I saw Robert Leacock’s documentary, “Catwalk”, a few weeks ago for the first time. It follows the model Christy Turlington around Paris, Milan and New York during the spring-summer shows. Izaac Mizrahi’s film “Unzipped”, from the same mid-nineties period, is probably better known but I somehow prefer Leacock’s. Janet Maslin who reviewed Catwalk for the New York Times would differ. Her review barely masks a scathing contempt for Turlington and her cohorts – Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Yasmin Le Bon and Carla Bruni. Her review was entitled “Lots of Beautiful Models Admiring Themselves.”
I think Maslin totally missed the point. Fashion doesn’t need a narrative nor does it need to be satirised. Just take alook at Robert Altman’s ill-judged 1994 spoof, Pret-A-Porter. All fashion needs is a running camera at point blank range and it can take care of the rest. Karl Lagerfeld didn’t need a script for Rodolphe Marconi’s 2007 biopic on the septuagenarian designer. He fired out the soundbites and bon-mots like an AK47 on battery acid. Ra-ta-tat-tat, KABAM!! Nor did Valentino for the intimate, touching portrayal of his relationship with Giancarlo Giammetti in 2009’s The Last Emperor. Now that’s what you call a DIVA. Fashion has always been an easy target with its scurrilous reputation for behaving like a tyrannical, self-absorbed two year old. The irony is that people in fashion are often self-deprecatory, self-aware and in on the joke so it’s pointless to poke fun at them. Egos are worn like fur coats, tantrums thrown like tiaras. Fashion literally is a COSTUME DRAMA. Just sit back and observe, the theatre will play out by itself. No script. No plot. No faux audience applause. Just a carnival of the sublime and the ridiculous.
When Linda Evangeslista quipped that she and her supermodel friends wouldn’t get out of bed for less that $10000 (or was it $20000?) there was moral outrage. How dare they!! All they had to do was look beautiful or walk in a straight line and try not to fall off the end of the catwalk! How difficult could that be? Well beautiful women have often proven to be our greatest wits. Mae West, Marilyn Monroe… We just prefer to think of them as dimwits instead. Perhaps it helps us come to terms with our uneasiness about their beauty and the resultant self-doubt it can cause us. Just deserts. You might have flawless bone structure but you are utterly banal.
What I liked about Catwalk, and perhaps seeing it for the first time now has a lot to do with this, is that it reminded me of the time when I became truly obsessed with fashion. I used to rip out shoots of the supers from Vogue and, ahem, Hello! magazine and dream. Those girls were beautiful. Not to say that models today aren’t but there was something special about that period. There was a sense of freedom and possibility. Fashion was fun. A specatacle and spectacular. And the girls were so individualistic. Linda’s changing hair styles, Christy’s doe-eyed pulchritude, Naomi’s power stomp, Helena’s smouldering gaze, Nadja’s terrifying height, Kate’s waifish defiance. They were all infinitely memorable. Things are different now. People are more interested in what the models wear on and off the catwalk than the models themselves. Hollywood stole the limelight and now editors and stylists have more kudos. Apart from a few models I struggle to connect name with face of the current generation. Maria Carla Boscono, Gisele Bundchen, Natalia V and Natasha V are notable exceptions in both personality and catwalk presence. There’s a backstory there that holds my interest.
The supermodels were self-obsessed and narcissistic but who wouldn’t be if the whole world constantly told you that you were beautiful? Its a redundant criticism. It was their job to look beautiful. And they shared the same insecurities about their bodies like us less prettier mortals. When Turlington remarks that only Naomi Campbell would look great in a particularly skimpy outfit as “nothing moved” – in reference to Campbell’s taut physique – you get the sense that even great beauties have their Achillies Heel. Carla Bruni perhaps struggled the most to come to terms with her superstardom. Her haughty presence revealed a lot about her upper class background and intellectual leanings. She poked the most fun at herself and her “sisters”. Apparently brains and beauty couldn’t inhabit the same body. Christiansen seemed preoccupied with ageing when she commented that models were getting younger and younger: “Twenty one!” Compare that with the stampede of 16 year old Eastern European steeds that now careen down the catwalk! Worries about weight and age plagued even these goddesses!
I think Maslin’s review of Catwalk belies an uneasiness at women being judged and praised just on their looks. However, these women were incredibly smart businesswomen. They knew that the party wouldn’t last forever so they diversified. After all, isn’t Carla Bruni now the first lady of France? The bottom line is that these women made a lot of money for the brands they modelled for. Why shouldn’t they get a fair slice of the pie without being viewed as mercenary? It seems totally against feminism to expect them to be insecure about their beauty and take a smaller pay cut because they didn’t really do that much apart from pout. I really wish I worked in fashion during those crazy days. Compared to now it was a blast, laugh all you may.
The Ugly Business of Being Beautiful.
click here to read Janet Maslin’s 1996 review for The New York Times.