Wan Phing Lim

Writer . Editor . Author

Fashion, power and identity

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Here is a copy of VOGUE China (July 2008) that I received from a friend who has just returned from Beijing. Giselle looks stunning in this blue Burberry dress – blue and blonde are one of my favourite combinations, and I’m all for big bracelets at the moment.

VOGUE China launched in September 2005, with its first issue featuring models Gemma Ward and Du Juan on the cover.

My real interest lies in looking at the differences between the VOGUE editions all around the world and finding out the cultural considerations they have to tailor to each edition. How do they decide on the mix of local and foreign content, and what issues can be deemed universal to women all over the globe?

Another is in the use of local and foreign models, and the perceptions of beauty that readers hold towards models of their own race and those that are not. Do Chinese readers want to see more Chinese or foreign models on the cover of VOGUE China? Can the number of Chinese models against foreign models be a good indicator of that? Are readers’ perception of beauty influenced by who the magazine puts on its cover?

If MTV looks the same all around the world, should VOGUE magazine too?

There is no doubt that fashion magazines are an influential medium as they dictate the trends of the season. They are fashion bibles to those who keenly follow, and keep them informed of the latest developments in the fashion and beauty industry.

The amount of influence that an international fashion magazine like VOGUE holds is surpassing. Its advice is taken, its recommendations obeyed, its judgements in matters of taste highly sought after.

Fashion magazines have the ability to stir desires, to change opinions and to uphold standards.

Designers, commissioners, photographers and editors are revered in the industry and by fans of the products they produce and represent.

These glossy pages create a world that allow its readers to live their lives in. As Stanley Tucci aptly sums it up in The Devil Wears Prada, “This is not just a magazine. This is a shining beacon of hope!”

The hope it gives is a hope in materialism. The hope is that the functions of these materials will improve our lives, make us prettier, shinier, sexier, younger, better. New styles are being designed, old ones are being recycled and making ‘comebacks’, all the while giving readers the belief that there is more to strive for, more to desire for.

In one of my favourite scenes from The Devil Wears Prada, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) launches into a 199-word diatribe when her new personal assistant Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) condescendingly dismisses two blue belts as looking exactly the same. The room grows quiet and everyone turns to look at her in unbelief.

“You know, I’m still learning about this stuff and…” she stumbles.
“‘This stuff’?” by now Miranda is offended. “Oh, okay, I see.”

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“You go to your closet and you select that lumpy blue sweater because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue. It’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean.

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“And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns and then it was Yves Saint Laurent who showed cerulean military jackets. Then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you no doubt fished it out of some clearance bin.

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“However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs. And it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room… from a pile of ‘stuff’.”

I will never go so far as to dismiss the influence of the fashion industry to the average man or woman shopping for an item of clothing. In fact, I believe the opposite is true. The fashion industry is a form of power that has such a stronghold on the layman to the extent that he or she does not even realise it.

The implication of allowing oneself to be shaped by such a medium is significant. Fashion and beauty may not be areas that are overtly political, but one will find that cultural discourses cannot be excluded from the discourses of power.

The structure of power that flows top-down from the creators of the industry (fashion houses, corporations) to the consumers is an important one that concerns the individual’s identity.

The purpose of this structure is to dominate, restructure and command authority over the identity. They are a form of power to control the modes of representation and the articulation of identities – to shape, to affect, to determine, to impose.

From a racial/cultural point of view, it could be seen as a form of cultural hegemony from a fashion industry that is still fundamentally Eurocentric.

The immense influence and the very often devastating effects such a power structure could bring to individuals is alarming, to the point where there is complete oblivion of its workings.

Robert Cox wrote in Gramsci, Hegemony and International Relations: An Essay in Method (1983): “Hegemony is like a pillow – it absorbs the enemy’s blows but soon enough the enemy will find it comfortable to rest upon.”

The aim is not to fall asleep.

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3 comments on “Fashion, power and identity

  1. hafsharanson
    March 2, 2009

    hi Wan Phing!how are u?it’s been ages since i last heard from u. hope life is good for u overthere (i’m sure it is 🙂 ) i love reading ur blog. so keep on blogging yeah..hehe.take care n God bless. miss u!! XX

  2. janice
    March 6, 2009

    eh, faster update your blog! why always fashion power and identity only one?!? x

  3. janice
    March 6, 2009

    p.s: im sick of seeing giselle bundchen everytime i open your website. hur..

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This entry was posted on February 25, 2009 by and tagged , , .

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