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The March 2009 Fashions and Features of American Vogue: an Intersection of Gender and Technology

Superficial. A waste of time. Perpetuating an impossible idea of beauty. These are just some common misconceptions of the fashion industry. I say “misconceptions” because I realize now that these negative opinions of fashion stem from some personal insecurity of the observer. Let me just establish this now: my paper is not going to be all about the current body type and weight trends of the models. So if you are here for some juicy scandal, read something else. I understand the hoopla concerning models and BMI and why there are not any voluptuous women gracing the pages of American Vogue. But wait. Refer to the March 2007 cover of Vogue with Jennifer Hudson as the cover girl and you will see that the magazine is not all about “thin is in”.

I see fashion as performance art. Everyday I can take on a different persona just by wearing the clothes usually associated with that particular persona. I can be a girly-girl with a cotton prairie skirt and pink heels. The next day I can be prep school boyish with a crisp, seersucker button-down shirt, straight pants, and loafers. Fashion to me is about inspiration and not about complete emulation. When I see a model in a dress designed in a way I’ve never seen before, I think: “Hey, that’s a fabulous dress. I’ll see if I can find one like it”. I do not, however, think: “I need that exact dress. I’m going to eat Elax and starve myself ‘til I become Skeletor incarnate so I can squeeze myself into that exact dress in that exact size”. Seriously. For anyone who constantly blames the fashion industry for perpetuating an unhealthy ideal of beauty: Get a grip, stop being insecure, and see the beauty that is not just on the surface but is also contained within. I am surprised we had not discussed fashion in Gender and Technology because we often use clothes to identify ourselves and to signify to everyone else who we are—even our gender. The fact that we allot so much meaning into clothes makes fashion multifaceted and rich (and not just in the multibillion dollar way either).

At the head of American fashion is British-born Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue. As editor-in-chief of the golden standard of women’s fashion magazines, Ms. Wintour is both servant and master to the machine that is the fashion industry. While she does have considerable influence over trends, she does not have the power to dictate what should and should not be included in every item of clothing on the runway. The designers are what fuel the industry. Their 3-Dimensional artistic pieces are what direct the trends. Ms. Wintour can only work with the clothes put on the runways and it is her job along with creative director, Grace Coddington, to interpret the underlying idea(s) of several collections and present said idea(s) through fashion spreads. It is her job to stick her finger in the winds of fashion to figure out where fashion is headed—to interpret the meaning(s) behind the clothes and present an issue or two that serves as the mouthpiece for the underlying idea(s). These ideas all revolve around the idea of woman—what it means to be a woman this season. I say “this season” because styles change. The idea of the gender binary and the meaning of womanhood have also evolved (see my blog, Is Feminism Dead?). I believe that Anna Wintour, who inserts herself into every issue of Vogue, presents a fascinating intersection of gender and technology, gender being the idea of a woman and technology being fashion and the magazine. Through Vogue, a form of media, Ms. Wintour uses technology to communicate what it means to be a contemporary woman and while at times clothing featured reinforces gender norms, at other times it breaks them. Take for instance the current issue of Vogue (March 2009). In the spread I Love the Nightlife, features women on a night out in the city in short strapless dresses, one being a bustier dress (Vogue, 468-469). Later looks feature miniskirts, dramatic necklines, more short dresses, and more strapless dresses all with the intention of showcasing the woman’s body—her legs, her bust, and her silhouette. This spread, in other words, reinforces the gender stereotypes of the female as having a body to be objectified. However in the next spread entitled Boy Meets Girl, pieces that are “preppy and winsome” and “menswear-informed” (Vogue, 479) offer male-inspired attire cut for the feminine figure. The spread does not feature androgynous or unisex clothing but rather displays clothes with a nautical/preppy theme in mind with patterns usually seen in menswear but cut to flatter a woman’s figure. The spectator shoes worn throughout the spread reiterates the masculine underlining in these clothes. As seen in these two fashion spreads, technology by way of fashion engenders us.

Though fashion has the power to engender women, I argue that fashion can also be engendered by women. In this March issue, the annual Power Issue, the goal here is to showcase women of power and strength in order to inspire other women to take hold of their lives and create their own paths. The clothing choices of Michelle Obama, First Lady and cover girl of this issue, reflect her strong and empowered character.

As first lady, Michelle Obama is encouraged and expected to wear age-appropriate and stylish wear. Before becoming First Lady and even before meeting Barack, she was a self-made working woman—a “lawyer turned hospital administrator turned political right hand” (Vogue, 431). When she was a lawyer, she was even Barack’s boss and mentor (Vogue, 434). The clothes that she chooses reflect this working woman attitude. Clean-cut American clothes by designers such as Thakoon Panichgul, Jason Wu, Isabel Toledo, and Narciso Rodriguez embody her personal style as being professional, pragmatic, comfortable, and stylish. In her interview she admits: “ ‘I love clothes. First and foremost, I wear what I love. That’s what women have to focus on: what makes them happy and what makes them feel comfortable and beautiful. If I can have any impact, I want women to feel good about themselves and have fun with fashion’ ” (Vogue, 431). I cannot help but feel that many American women will look to her for fashion advice as well as the fashion industry. In a time of economic struggle, Michelle Obama does not opt for haute couture and ostentatious clothes—she never has. Instead she is practical which is essential given our economic standing. As Anna Wintour stresses in her “Letter from the Editor”, it is the time to shop wisely. Ms. Wintour says: “Our editors have been thinking about the one or two (or three) items that women can buy and wear multiple times a week and for years to come. This is the season to buy a single, perfect pair of shoes, or khaki jacket that sneaks you through to next fall. It’s a time to sharpen your personal aesthetic and discover your innermost notions about your style, and a perfect moment to dwell on value and values: how garments are made, where they are made, and why they cost what they cost” (Vogue, 178). These practical fashions of Michelle Obama send the message that the contemporary women should be aware of the world yet uncompromising in her style. And I see that fashion designers will take notice of her style and try to copy it for their future collections. Michelle Obama whether she realizes it or not, is using her notions of what a contemporary American is and projects these notions through her clothes. Her fashion choices, in turn, are influencing the direction of the fashion industry to make clothes that are wearable, versatile, and comfortable.

I see that fashion is very much intertwined in the intersection between gender and technology. Clothes both reflect who we are and show who we can be. Michelle Obama is practical and stylish. In light of our current economic situation, we can be practical and stylish. Clothes also both reinforce and break gender norms. We can be the partying sex objects of the I Love the Nightlife spread or we can be the slightly boyish femme in the Boy Meets Girl spread. And while the technology of fashion has often been seen to inform what women should be, I see that in the personal style of Michelle Obama, she is telling the fashion industry what the contemporary American woman should be.


Talley, Andre Leon. “Leading Lady.” Vogue

Mar. 2009: 428+

Wintour, Anna. “Vision Quests.” Vogue

Mar. 2009: 170+

I Love the Nightlife. Photographed by Mario Testino

Mar. 2009: 467-477.

Boy Meets Girl. Photographed by Patrick Demarchelier

Mar. 2009: 478-487.

Here is a preview of the Sundance Channel’s documentary on the inner workings of Vogue entitled The September Issue. Fashion=machine, technology. Gender in this magazine= how women are portrayed.

One Response
  1. March 20, 2009

    I disagree with you about the connection between fashion and women’s self-esteem and other perception problems and I think you’re too dismissive of it and perhaps it really doesn’t have anything to do with your topic.

    That said, the more I think about this paper, the more intriguing it is. I really do wish you had included the photos from the spread as seeing them would support much of what you say and/or allow your readers to determine for themselves whether they do or don’t support gender norms. I am, in general, intrigued by the social constructs that fashion creates. I think your paper tries to address some of those in an interesting way. I wonder, though, how much Anna Wintour and the inner workings of Vogue have to do with those constructs. Perhaps Wintour is behind choosing the spreads, but beyond that, I wonder how linked the two things are.

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