I was nervous as I sat down to watch the first episode of Richard Macer's two part BBC2 documentary Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue, shown last Thursday at 9pm (the second part is on this Thursday at the same time). It sounded so promising. To mark the centenary year of this world famous fashion bible, Macer filmed the UK Vogue office and its staff for nine months. This was the first time in the publication's history that such behind the scenes access had been granted. As a long-time Vogue reader and a magazine junkie who has forged a career out of reading and writing about them, I was intrigued to see what the programme would reveal but also concerned about the approach that Macer might take. Alas my fears were justified.
The title provided the first clue. Absolutely Fashion is wordplay on Absolutely Fabulous, the BBC comedy series and recent movie that sends up the fashion world by picking out its most ridiculous elements and exaggerating them further. Surely Macer could not be suggesting that the world of Vogue is as silly and ludicrous as the imaginary realm of Eddie and Patsy?
The inclusion of an interview with the fictional Eddie and Patsy in the second episode indicates that he may actually think so. Furthermore, Macer does not appear to take his subject seriously.
Throughout the first programme, he assumes a tone which conveys at best feigned naivety or at worst lack of research. For example, when given the rare opportunity to speak to Kate Moss, he came out with the banal 'How many Vogue covers have you been on?' - a question easily answered by Google.
Macer's apparent attitude reflects a broader lack of respect for cultural forms associated with women. Both fashion and magazines fall under this umbrella, and Macer emphasizes femininity both directly and indirectly. He observes that the usual workplace gender ratio is inverted at Vogue, with only a small number of men in the office - and they are shown as peripheral figures, leaning over desks not sat at them. Moreover, he presents viewers with a stereotypically feminine concern for the personal. Much of the programme's focus is on Alexandra Shulman, the magazine's editor, but rather than hearing about her success during her twenty-five year reign at Vogue's helm, we get an interview with her mother.
In concentrating on Shulman, Macer draws on a common fashion industry stereotype, that of the icy and aloof editor, as epitomized by Miranda Priestly in Laura Weisberger's 2003 novel The Devil Wears Prada (played by Meryl Streep in the film adaptation). Lingering shots that solicit nervous laughter from the staff, images of Shulman alone in her office and awkward silences in editorial meetings all depict her as a Priestly type figure. Regardless of whether this is the case or not, by sticking to this focus on company politics, Macer rehashes well-trodden territory rather than discussing the wider power dynamics that were ripe for analysis. It was left to Twitter commentators to note the lack of ethnic and racial diversity among office staff; their homogeneous class background likewise went unmentioned.
Furthermore even the narrative of female power is undercut by a scene where we see the older white men of Vogue's parent company, Condé Nast, making critical decisions that override the views of the younger female magazine staffers.
Without this broader analysis, the documentary fulfills some of the staffers' concerns that it would portray them as only interested in blusher. There is little depth and equally little context. There is, for instance, no mention of the almost 800,000 fashion-related jobs held by British workers in 2014 - a figure comparable to the number employed by the automotive industry in the same year. Nor is there reference to the UK's domestic fashion market, which has a value of £66 billion and is worth £7.5 billion to the country's export takings. Globally the fashion industry accounts for 2 percent of GDP, with the womenswear market alone totaling $621 billion. This economic significance was deftly communicated in the 'blue sweater' scene in the 2006 The Devil Wears Prada film, but it passes by un-noted in the Absolutely Fashion documentary. Instead the programme relies on hackneyed stereotypes and superficial commentary. There is no value given to fashion, nor is fashion valued.
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