Shopping, Style, And Snobbery: We’re Lucky

Lynne Kiesling

In catching up on the mail and newspaper yesterday after returning home, I was excited to read Virginia Postrel’s Wall Street Journal Weekend section column on shopping and fashion magazines (subscription required). Virginia sees an independence and creativity in the emergence and popularity of shopping magazines relative to old fashion stalwarts like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar:

Shopping magazines don’t dilute their celebration of shoes, gadgets, sweaters, handbags and makeup with articles on politics, celebrities or art. That makes it easy to sneer at them. Critics call these publications “magalogs,” charging that they’re little more than catalogs. Lucky doesn’t even have real articles, grouse prestige journalists, just glorified captions. Even Kim France, Lucky’s editor in chief, acknowledges that the magazine’s photography is “very literal,” with none of the artistic ambition of Fashion photography with a capital F.

For all their blatant materialism, however, Lucky and its kin actually represent cultural progress. Their unabashed presentation of goods as material pleasures keeps materialism in its place. They don’t encourage readers to equate fashion with virtue or style with superiority. They’re sharing fun, not rationing status.

That last point is the most important of all: the realization of the idea that shopping as a process is itself fun, and that the process of creating your own look instead of aspiring to what the magazines tell you that you should want to buy is fun and empowering. And these shopping magazines are much less elitist and less hierarchical than the old guard fashion magazines.

The shopping magazines reverse the relationship between reader and editor. In traditional publications, the reader’s goal is to emulate the editor’s style, to admire the people she admires, to read the books she reads, to wear the things she wears. Thus every issue of Vogue has a section called “People Are Talking About,” to let you know what books, movies, art exhibits, restaurants and so forth the in-crowd deems essential. Traditional fashion magazines tell readers not just what to buy but what to value. [emphasis added — LK]

But in the shopping magazines, the editor represents the reader, serving not as arbiter but as agent. Lucky effectively uses photos of its various editors, and their first-person voices, to emphasize personal style and individual passions. Instead of dos and don’ts, ins and outs, it offers “What I want NOW” and “Our Obsessions.” Editors come across as fellow enthusiasts. They know more than their readers not because they’re superior creatures but because they get paid to look for really great stuff.

This is great because it makes finding a great piece, a great bargain, a great pair of shoes that are also affordable and comfortable, a collaborative and congenial activity. There’s a sense of empathy, of “we’re in this together” between reader and editor because each one knows how wonderful it feels to find that perfect pair of pants that makes you feel like you’re queen of the universe. The old guard fashion magazine continues to be about aspiration, about status difference between the subjects of the features (and, by extension, the editors) and the readers themselves. There’s no empathy, no sense of conspiratorial glee in finding that you can put together your expensive Marc Jacobs jeans with a very cool $12 Old Navy top and create a really cool look, for example. And that these looks are individual.

It turns the aspiration from one of status by emulating the rich and famous to one of aspiring to apply your own creativity and enjoy the process of putting it all together, and feeling great about how you look and how you achieved it when all is said and done.

[Side note: this is also a big reason why I knit. Original pieces, personally tailored]

In fact, I subscribed to Vogue for years, but I cancelled it when I realized that I didn’t give a hoot about what “People Are Talking About” and the only features I was reading were Jeffrey Steingarten’s food and cooking articles (which are fabulous). I find that when I buy a fashion magazine these days it’s likely to be In Style, Lucky, or Allure. Virginia’s column on Friday articulated to me why my behavior has shifted.

UPDATE: Virginia’s posted the link, so even non-subscribers can read it, yay.