PRINT Summer 1994



IN THE WORLD OF FASHION or, more accurately, of fashion as an event in magazines, greasy as the skin tone is in. Greasy is achieved by applying lubricants, supplemented by eyeshadow with a sheen and lipstick (light) with a gloss. Greasy skin connotes nonresistance to the real—skin made oily by the only atmosphere the modern woman knows: office air systems that circulate illness and the mild anxiety, fueled by gossip, that is office life. The modern woman as she exists now in fashion magazines rejects the finished, calm, distanced patina of luxury—rejects face powder—as unrealistic. Yet she herself is an unrealistic version of the modern woman in this world, where greasy brings to mind not the fashionable woman but her ugly sister who eats bad food, consuming anything but clothes.

The fashionable woman may be a visual signifier of the misshapenness of modern life, but she seems unaware of the sociopolitical implications of her greasy face. She is (generally) not colored or anything else that might connote (reflexively) the political. Greasy has been associated with colored women since American advertising of the ’20s “created” Lois Gardella, the original Aunt Jemima, and her greasy head. Nor is greasy specifically an American phenomenon. Cecil Beaton recorded the greasy hair and skin of Bloomsbury progeny—various Sitwells, Stephen Tennant (a relative of whose, fashion model Stella Tennant, typifies the new, disaffected, greasy modern woman), Elinor Wylie—in his photograph Intelligent Young Persons, 1927. Indeed these two constructs—the American idea of health in which greasy is synonymous with robustness and democracy (Aunt Jemima), and the Beaton photograph’s glance at sexual innuendo—are the poles between which the modern woman in fashion magazines currently stands.

In fashion circles, where language is copy and copy is optimistic and optimism is a nonresponse to the finite but complex nature of language, greasy is known as shiny. Shiny optimistically leans toward dirt (the real) as opposed to residing in it. It is meant to connote simple, in league with today’s reduction of design.

The clothes the modern woman wears in fashion magazines are often slightly “subversive” takes on the schoolgirl look, the sex-kitten look—social uniforms that are treated as though they were the means by which their wearer wished to be engaged. While seeming to promote the new simplicity of the modern woman’s face and body, these uniforms are really about the luxury or relief of removal from the complicated skein of responsibility. The modern woman’s description as just a schoolgirl, just a sex kitten—regressive roles, pre-AlDS, preaction, prethought—separates her from her boredom and disaffection. These clothes have become the uniform of correct behavior because they are based not on character but on becoming a character.

The modern woman’s uniforms don’t duplicate exactly the buttons and epaulets of the military or navy, say, since those are the province of fashion’s too immediate past—Yves Saint Laurent’s pea coats, or just regular pea coats from thrift stores. The modern woman does wear actual sportswear (Adidas, running pants, skirts) but only in association with its legitimate and legitimizing fashion cousins (Donna Karan, Laura Whitcomb, some Calvin Klein).

To go along with the new shininess, the new simplicity of design, hair is not done but is. (That last sentence follows closely a common linguistic structure in the fashion industry—“The nails were done but not really,” that sort of thing.) The modern woman has feet still, but they are shod in white cotton socks with heels, or are bare in sandals with heels. The modern woman’s feet as they appear in fashion magazines are about becoming the modern woman: the white cotton socks of girlhood combined with the pretense (bare feet in heels) of oncoming maturity.

Despite all this, the putting together of the modern woman as exemplified by fashion editor Camilla Nickerson’s work in American Vogue defies the system by which the modern woman can be succinctly read. That is because Nickerson’s work, which has generally been restricted to the “Dress for Less” section of the magazine, rupture the American compulsion for the “finished” woman. The restless and relentless contemporaneity of Nickerson’s vision extinguishes, at a glance, the reflex of most fashion editors and journalists to present the modern woman in an atmosphere of sterilized realness. When they show her on a city sidewalk, for example, they make that city remarkably unfamiliar in its ability not to interfere with the modern woman walking, cavorting, laughing down its streets. That city is perfect: dirt free, safe, blank, without anxiety.

In most fashion journalism aside from Nickerson’s, the modern woman, timeless in her nonobservance of her city, of the world, might consider dressing for less but is ultimately embarrassed by the idea. Less, after all, is the adverse of what fashion (economically at least) conveys: more. In Nickerson’s work, though, one sees the projection of less: clothes for less; a face made less, made shiny, by the anxiety inherent in our current economic (near) collapse, and in living in the white space of the studio; steep heels that wobble on real city streets; a body that kicks at the constriction of consumption (what fashion conveys: more).

Vogue, America’s premier organ of couture, haut or otherwise, generally pictures luxury as exuberant and available. Within its pages Nickerson’s work gives one pause. One sees: the loose or odd thread hanging from the shirt cuff, the hair pushed back (seemingly) randomly, a palm being rubbed by a taut finger, the face greasy/shiny, eyes a nightmare of indecision or of desire for more or. . .less, the mouth made to appear as though it had a mind not to speak. (This is especially true of the “schoolgirl” photographs taken of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stella Tennant.) The urbanness of these images as fashion proposals is a new genre for middle America: one of style, not fashion, and style as a worldly circumstance, not an editorial concept. Amusingly, Nickerson’s work, which is difficult and mesmerizing in nature, has been somewhat absorbed by her colleagues, to dumb effect—models made seemingly happy by what Nickerson’s models know not to be amused by: a cellular phone, ankle socks, heels, suits, unshiny skin.

There is no meaning to project in the images Nickerson styles—styling that is inseparable from the value of the photograph per se—because no meaning is conveyed other than what is projected on the page a million times over for the Nabokovian supermarkets of America to consume (see) without necessarily absorbing. That her work exists by and large without language accounts for the confusion of her frame: she presents her stories within the white space of photography, not the written space of literature, and it is as magazine images that these stories become emotionally resonant, reminiscent, if of anything at all, of photographer Bob Richardson’s representations of drugged asperity in the Vogue of the ’70s. First, they are placed in Vogue, that is, alongside a redundancy of beauty—the socially accepted modern woman as proposed in the fashion magazines, who is in direct opposition to Nickerson’s socially conscious modern woman. Second, what interests us about Nickerson’s work in particular is its handling of the reason we look at fashion in general: to see the body freaked out as it processes the information of femaleness, the clothes in and around femaleness, made, on the page, redundant and shiny and new.

Hilton Als is a writer who lives in New York.