might dress them, say, in tulle, to demonstrate “that she’s really a fresh ingénue.”

Others strive for sartorial consistency. Indeed, a case could be made that [Hailee] Steinfeld’s reliably chic but youthful red-carpet looks inspired the fashion executives at Miu Miu to cast her in its advertising campaigns. Mila Kunis’s transformation, at the hands of Ms. Flannery, from ill-kempt hipster to regal sexpot doubtless helped secure her latest role, as the new “face” of Dior. A fashion or fragrance contract can earn an actress in the tens of millions.

Such potent stylist-star alliances were spawned well over a decade ago, when celebrity Web sites and supermarket tabloids competed to serve up candid shots of stars exiting Starbucks or the gym in a state of sorry dishevelment. Hoping to shore up their images, some were quick to enlist a fashion consultant.

Stylists at the time catered to stars’ insecurities. “The stylist is an outgrowth of the mean-girls culture,” Ms. Press observed. “Their very existence says of an actress, ‘I don’t trust my own instincts, or I have no instincts, or I can’t bear to read all the mean things people are going to say if my dress doesn’t deliver.’ ”

Sure, for most of us, no matter what we wear, our outfits will likely not be netting us a gig as the new face of Dior anytime soon, but I think there’s something in here that’s pretty universal. The need to (pause for barf-in-my-mouth) brand ourselves.

Gross, right? And yet. We all do it: Whether putting together the outfit that will convey precisely the image we want to project on any given occasion (competent yet creative for the job interview; smart yet sexy for the date; pulled together without trying to hard for the errands…), or editing the reality of our lives in order to present a carefully curated–some might say contrived–image for our imagined audiences to admire on Facebook, we’re all in the business of personal branding. And, as Barry Schwartz tells us in Undecided, it’s little wonder:

Nowadays, everything counts as a marker of who you are in a way that wasn’t true when there were fewer options. So just to give you one example: When all you could buy were Lee’s or Levi’s, then your jeans didn’t tell the world anything about who you were, because there was a huge variation in people, but there were only two kinds of jeans, you know? When there are two thousand kinds of jeans, now all of a sudden, you are what you wear… What this means is that [with] every decision, the stakes have gone up. It’s not just about jeans that fit; it’s about jeans that convey a certain image to the world of what kind of person you are. And if you see it that way, it’s not so shocking that people put so much time and effort into what seems like trivial decisions. Because they’re not trivial anymore.

Actually, it reminds me of a story of my own:

Last year, I was in New York for a book reading–an anthology to which I’d contributed an essay. And off I went, sporting an Outfit-with-a-capital-O. After all, I like clothes. And I spend more than enough time at home, alone save for my trusty laptop, ensconced in clothes that can most kindly be described as scrubs. And if people were going to be looking at me, I wanted to look good, dammit (and, you know, be comfortable–except for my baby toes). I was staying with the (wildly intelligent–and beautiful) woman who’d edited the book, and, while we were walking to the train, she–dressed decidedly down–told me how she feels like she has to dress that way in order to be perceived as a Serious Writer. You know, the kind who’s so busy being a Serious Writer she doesn’t have time for silly fashion. She said she even has a pair of fake glasses. (Even a Serious Writer has to accessorize!) The irony, of course, being that she loves clothes as much as I do. She was laughing about it, but I have to say, it kind of made me take note of what each of the other contributors wore that night, and what my choice of duds communicated about me. Fabulous and fashionable? Or literary lightweight?

It all makes you wonder: is all this “personal branding” we’re doing serving yet another purpose? As with the actresses who employ professional stylists, is our brand–or, as we like to call it, our “iconic self“–a buffer in some way? The armor that protects us from those we fear will judge us? After all, in a world of endless options, of jeans for every political affiliation and body shape, sometimes, isn’t it easier to slap on a costume, play the role, be the brand, rather than hanging out our sloppy, indefinable self out there for all to see? Or doing the work of figuring out who she is in the first place?

But all of it surely comes at a cost. After all, what about the parts of ourselves that don’t fit neatly into our brand? Maybe a willingness to own our complex, dualistic, not always delightful but utterly human nature can make our choices a little bit clearer. If we let go of the need to fit ourselves into the brand, the image, the iconic self, maybe we’d have an easier time figuring out who we really are. Which in turn, might just make our decisions easier, not to mention more authentic. All of which might just make us happier. Think of it as You, 2.0.

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Apparently, pot bellies are the new cool. If you happen to be a young male hipster.

Stay with me here: This is all about the way the media treat women as opposed to men, and why it appears that women can’t win.

According to The New York Times Style section, the Ralph Kramden look is In. And the growing presence of women in the workplace is as much to blame as Pabst Blue Ribbon. I don’t make this stuff up. From the story:

Too pronounced to be blamed on the slouchy cut of a T-shirt, too modest in size to be termed a proper beer gut, developed too young to come under the heading of a paunch, the Ralph Kramden is everywhere to be seen lately, or at least it is in the vicinity of the Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene, the McCarren Park Greenmarket and pretty much any place one is apt to encounter fans of Grizzly Bear.

What the trucker cap and wallet chain were to hipsters of a moment ago, the Kramden is to what my colleague Mike Albo refers to as the “coolios” of now. Leading with a belly is a male privilege of long standing, of course, a symbol of prosperity in most cultures and of freedom from anxieties about body image that have plagued women since Eve.

Until recently, men were under no particular obligation to exhibit bulging deltoids and shredded abdominals; that all changed, said David Zinczenko, the editor of Men’s Health, when women moved into the work force in numbers. “The only ripples Ralph Kramden” and successors like Mike Brady of “The Brady Bunch” had to demonstrate were in their billfolds, said Mr. Zinczenko, himself a dogged crusader in the battle of the muffin top. “But that traditional male role has changed.”

Does this mean Macy’s double-truck ads of edgy young men will feature beer bellies, unbuttoned shirts, straining T-shirts with ironic sayings and girl-cut jeans that nonetheless sag below the gut? The new measure of cool? Oh, the irony.

Because for women, the reverse is still painfully true. We may have begun to bring home the bacon — but clearly, we’re not supposed to look like we eat any of it. At least as far as media images are concerned.

We all know that photo retouching has long been a staple of women’s mags, and other kinds of advertising. Need a reminder? You’ll find a before and after retouching of Faith Hill on a Redbook cover, courtesy of Jezebel, here. And don’t forget the way Katie Couric was retouched in the CBS News promos right before she took over as anchor. Like magic, she lost a quick 20.

But nothing brings the point home faster than the latest cover of Self Magazine, where the photo of normal-woman-sized Kelly Clarkson has been retouched to make her look sleek and svelte in — what else — white jeans. You want irony? How about the teaser running across the bottom of the cover — and Clarkson’s thighs: “Total Body Confidence.”

You want more irony? Salon.com’s Broadsheet not only posts a video of the real life Clarkson, as opposed to the glamour shot, but also quotes editor Lucy Danziger’s rationale for the retouch:

As she explains, a fashion photograph of a hair-styled, made-up, retouched celebrity is “not, as in a news photograph, journalism.” Fair enough. But while insisting that “the truest beauty is the kind that comes from within” and that “Kelly says she doesn’t care what people think of her weight,” Danziger explains that the cover photo is meant to “inspire women to want to be their best.”

…After boasting of altering Clarkson’s appearance to make her look her “personal best,” Danziger says “in the sense that Kelly is the picture of confidence, and she truly is, then I think this photo is the truest we have ever put out there on the newsstand.”

… Adding fuel to the dustup, Self’s editorial assistant Ashley Mateo blogs furthermore that “No one wants to see a giant picture of some star’s cellulite on the cover of a monthly mag — that’s what we have tabloids for!”

Wait. There’s more. We all know how supermodels Cindy Crawford, Amber Valetta et al. appear on the page. Usually. Here’s how they look sans make-up and retouching courtesy Harper’s Bazaar, courtesy New York Magazine. Still beautiful. Yet, fashion mags still taunt us with their retouched images of impossibility.

And there’s this: Politics Daily heralded Hillary for sticking up for herself in the Congo. Then wondered, in WTF Fashion, what the Daily Beast’s Tina Brown was thinking in an interview later with Joe Scarborough:

Sadly, despite feminism’s long strides in the political evolution of our species, the way some women respond to other women still has a ways to go. I wasn’t surprised when I heard from a colleague Thursday morning that celebrity editor Tina Brown, while seemingly being supportive of Mrs. Clinton, had just called her contemporary superwoman “fat.” In the actual quote on Morning Joe, the Daily Beast editor-in-chief, who is a slim 56 years old, said she believed after a seven-nation, 11-day tour of the formerly dark continent, the sexagenarian secretary must be “feeling fat.” Brown posited to Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski that perhaps Clinton, having stayed in Mogadishu a day too long, needed to “get back to the gym.”

Finally, there’s this, from the Daily Mail online: When it comes to women’s tennis, center court at Wimbledon goes to the pretty girls, rather than the top seeds. And according to Jessica Faye Carter on True/Slant, the emphasis on looks, rather than ability, is starting to infiltrate women’s golf as well.

Funny, when you juxtapose this all with those pot-bellied hipsters. But not really.

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