PRINT November 1992


Harper's Bazaar

FOR SEVERAL MONTHS this summer, New York busses and bus stops sported ads showing supermodel Linda Evangelista voguing for Harper’s Bazaar. The ad turned out to be a slightly altered version of the fashion mag’s September cover—a much studied text in that it announced the arrival of HB’s new editor-in-chief, Elizabeth Tilberis. Against an all-white ground, the striking Evangelista peered at us from behind a raised arm sheathed in a black beaded-net bodysuit by Donna Karan. In a neat design gimmick, the third a in Bazaar slipped from the magazine’s logo into the model’s hand, cupped in an ambiguous gesture above her head. The cover was exquisite: stark, even minimal in its composition, it piqued both our curiosity and our desire.

With the nation engaged in a political campaign charged by fears about the economy—a campaign obsessed with the idea of “change”—the ubiquitous cover was clearly trying to tell us something. The cover line read, “Enter the era of elegance,” and in her editorial Tilberis cited the “idea of modern elegance” as her “central inspiration.” She prophesied a new kind of elegance, an empowering elegance “of mind as much as of appearance,” an elegance implying “intelligence, certainty of taste, a balanced and centered identity.” This was an elegance not of surface style but of cultural persona, positing a secure haven of the self at a time of national doubt. Tilberis and her designers were manufacturing their own concept of “change.”

Visually, however, the message was rather different. Evangelista’s cover photo, shot by Patrick Demarchelier, did not project a “centered identity”: as in George Bush’s self-packaging as the new Harry Truman (though considerably more gracefully), she wore the mantle of nostalgia. Not only her “look” (helmet ’do, spiked eyelashes, open-lipped Catwoman expression) but the cover’s graphic style appropriated the typography and design sensibility of such late-’50s and early-’60s art directors as William Brodowitch and Henry Wolf. (The magazine too was filled with retro clothes.) Indeed, the cover design seems to have been specifically influenced by two earlier HB covers: in one from December 1959, photographed by Richard Avedon and designed by Wolf, the model Dovima stands on a ladder to lift the second a of Bazaar out of its place in the logo. In another, from December 1965, also photographed by Avedon, and designed by Ruth Ansel and Bea Feitler, Sophia Loren cups her hand over her forehead, hiding one eye (as Evangelista does) and accentuating a sumptuous, rhinestone-encrusted sleeve.

It is easy to understand why HB chose the style of an earlier age to signify change: the late ’50s and early ’60s marked the last time that the fashion system was driven more by a Modernist, futurist sense of promise than by appropriating the past. Unfortunately, such borrowing seems to have been the only way the magazine was able to suggest a renewal of promise today. Indeed, Evangelista’s evasive gesture and retro style read as empty signifiers. Rather than suggesting an era we could enter, HB’s September cover decentered us as it underscored the absence of a vital present.

As an industry cheerleader, Bazaar puts a positive spin on the troubles of the times. “Increased economic pressures,” Tilberis somberly intoned, “mean that designers are listening ever more closely to women’s needs.” Our stricken economy, in other words, carries the silver lining that designers struggling to stay solvent will aim to make “elegance” cheaper. The magazine may nod in the direction of an anguished zeitgeist, then, but not so far as to disrupt its traditional myth-making role and the production of desire. Who better than Evangelista to embody this purpose: neither resolutely female nor male, neither American nor European, neither adolescent nor adult—a face, to paraphrase Roland Barthes on Greta Garbo, that can “reconcile . . . iconographic ages, [that] assures the passage from awe to charm.” In much of her work, Evangelista has become a simulacrum of late-’50s and early-’60s glamour: a cipher for Camelot before the storm, for the dying spark of “elegance” preceding the hippie late ’60s, the gaudy ’70s, and the trashy ’80s. But were those days really such a golden age? The elegance of that earlier period concealed a greater angst. After all, the fashion image we most remember may be that of a smart pink suit stained in the blood of a president.

Maurice Berger is a cultural historian and art critic who lives in New York.