PRINT Summer 2006


Green Fashion

CLIMATE CHANGE isn’t a vogue, because vogues go away when they get boring.

Vanity Fair, along with Vogue and Elle, discovered climate change this season. These are three very trendy magazines, but climate change is no mere trend. Global warming has been two hundred years in the making, much older even than the time-honored survivor of that group—yes, it’s older even than Vogue.

Climate chaos has been stealthily creeping up on us for two centuries. Now she is here in spades and she won’t go anywhere but worse. Global warming is the dirty little sister of nuclear Armageddon, and she requires no validation from Time magazine or PBS specials, even though she’s getting those tributes, too.

Noted thespian Julia Roberts appeared on the cover of May’s Vanity Fair, clad in an ultraearthy haute-green getup that strongly suggested Titania, Queen of the Fairies, in a midsummer night’s swoon over leftwing politicians. But Vanity Fair’s “Special Green Issue” will soon lose its specialness, as will Elle’s and Vogue’s, because a massive change in climate is news that stays news.

Let’s be entirely clear: From now until the end of your lifetime, no week will pass without news of some freakish weather calamity. Since I first considered typing up this article in April, there’s been a hundred-year flood on the Danube, a hundred-year-drought in Queensland, a calamitous dust storm in China and. . . . Oh, let’s just consult Google: Wow, look, fifteen inches of rain in southern New Hampshire!

Next week it’ll be something weirder. We’re not “averting” or “preventing” climate change; we are soaking in it. The mission was never accomplished—the moment has passed—so now it’s All Katrina, All the Time. Yes, even for the party people. The rain falls on the cool and the uncool alike. It falls on the multitudes. Global warming is the epitome of globalization.

Henceforth, we won’t be allowed to ignore our disrupted atmosphere, any more than noted climate skeptic Senator Trent Lott could dispel the high winds when his Mississippi home blew over during Katrina. No amount of political spin can stop a spinning hurricane. Seven emergency experts have been offered the plum job of head of FEMA under Bush since the hurricane that killed the Big Easy. Not a one of them has taken it, precisely because they know better than to run inside a building while it’s collapsing.

Now, Vanity Fair, of all publications, rather aptly points out that when and if the seas rise midcentury, Washington, DC, will become a salt marsh. The NOLA poor will have company in the low-lying southern marshes: the United States Congress. Vanity Fair, much to its credit, beautifully displays that fact with a digital simulation generated simply by using the government’s own environmental data, as supplied by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Vanity Fair commissioned and publicized such geology studies because the current administration never tells anybody anything important about anything. Not anybody—not even rich people. According to another simulation in the issue, the good folk of the Hamptons, those keystone consumers of such VF advertising standbys as Omega watches, Prada bags, and top-end fragrances, are also severely menaced by our planet’s rising seas. So is Martha’s Vineyard. And San Francisco. Even the 9/11 memorial site is a potential marsh.

Fashion wants to do something. And why fashion? Because nobody else dares to try.

Supposedly, environmentalists handle this sort of issue. Of course they haven’t, and they still don’t. Their catastrophic and comprehensive failure to forward the mission of conserving the environment speaks for itself. With the possible exceptions of Commie Reds and Nazi Browns, Hippie Greens are the least effectual reformers in history. The fashionistas couldn’t possibly do any worse than they have. There are cogent reasons to suspect they might do much better.

The people at Vogue, for example, aren’t self-righteous, auto-marginalizing hairshirt types, and they are simply much smarter than crunchy-granola Greens. Greens preach in grimy, condescending pamphlets such as One Hundred Ways to Help Save the Planet, while Vogue actually assembles and manipulates public opinion.

In its March 2006 issue, the newly greened Vogue features a devastatingly effective article on what high-maintenance girls are supposed to wear when it never gets cold anymore. A critic (me, for instance) might pick on this peppy piece for snide laughs, but in point of fact, this article is extremely scary: It has the perky upbeatness of a ward nurse explaining to a debutante amputee that, from now on, she’ll have to buy only one Manolo Blahnik shoe.

This is climate propaganda that breaks through the numbness of the theoretical and goes right for the reader’s closet, Freudian-monster style. Not that there’s much shelter in the planet’s closets, as there’s no good place to hide from a ruined sky.

It doesn’t matter how many blue-chip stocks your grandpa piled up: Where are you going to go, rich girl? To the Hamptons?

Fashionistas are better at grasping these menacing down-market realities than Greens have ever been, because they’re less insular, more with-it, less thorny, and much more keenly class-conscious. Yes, their models do look somewhat absurd in recycled, undyed cotton. Vanity Fair would much rather shoot aspiring actresses naked on a leather casting couch, but they’re dressing for this fight because they have to. Climate chaos is becoming the new fashion. We’re gonna have climate chaos for every class, race, creed, nation, and profession: butchers, bakers, tinkers, tailors. We’ve even got a climate-crisis oilman, Lord John Browne. This dapper Briton is the only head of a major oil company to appear in the May Vanity Fair, where he is dubbed “The Oilman with a Conscience.” He is likely the only major oilman who does not have a jail cell awaiting him next to Kenneth Lay’s.

Vogue is worldly. Vogue is ecumenical: Vogue would never bother to pick on Greens for being so blatantly ugly and out of it, any more than Vogue would dropkick the Amish. Greens, by stark contrast, immediately attacked Vogue’s eco-issue for—get this—failing to use recycled paper. (Elle, which had thrown up its dainty hands and hired media type–turned–climate wonk Laurie David as guest editor, did use recycled paper.) This is entirely typical of pinheaded Green political correctness, which always breaks its vegetarian diet to bite any friendly hand. If Vogue pointed at an oncoming tornado, these literal-minded cranks would moan about Vogue’s toxic fingernail polish.

Vanity Fair has, for the first time ever, deftly posed and photographed some Green activists in a genuinely flattering light. Somehow, they made this thin scrim of American climate experts, those hapless people who might conceivably do something useful about saving the Hamptons, almost look like real players.

Greens just can’t make friends. Yet suddenly, with a shift in the psychic winds, those rivals Elle, Vogue, and Vanity Fair are all acting in concert. Normally these three outfits, like couturiers at all times and places, dance about in the wake of the rich and powerful, while subtly driving the spiked heel into one another’s insteps. Now they’re leaping as one onto the most rickety, flea-infested political bandwagon in the world. Why do that? Because fashionistas have survival instincts. Unlike the Green boho counterculture, they’d much rather live pretty than die ugly.

Fashion is talking about climate change because that is tomorrow’s issue: That is what there is to talk about. The 9/11 terror bubble is deader than parachute pants. That whole Bush shebang is imploding in a fine dot-com style, collapsing exactly like its sponsor, financier, and spiritual mentor, Enron. It’s a balls-out Houstonian hurricane of financial corruption, internecine backstabs, tell-all tattles, credibility scandals, plus a night of the long knives within the spook contingent. Hubris is stalked by nemesis; Faulkner couldn’t have been more Southern gothic than the red-state crowd. There’s no way off the hook of environmental payback. Even if they launch a nuclear exchange with Iran, there can only be more climate change when the glowing dust settles.

Vogue is stealthily detourning the administration’s drivel in a Stephen Colbert–style lampoon that is too subtle for the straights. Vanity Fair is harshly naming names. There’s even a cheery hint of some positive program in a journalistic exposé by Mark Hertsgaard in Vanity Fair: First and above all, just stop burning fossils. Then, any creep, whore, and fool who denied climate change must be scourged into the deep political wilderness, never to be trusted again—no, not with so much as a burnt-out match. Next: Any commercial entity that sells and burns natural gas, oil, or coal must be sued into permanent oblivion by class-action suits launched not by penny-ante public-interest leftists but by America’s wealthiest clans. They’ll take away the oil money to build dikes for their Hamptons. As the skies blacken and scud over, it’ll be a coup at the top of the heap, as the Beautiful People go straight for the red, grimy necks of the oil-as-blood crowd.

Any American power player who wants to look remotely appealing has got to edge away from that loathsome oil mess somehow, and greenness, which is so sweet and nonthreatening that Karl Rove couldn’t even bother to sabotage it, is something these magazines can urge their clientele to aspire to, much like three polar bears on a dwindling ice floe. Vogue, being Vogue, is always a survivor. Vanity Fair has learned to violently hate Bush and all his works and minions; it’s turning its Chanel bottles into makeshift Molotov cocktails.

I don’t want to imply here that fashion consumers are getting any smarter. That’s not needed. Fashion purchasers can never be big wonks for ecosystem dynamics: They’d be astonished to learn that julienned fries come out of the ground. Fashion journalists, however, are clever and highly literate people. Any contemporary laptop-toting catwalk hound can easily parse a pop-science best seller such as Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, 2005), that comprehensive primer of climatic catastrophe. So they know they’ve been betrayed by Exxon Mobil and they want to survive that betrayal. Why wouldn’t they? Vogue is so old that it’s actually seen collapse. Vogue sent Lee Miller off to photograph concentration camps. And she did a damn good job, too.

Fashion can’t go away in a climate calamity. Fashion will mutate and, in many ways, thrive, because it will matter so much more. When New Orleans high-maintenance girls dress up to party nowadays, they are really dressing up to party. They’re no longer doing that out of daffy rich-chick whimsy, they’re doing it for the same grim and vital reason that women in the London Blitz used to draw lines up the backs of their legs so as to mimic nylons. There’s less pelf in it, but more heart.

Fashion is limbering up. We are in for a massive, involuntary reconstruction of industrial civilization. That effort is not going to be about recycling the occasional newspaper. Step one, of course, has to be a comprehensive liquidation of the incompetent morons who drove us into the quagmire; but at this point, that’s almost a detail. They sowed the wind, but the whirlwind is everybody’s problem without exception.

It’s now entirely clear that climate chaos is gonna come down hard and fast, in a flaming, Siege of Atlanta, Scarlett O’Hara, belle-of-the-ball style. A whole lot goes Gone with the Wind where the wind peaks at one-hundred-and-seventy miles per hour. In a Reconstruction of that scope, Scarlett turns her drapes into a ball gown. Not because she’s frivolous or empty-headed, like she was back in reel one. Scarlett does that so Rhett will know she’s still somehow in the game.

The fashion press is already in tomorrow’s game. It’s the political press and economic press that are still staring into the headlights of a stalled Hummer.

The twenty-first century will dress, talk, think, and act entirely differently than it does now. If any polity needs a thorough fashion makeover, it’s today’s deeply repulsive USA. Aptly described by booming oil magnate Vladimir Putin as “a wolf that eats alone and listens to no one,” America has shown its Hyde face to a disbelieving planet for six years.

In the future, anyone who looks, acts, or talks like Americans currently do will be immediately scorned as a thumb-fingered, bankrupt idiot. It’s a dead certainty that American fashion is in for revolution—not just because the weather’s all screwed up, but because a failed polity has to abandon its clothes. Dumping the uniform and mingling with the new crowd is pretty much job one.

There will be people—lots of ’em—dressed Vanity Fair–style in Yvon Chouinard’s paramilitary super-performance all-weather Patagonia gear. That stuff is your basic ergonomic khaki green: The Patagonia gear you once wore to go slogging in a swamp becomes the gear you wear to go fetch a coffee. Many other people will no doubt be in emergency-rescue gear. New uniforms for new agencies.

But that’s not enough, its not half enough. War and terror don’t rebuild menaced cities and wounded civilizations—only people do. The most important act is to demolish the ideological cement of hatred, and permanently sideline the contemptible paralytic blithering that got us into this long-term calamity. So, next comes fashioning a profoundly new cultural sensibility. It will be utterly different, not just from one administration, but from the past two centuries. Somebody’s gonna do that refashioning, because there isn’t any other choice but to do it.

Why lifestyle magazines? Why not? Since we’ve got to dive into the stormy, rising seas anyway, we might as well swan dive.

Bruce Sterling is a writer based in Austin, Texas, whose Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years was published by Random House in 2002.