~ MY OPINIONS ON BRET EASTON ELLIS’ OPINIONS ~
In his recent op-ed for Vogue Italia, Glamorama 2020, Bret Easton Ellis reminisces about the fashion world in the nineties. For him, it was a time when the supermodel reigned supreme; a time when access into their glamorous sartorial world was so exclusive ‘regular’ folk could only peer in through the glossy blinds of fashion magazines. This was the very world in which his novel, Glamorama (1998), was set. Ellis asserts that the themes in his book would not translate in today’s society because millennials (of which, admittedly, I am one) are too preoccupied with inclusivity, apparently favouring the collective over the individual, and ideology over aesthetics. And he is not impressed.
What would Glamorama look like today in a culture seemingly obsessed with inclusivity and the idea of groupthink over the individual and valuing ideology over aesthetics? Where a sizeable faction thinks everyone should be equal with one another?BOF translated excerpt of Glamorama 2020
This is a world where the body positivity movement says all bodies are beautiful and if you don’t find a heavy-set woman or a plus-sized model attractive, you are in fact body-shaming her and need to be cancelled. If everyone is beautiful then nobody is beautiful. But the groupthink of Millennials doesn’t realise this yet.
Ellis’ perspective reeks of white male privilege and an expiration date that reads ‘Best Before: 1999’. The negative sentiments Ellis imparts upon the societal evolution of this century, which he sees as threatening to burst the fashion bubble, are transitions commonly heralded as progress. The ability to interrogate, or challenge, our conceptualisations of the trending aesthetic is actually beneficial. Having access to diversity, or ‘inclusivity’, in the art and fashion we consume helps to remove the blinkers. And body positivity can surely only mean we might just hate ourselves a little bit less?
Ellis laments we are a generation that values ideology over aesthetics. But why do these two things need to be mutually exclusive or, worse, pitted against each other? If anything, doesn’t ideology help inform and bolster art? The concept of aesthetics doesn’t separate art from ideology, it lends weight to art through ideology. In the Western world alone, our political ‘leaders’ ooze hate towards women and other minority groups: from wall-building Trump grabbing women “by the pussy”; Brexit-loving Boris Johnson dehumanising Muslim women in burquas by calling them “letterboxes”; to ScoMo wanting the advancement of women only if it’s not at the expense of men. Seeing the error of so many voters, it stands to reason that art and culture reflect a popularly-held desire for change.
This call to change is trickling from the very top of the fashion food chain, down. Lagerfeld staged a feminist rally, led by Cara Delevingne, as part of his 2015 spring campaign for Chanel. The following year Maria Grazia Chiuri (Dior’s first female creative director) brought feminism to the brand through her shows, her interviews, and her famous luxury slogan t-shirts emblazoned with feminist quotes from inspiring women. Gucci’s ‘Cruise 2020’ show championed women’s reproductive rights, channeled through a variety of garments sent down the runway, including a dress decorated with a beautiful embroidered uterus.
And it doesn’t end with women’s rights. In a landscape tarnished by unfair labour, global warming, and destructive gender norms, brands have been strengthening their accountability. Designers like Stella McCartney and Mara Hoffman have been leading the charge in ethical and sustainable clothing practices for years. Newcomers like Social Work and Melbourne’s own Arnsdorf are paving the way for brand transparency, attaching costings for materials and labour to each garment, on their websites.
Some brands go further. Outdoor clothing label, Patagonia, wielding their own profits as a weapon, recently sued the Trump administration over their attempt to reduce two public monuments in the US. On a regular day, the company employs an eighteen person team dedicated to activism and the distribution of grants.
To Ellis, this is not advancement, it is homogenisation: everyone is following and no one is leading. The nineties, not the present, “stressed the superior individuality of the designer and also of the individuality of the models who wore the clothes.” Moving from the designer to those who wear designer’s clothes, Ellis’ also delves into ideals of beauty. He insists that the supermodels of the nineties were superior due to their looks,
“Their beauty made them incredibly exclusive…The Supermodel: impossibly beautiful women…who were the dazzling faces that dominated and defined the industry in the 1990s; goddesses and gods, not unlike the models that roam Glamorama.”
In a hetero context, beauty has never been something prescribed to men in order for them to be granted access into the ‘exclusive’ upper echelons of society. Ellis himself, a very average looking white male, exemplifies this: touring the fashion scenes of Paris, London, Manhattan and Milan, admitted into this insular world, as a means of collecting fodder for his book. If he wasn’t allowed in the club, I wonder, would he have different ideas about access?
Identifying as female, I welcome a world where a woman’s merit is no longer based on her appearance: her weight, her skin colour, her age, her fertility. Shouldn’t creativity, ingenuity and kindness be the currency for acceptance and validity for all human beings? This is harder to earn than simply being born beautiful (or white, or male). So wouldn’t that make someone even more exclusive: being required to tick more boxes before being welcomed into the fashion fold?
You only need to glance at the cover of British Vogue’s upcoming September Issue to realise there is a deeper channel surging through so many of the women within the fashion sphere today. Fittingly, it will be released less than a month after the publication of Ellis’ opinion piece, with many non-models, from diverse backgrounds, gracing the cover. Megan Markle, who co-edited the British September Issue with Edward Enninful (the first POC editor of any edition of Vogue) said her aim was to choose, “trailblazing change-makers, united by their fearlessness in breaking barriers.”
The dismantling of physical beauty as the core of femininity is not new to our generation. Feminist scholars such as Simone de Beauvoir have philosophised on the topic of the aesthetic dimensions of female life for decades. And de Beauvoir was not the first: many great thinkers were vocal on the subject long before Ellis was even born. Simone de Beauvoir in her book, The Second Sex, went one step further and looked at how unrealistic constructs of beauty can hinder the progress of women not only emotionally but also physically:
“Costumes and styles are often devoted to cutting off the feminine body from activity; Chinese women with their bound feet could scarcely walk, the polished fingernails of the Hollywood star deprive her of her hands; high heels, corsets, panniers, farthingales, crinolines were intended less to accentuate the curves of the feminine body than to augment its incapacity.”
Ellis interrogates the beauty ideals of the twenty-first century as if they are something new and foreign. He rejects the idea of inclusion stating that, “If everyone is beautiful then nobody is beautiful.” The idea of beauty today has broadened by definition and definitely encompasses more diversity. But said diversity only frays marginally outside of the skinny, white, cis-women, with flawless skin and perfect teeth whom according to Ellis, “didn’t look like anyone else and this was what made them so special”. Consider the current generation of women fashion has birthed: Winnie Harlow, Andreja Pejić, Zumi Rosow, Ashley Graham, and Adwoa Aboah, all swaddled in the industry’s biggest names.
Although diverse, and less barbie-doll perfect, these women are all still long-legged and doe-eyed, with cheekbones so sharp they could poke an eye out (if only your eye was high enough to be intersected by said cheekbone!). It will never be you on that runway but at least somebody like you is up there representing your tribe, whether you’re a woman of colour, queer, transgender, plus-sized, living with a disability, or older.
Ellis at least agrees that increased diversity is a good thing when it comes to the colour of one’s skin, “Some things have undoubtedly improved: it is more heterogeneous than before, when there seemed to be only two black supermodels (Naomi and Tyra), a model (Tyson) and no one else.” But his idea of diversity is limited to only one minority, one demographic, rather than the myriad underrepresented, and misrepresented, groups out there. Having more diversity in the art and fashion we consume, allows our social lens to zoom out from that familar close-up shot, the one informed by the white cis-male gaze, and bring into focus demographics we may not have previously considered. You cannot support, encourage, and learn from what you don’t know even exists.
We also need to take into account that more exposure of these underrepresented groups does not always equate to equity. On this topic, writer Arabelle Sicardi, in her correspondence with Fashionista, makes an important point:
“We’ve definitely had more visibility this year for people of colour and gender non-conforming people, but that isn’t necessarily to say these chosen models are getting equal payment or, you know, real equity for their participation. Visibility isn’t equity [and] representation doesn’t pay the bills, literally. [It’s] super helpful to just make someone’s life easier in a material way rather than congratulating them for being ‘brave’ and ‘out there’ when doing so can make their lives more difficult and expose them to a lot of hate on the internet.”
Ellis insists that the membership policy to the once exclusive fashion club has been adulterated, the internet and social media its malefactors:
“Few people in the mid 90s, when Glamorama is set, had access to the glamorous and enigmatic world of fashion. Except for the designers themselves and their models, fashion editors and certain celebrities, it was a closed-off world only glimpsed in magazines and the occasional video.”
To exemplify this he refers to the Met Gala where the public can now not only live stream the event, they can also comment in real-time. That said, the Met Gala is still an invitation only event. The very people who get to attend are “designers themselves and their models, fashion editors and certain celebrities”, exactly the same posse who frequented fashion events in the nineties. The fact that people can peer into this exclusive world, via social media, does not make it any less exclusive. If anything it exacerbates it, like Tantalus forever tormented in Tartarus. Looking into this elite club through the glass screen of your phone is like peeking in through a window onlooking a party to which you’re not invited, a warm fog from your breath clouding your already obscured view.
Ellis should not grieve, Glamorama does not seem to be going out of fashion. The main shift of this century has been an explosion of technology and, through that, connectivity. This has aided in further removing us ‘plebs’ from the models, designers, and celebrities roaming the fashion plains. However, what Ellis didn’t anticipate was that the antidote would come from the poison: connectivity has brought different groups together by handing us a more diverse backdrop to our everyday life. It has also afforded people more opportunities to feel ‘heard’.
Ellis elaborates on the purpose of the protagonist in his book, male model Victor Ward, describing him as a metaphor for American culture in the nineties: a superficial time where people were not interested in burrowing any deeper than the shiny outer layer. He writes,
For me, Ward was a metaphor, a symbol, of where we were in America in that moment when it seemed a culture was only finding meaning in sliding down the surface of things as U2 sang in their 1991 song “Even Better Than The Real Thing.” For me, Victor Ward was something literary: a warning.
Acknowledging there is a problem is the first step towards a solution, and the first two decades of the twenty-first century has been a time of heeding that warning. I believe we have started digging deeper, pushing towards change. 2020 is on the horizon and it is a welcome shift towards equality, accountability, awareness, and acceptance. Many might even proclaim that this is not sad!