The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Joseph Weissman Headshot

Vogue: Anna Wintour and Political Fashion

Posted: Updated:

In 2010, Syria was perceived by much of the Left, as a nice country helping the Palestinians, which is becoming modern, has an English connection, and is generally a great place. In 2011, people began to realise that Syria is actually quite nasty, because it has a murderous dictator who frequently committed massacres and war crimes.

It is tough to keep up with fashion trends - none more so in politics.

Vogue magazine ought to be a leader in the world of fashion and style, yet it was caught out in 2011 when it tried to portray the Assad family as a modern, open, 21st century family. Of Asma Al Assad - the dictator's wife - we read in Vogue that she was:

"glamorous, young, and very chic--the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies...a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement."

Last year, Vogue published the infamous "Rose in the Desert" piece on Asma al-Assad, in February 2011. The article was published by Vogue in print, and then left online for two months.

Vogue deleted the article after noon on the 30 April 2011, over a month after publishing the piece. That same week, Lord Bell told The Guardian that Bell Pottinger had engaged in PR work for Assad:

"Syria's new president seemed then, almost a decade ago, a plausible figure, uncertain and almost modest, an impression encouraged by the marketing of him in the west by the British PR agency Bell Pottinger. [...] That early image is one that Assad and his wife have continued to promote assiduously, most recently in an interview given by Syria's first lady to a gushing Vogue magazine, which included pictures of Assad playing with his sons."

Perhaps wary of the exposé of PR firms embellishing the image of the Syrian regime, Vogue deleted their article. A guilty conscience, of sorts.

It would later emerge that Vogue had worked with another PR firm in writing this article:

"According to records filed with the Department of Justice, in November 2010 the strategic communications agency landed a $5,000-a-month contract in which it "liased" between Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad and Vogue."

Of course, if the piece had been published in the same month that Vogue had struck the deal with Brown Lloyd James, there would have been no negative consequences. In November 2010, Syria still had the aura of peace and loveliness. For example, US Democrats led by John Kerry were working with Syria to negotiate peace talks with Israel. A few years prior, ABC had published an interview with President Assad, highlighting his modern Arab regime. Academics formed ties with Syrian educational institutions, and were convinced that Syria would become more and more democratic.

By February 2011, the game had changed. The Arab Spring was in its nascent, most hopeful stages, and talk turned towards Syria, as the potential epicentre of the next wave of objections to autocracy. Facebook groups began popping up, promising an end to the dictatorship, calling for mass protests.

It was March 2011 when the Syrian uprising truly began, and when also people began noticing the article in Vogue. Even before factoring in the growing shadow of her husband's tyranny, the Vogue piece was itself an exercise in blandishment. As awareness grew about the Syrian situation, the superlatives used to describe Asma al-Assad in Vogue seemed evermore crass and sickening.

Yet Vogue's editor would come to "disown" Asma al-Assad. Said Anna Wintour in the New York Times, 10 June 2012:

"Like many at that time, we were hopeful that the Assad regime would be open to a more progressive society. Subsequent to our interview, as the terrible events of the past year and a half unfolded in Syria, it became clear that its priorities and values were completely at odds with those of Vogue. The escalating atrocities in Syria are unconscionable and we deplore the actions of the Assad regime in the strongest possible terms."

Strangely, this piece appeared the same day that Anna Wintour was revealed to be a huge Obama funder, amidst rumours in the US and British press that Wintour might become a London ambassador for Obama, as a reward. The piece appeared just days after Wintour released a campaign video for Obama. These were Wintour's first public comments on the Assad piece, and they coincided with her more prominent role in US politics.

Yet as Wintour's career has ascended, the writer of the piece commissioned by Wintour was released from Vogue, and has tried to explain why she wrote the "Rose in the Desert" article to Newsweek. She has largely been met with ridicule.

It is apparent that Anna Wintour has sought to follow political fashion trends. (As much as one would yearn for these not to exist, it would be folly to pretend that they do not). She tried to stay in vogue by praising the Assads when they were cool, but by the time she had published "Rose in the Desert", Asma was so 2010 darling. When it became trendy to expose Western ties to Syria, Wintour tried to erase all traces of hers. Finally, when Wintour herself became a trendy news topic, she addressed the issue, expressed regret, and sought to move on.

Whilst keeping up appearances, Wintour might wish to apologise to the Vogue readership, for having hopelessly attempted to guide them along the treacherous trends of political fashion.

She should have stuck to clothes and jewellery.