If You Don't Know Now
“If you don’t know now, I guess you never will. Haven’t you spoken to everybody?” Grace Coddington sighs with mild impatience. She appears near the end of a string of seconds-long bits, fashion editors at Vogue being asked what a fashion editor does. Coddington sits close to the wide angle in a kitchen, her red hair wide, her shirt green, her designer sink spout prominent in the frame. “I didn’t even know that they existed,” offers Camilla Nickerson, smiling and looking off screen before she nearly pitches out of frame. “I can’t answer that question, it would take too long,” says Phyllis Posnick, farther back in the frame, black slacks and sweater on a white sofa, with white coffee table and super-stylish chair-and-lamp perfectly arranged around her. “How we get there is almost impossible to explain.”
And so In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye begins, partly reverent and partly antic. It’s an appropriate mix, leaving the insiders to seem elusive and focused, women artists who understand themselves as such, or perhaps as art embodied. “They give us access to another world, they give us access to dreams,” enthuses Nicole Kidman, “It’s our way of living in a different world for a short period of time, and how beautiful is that?” She spreads her hands as she speaks, so immaculately made up and gorgeously outfitted that she illustrates her own point, pretending to live in that different world while also living in it too. As Kidman appears here, she’s us and not us, she’s them and not them.
It’s a paradox that defines and undefines “fashion,” as idea and industry. It’s only a moment into the film when Anna Wintour proclaims fashion “a reflection of our time. Fashion can tell you everything that’s going on in our world.” She would say that, of course, and she can afford to believe it, but the film grants her assessment some credence, however fleeting. Part of this fleeting effect emerges in the documentary’s structure: it briefly introduces a series of editors, deemed representatives of eras, or maybe just significant moments for the magazine, with interviews and examples of their work. Occasioned by the magazine’s 120th anniversary, this sort of overview is at once celebratory and mildly curious, more a spread in itself than a follow-around narrative like, say R.J. Cutler’s The September Issue.
That’s not to say the film is without questions. As various editors look back on their processes, they’re not so much explaining themselves or their art as they are reminding you of what you’ve likely already seen. Thus Coddington describes the thinking—sort of—behind the “Alice in Wonderland”: “Fairy stories are quite dark actually, so they’re interesting to illustrate.” Just so, the model Natalia Vodiiana asserts she’s a “big fan” of Coddington’s work, and appreciated the rigors of the Wonderland assignment: “She sent me the books to read before we did the shoot, there were months of research and conversation, and then I am the lucky one who gets to appear in the picture.”
While you might take such narrating as an indication that the pictures—still and always—speak for themselves, the film does gesture toward a couple of off-screen dilemmas, say, the tensions inherent in the work, for women. Both objects and subjects in the art, surrounded by men in an industry and culture that make well known demands, the women fashion editors here appear near film’s end as they assemble for a portrait of themselves, taken by Annie Leibovitz (those who speak make the predictable complaint, that they’re uncomfortable in front of the camera).
Those tensions sometimes erupt, as in the 1995 spread on “The Empowered Woman,” controversial for its depictions of models on crutches and wearing braces. Looking back now, editor Nickerson says of the higher-than-high heels at the spread’s center, “They’re meant to Indicate power and stature and they leave you immobile, but I love wearing them myself.” She sort of laughs, then adds, “People who were disabled found it offensive, but I thought it actually was sort of kind of quite handsome, in a way.”
It may be the case that the artist is not the best or only judge of art’s effects, that such effects resonate beyond intention or hope. It may also be that the specific art of fashion remains both misunderstood and too often dismissed, by those who make it and those who judge it.