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THE WORLD ACCORDING TO VOGUE: THE ROLE OF CULTURE(S) IN INTERNATIONAL FASHION MAGAZINES
© Helen Kopnina and Patricia Brien
Amsterdam Fashion Institute
First posted: 22 October 2006
Anthropologists are known to work in contexts wider than academic settings, actively engaging with people from other disciplines and professions. The lecturers in the Fashion institute where we presently work are challenged to integrate the practical knowledge and skills originating from the fashion industry into lessons, lectures and projects that prepare the students for their future careers. Our own task as anthropologist lecturers in Intercultural Communication and Culture and Globalization courses is to engrain broader knowledge in students to compliment the practical competencies required in professional settings. An example of the practical assignments asked of our students is integrating their knowledge of minority groups or other cultures in developing certain fashion brands that would appeal to different ethnic groups or social classes within own society or be marketable abroad. The deeper knowledge of segmentation, niche markets and specific target groups helps students to orient themselves in professional situations within the fashion industry. This requires an act of translation as well as transformation in order to translate the general (such as cultural theories) into the concrete (such as examples from the fashion industry) and to transform concrete examples and cases into broader theories. This article reflects on such acts of translation and transformation that serve as the basis for some of the courses we offer to our fashion students.
Social anthropologists tend to shun the ‘non-academics’ who deal with realities of the market, consumer behaviour and trend developments implying that their commercial orientation prohibits development of scientific theory. Anthropologists tend to shield their ivory tower from the supposedly polluting influences of their ‘more commercially oriented’ colleagues by branding their insights superficial and unworthy of serious attention.
Yet, culture and fashion are very closely interlinked, and the research done by anthropologists and consumer behaviour or marketing researchers can well compliment each other and add to joint knowledge (Bruzzi and Gibson, 2000; Davis, 2004). Both anthropologists and fashion industry practitioners are grappling with very similar issues, such as globalization vs. localization, culture vs. economic and industrial development, market forces vs. tradition, etc. Both tend to approach culture as a complex and dynamic whole rather than simplified or reified entity by specifying concrete examples from fieldwork or practice to illustrate cultural complexity. Methodologies, involving both qualitative and quantitative methods, also often overlap, offering a wealth of information at both macro and micro levels of analysis. These range from concrete examples of trends within the fashion industry and consumer behaviour within specific contexts, to greater insights into social processes underlying such trends and behaviour.
Formulating Questions on culture and fashion
As part of our course and the subject of this article, our main question is whether cultural and/or national factors play a role in fashion magazine’s placement within different countries. If so, we wish to identify some of such cultural or national variables.
This question is also related to the issue of global or international (as our chosen journal can be seen) vs. culturally or nationally specific (couleur locale, adaptability and sensitivity to local context). As in the case of both nationally and internationally distributed journals, their content is sensitive to its readers' general expectations of what a fashion journal should be about (independent of the country where it is issued) as well as sensitive to national context (for example, journals may include culturally acceptable standards of style, featuring local celebrities and avoiding sensitive or uncomfortable topics).
We were wondering, for example, about ‘global’ product advertisements, such as those for Channel #5: are these ‘using the same formula’ in all magazines or do they use local signifiers (by featuring local language, models, or themes, etc.) Are their differences in the content of featured ‘serious’ stories (on political, social, economic, and cultural topics, if any?) Can we speak of Vogue as exhibiting ‘brand personality’ (dependent on its country of origin)?
The magazines will be used as tools for exposing cultural differences and similarities by using the same ‘brand’ of magazine across different cultural markets. Students will be able to compare textual and visual signals between cultures with the standard international template of one magazine brand.
Researching cultural contexts of international fashion magazines.
In Vogue Futures Hutton (1994)analyses different contents of Vogue, such as visibles (skin, hair, nails, teeth, shape, make-up, style), physicals (brain, senses, breasts, heart, muscles and joints, etc.), practicals (al-aligning, moving, taking time out, eating, etc.), hormonals (sexuality, contraception, fertility, etc.), and psychologicals (attitudes, insights, expectations), etc.
The meaning of fashion symbols is often said to be ‘undercoded’, in a sense that fashion leaves lots of room for interpretation and contextual analysis (Davies, 1985). The meaning of European fashion in non-European societies, may be debated. McDowell speaks of fashion as the ‘imposition of a prevailing mode or shape’ (2000). Further, particularly high fashion, is an indulgent distinction from the majority, reflecting on power and status, as a ‘weapon wielded against the poor’ (1984:10). Taking this to the international level, Craik (2000) reflects that the fashion as an exercise of power continues to exist as European fashion is imposed upon non-Europeans (starting from colonial times) Yet, Craik argues, Western fashion is not unique in its exercise of power and distinction (2000: xi).
The editorial and feature content may be interpreted as the most explicit reference to the issues of (national) ownership and (local) audience. Editorial comments are also revealing of the tone, style and ‘personality’ of a particular national edition. Feature stories may provide critical commentary and reflection on issues considered important or interesting for local audiences.
Examining twelve ssues of Vogue magazines from previous year, we have discovered that the total pages in each magazine varies, ratio of editorial to advertising pages is significantly larger in the Russian followed by the British editions and smaller in French ones. The ratio of international branded goods to local goods in advertising pages was larger in British, followed by French editions.
Analysing advertisement matter is one way of getting at the underlying cultural assumptions. Advertisements are said to be both ubiquitous and inevitable part of our lives, reflecting and even shaping our culture (Williamson, 2002). However, individuals are not blinded or totally influenced by ads as these are seen as part of complex and often tacit manifestations of culture. The sheer range of advertisement matter may fail to address some or most of individuals’ choices, prompting Wood and Allan (2003) to postulate that ‘ads don’t work’. Critique of consumerism suggests that ads for certain products may only ‘click’ with the certain audience if there are real values or needs that these may satisfy (Robberts, 2000). We shall thus look at certain ads in Vogue neither searching for deep content nor assuming that the products themselves will create a global or local consumer identity. Rather, we will focus on the ads’ graphic features to reveal the differences or similarities in national or international style and presentation.
We shall also look at models and celebrities (either national or international) featured in the Vogues. Chan (1994) sees models as reflective of the postmodern condition as having a schizophrenic quality (her discontinuous presence), envied glamour, lack of subjectivity – in short, an ultimate object. Yet, models are also manifestations of ideals presently existing in societies, be they local ideals derived from the ideas of ‘traditional’, or authentic, or reflecting the supposedly universal or ‘Western’ ‘models’ (in this sense, being used as a ‘superhuman’ generic shape or even concept).
Representations of women in this edition are not overtly sexy or sexual. Women’s bodies are in general clothed and ‘safe’. There is also a distinct lack of powerful or creative Russian women in the pages.
An interview of particular interest is one featuring a Russian actor – Evgeny Mironov - who wears not only the international labels Dolce & Gabbanna and Dior Homme by Hedi Slimane but also sports in one shot a track suit replete with the 1980 Russian Olympic games insignia. He is captured in decidedly macho poses, displaying international savvy and local references by his clothing and is considered one of Russia’s charasmatic male celebrities of the moment.
In the Culture section, there is a new opera for the Bolshoi – Rosental’s Children – “a pseudo documentary strory from our Soviet past, with members of the Party and their favourite composers Chaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner.” (p. 417). Here the past masters are carrying the cultural torch for contemporary Russian society.
Interestingly there is a serious feature about xenophobia in Russian society without any accomanying images. In the Contributors list at the front, there is a picture of the journalist posing as the serious family man with his two children.
Advertising for local products, events etc was strictly minimal. There was one ad for Russian chocolate, the remaining ads were for international brands with a sprinkling of Russian boutiques selling international labels. The majority of the advertisements were for international luxury products using the standard international images. This perhaps indicates that the local (luxury) market is still underdeveloped and that the readership is focused on the promises of the main brands from the West.
In general French Vogue (April edition) is focused on the exterior world rather than domestic France. Notions of luxury long associated with France are referred to in a feature ‘Le Lustre du Luxe’ on Le Crillon hotel in Paris and highlighting the international celebrities like Madonna who stay at the hotel when visiting the capital.
There is an interview with the French author, Frédéric Beigbeder the author of L’égoïste romantique which has been referred to as the male version of the English novel Bridget Jones diary (an international bestseller and film). The other celebrity featured is Loulou de la Falaise – famed for her connection with YSL and party days at Studio 54 with Andy Warhol et al. There is also a feature article on the French film director Régis Wargnier about his new film, Man to Man, which tells the story of two pygmies captured in Africa and bought to Scotland at the end of the 19th century. The notion of local in most of the examples above are mostly tempered by notions of the local as reverred by the outside world, a kind of “us looking at them looking at us.”
Advertisements in the French vogue concerned with representations of the local were very much focused on clichèd icons of Paris. Histoires de L’Eau d’Issey has the perfume bottle substituting the heel of a stilletto shoe and posing as the tower in a model of the Tour Eiffel. This ad is also in British Vogue along with numerous other French luxury brands. Many of the local luxury brands are represented by models or actresses from elsewhere, for example, Kate Moss as the face of the perfume Coco Mademoiselle (Chanel) and the actress Liv Tyler for Very Irresistible by Givenchy.
In the April issue of British Vogue, the representation of local is much more infused with exotic others than the other editions, however, there is also a sense of clichèd Britishness. The return to fashion of floral decoration (long associated with a romanticised ideal of countryside England) brings back the “English Roses” and “petal power”. The Vogue Living section features London-based French stylist Florence Nicaise “telling Chloe Fox about hosting dinner parties with Parisian panache”.
An interesting difference to Russian and French Vogues (April) is the emphasis on women achievers and women with high-powered jobs. From women with dangerous jobs – Western women in foreign lands usually – in the article ‘Fear Factor’ to challenging jobs in the retail fashion sector like directors at exclusive stores like Liberty women are portrayed as positive, strong and financially independent. Also, levels of female nudity and general skin exposure are kept to a minimum in the British edition, similar to the Russian Vogue.
Most advertisements in British Vogue were foreign with the majority of luxury products being French. The mass market brand – Rimmel London – is an exception with the effervescent London It Girl – Kate Moss as its face. Another British brand – Smeg – uses a variety of coloured fridges with one decorated entirely by the Union Jack – the epitome of British design. Another local ad is Black Prince by Belstaff a specialist company in waterproof technology clothing for motorcyclists etc. The current campaign features a mud-splattered couple embracing on a motorbike with a Union Jack sticker on the body of the bike. The Union Jack often returns as the symbol of Britain – this is not the case in French or Russian Vogues.
In summary, while Russian Vogue had predominantly foreign luxury products, the features and interviews came from the domestic sphere whereas notions of local in the French and English editions were much more based on stereotypes of ‘Frenchness’ or ‘Englishness’ and connections with other ‘global’ locations suggesting lifestyle rather than nationhood as the differentiating factor in what constitutes the ‘local’.
Representing the Other
In British Vogue, one fashion shoot titled ‘World Vision: the grown up approach to global style’ is loosely based on ethnic influences in the fashion of the season. From gypsy, to African adventure and ‘haute safari’ via Navajo. The fashion editor has certainly not had to hard sell the concept of global to the readers, it seems a prior knowledge of ‘Other’ styles is expected – the reader fills in the gaps. There is also a shopping feature on different global cities and their best trendsetting stores. “Fashion may well be a worldwide phenomenon but when it comes to the must-haves of the season, global tastes vary.” (p. 266) The notion of exoticism is very tied into a globalisation that is accessible to the British shopper – a world where different cultures are easily drawn back into the culture centre associated with London and Britain as being a world power.
There is also a feature about how Irish singer Bono and his wife Ali have joined with designer Rogan Gregory to create a fashion line that will be made from organic fabrics from Peru and Turkey with a sustainable agenda. The Irish countryside where the interview takes place and specifically Bono and Ali’s property is represented in as having mysterious Otherness “that ethereal feel, with the mist and the moss and rocks. It’s definitely otherwordly…”
Otherworldliness is also captured in the advertising for example Hermès the French luxury brand features a campaign for a silk scarf ‘Le monde est un fleuve’ complete with a map of the world. While the Italian fashion house Valentino has a model with a baby zebra for their African inspired collection. The spirit of different places is very much part of the British imagination as is of course the accessibility to exotic products.
In Russian Vogue, the whole theme of the month’s articles are based on travels to exotic locations especially those associated with the fashionable looks of the season: India, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, Wild West, Hawaii, Africa, the Greek Islands, Asia and folkloric Europe. The editor’s Letter translated at the back of the edition sums up the attitude to the exotic: “Countries of blazing heat where skin colour graduates from dark olive to bitter chocolate, where white Europeans get special reception…” Long ostricised as an outsider in Europe, it is now Russia’s opportunity to be part of the West, part of the centre.
There is a story from a certain Sheikh Majed discussing life in the hot, exotic Eastern countries of India and China. He questions the nature of ‘exoticism’ and writes that for some (like those living in the exotic East) Russia is an exotic land – the cold, the Kremlin, etc while Russians don’t see themselves as exotic. The exotic East is also the perfect destination for the wealthy Russians reading Vogue. The feature has an almost educational tone to it; politely informing readers of what’s on offer elsewhere.
The fashion pages in this edition are based on exoticism from different eras including British photographer Norman Parkinson’s iconographic 1975 shot of Jerry Hall in a modest bathing suit on a Soviet-style sculptured platform. There is a feature on the Afro-American tennis player Serena Williams – sport is a constant theme appearing throughout. In Russian Vogue, there are no bared breasts and the amount of flesh bared is minimal.
Advertisements in Russian Vogue are almost entirely from ‘The West’ and all the cultural baggage that that implies for the former Soviet nation. Everything that is branded and luxurious comes from elsewhere. The advertisement for Burbury Brit perfume has the Burberry print on the umbrella and scarf of what looks like a British girl in front of a Rolls Royce with an English bobby (policeman) looking in the car. Another Burberry ad in the magazine features British It girl Kate Moss in an English park setting. The Chanel advertisement in this Russian Vogue features a model with the famous quilted bag (somewhat dated in the West) and a photo of Place Vendome as a reference to luxury Paris. All ads feature strong icons of ‘chic’ from abroad.
In the French edition the exotic other is focused on two cultures – Americana and Asiatic. American culture as one global centre of relaxed cool with equally cool and relaxed personalities with a feature on a tailor “Thom Browne (qui) garde son cool très américain et pousse le classique jusqu’à l’excentricité” and other; LA’s Cameron Silver ‘culte’ vintage dresser to the Hollywood stars. There is also a page devoted to Halston the American designer who dressed the jet-set and was associated with Studio 54.
Asia is another theme in French Vogue which gives a taste of the Other. The Japanese beauty routine– skin cleansing – is the focus of the beauty section. In the fashion pages, there is also an Asian influence: L’Emprise des sens. Within this shoot, there is a Western model together with an Asian model, they engage in a series of pseudo-lesbian poses – a flirtation between East and West - but the Western women keeps her top on and appears to be in control while the Asian model is bare breasted and apparently submissive.
Generally the visual content of French Vogue is highly sexualised with lots of nipples and even pubic hair in the fashion shoots. For example, comparing advertising contents of the German sport shoe brand Puma, perhaps exposes fundamental differences. In French Vogue the ad for Puma shows a young girl in ‘sporting’ clothes lying on what looks to be a hotel bed, while in the English Vogue, the people wearing Puma is a group of New-Age travellers playing with sporting equipment. Both ads appear in the same month but create different meanings for the brand. One of sex, the other of eccentricity.
Tone and authority
However perhaps the real essence of authority in the sense of Hofstede’s interpretation of Power Distance is evidenced in the absent or present Editor-in-Chief. Does the Editor show their power by having a page of their own at the front of the magazine or do they sit in the background and silently shape the contents? There is no editor’s note in the British Vogue edition which unlike the other two present Editors, leads us at this point, to acknowledgee Hofstede’s findings that Britain had the lowest power distance in comparison to France and much lower than Russia.
In the French Vogue, the tone is much more suggestive with the pages much more evocative rather than commanding like the British edition. Four pages of “Happy Hippie” with images from the hippy era and the contemporary incarnation. “La Hippie attitude est un kaléidoscope de matières et de couleurs juxtaposées.” Readers are given inspiration rather than instructions.
In Russian Vogue the equivalent ‘Style’ pages are also much more suggestive than directive. Once again a general theme is offered like India, Gipsies (sic) and Africa. Headings are given in English with Russian text suggesting a readership that has an international focus.
Reflecting on Vogue’s identities.
Having analysed some of the Vogue features, we may ask ourselves what type of identity do Vogue readers across the globe share? Do they share an identity? Does the meaning of this identity vary from country to country? Is, for example, the Indonesian woman buying Vogue in Jakarta dressed and more importantly, feeling similarly to the English buyer in London? We are planning to ask our students to engage in cross-cultural consumer research that may aid us in finding some answers.
Reflecting on the findings.
The problem with such – and potentially with our own - ‘analysis’ is the fact that it is not necessarily based on public opinion polls – or rather readership poles. The readership of international fashion journals represents a certain target group which is normally not the same as the ‘average citizen’ – in most cases, the readers are culturally Western-oriented, economically relatively well-to-do, socially – quite ‘liberated’ (by comparison with the so-called ‘traditional’ societies). Another problem is that when one talks about countries or cultures (the national and the cultural are often equated) one tends to focus on ‘cultural stereotypes’ or superficial knowledge, which may lead to simplistic conclusions, like ‘Because Indonesia has a large Muslim population and the naked female body image is a taboo, certain fashion magazine has little chance of being widely accepted unless it adheres to local standards. This problem seems, alas, persistent in many cultural studies related to marketing and international communication.
Marketers with fashion industry and international consumer researchers tend to reify and essentialise the notion of culture as something stable, unchanging and ‘fixed’ (Alvessen, 2002, Bauman, 2001).
It is indeed attractive for the industry professionals to present culture as possibly explainable and, above all, measurable. Measurability could make cross-cultural encounters somewhat more predictable, and thus assure success of a foreign venture. Hoftstede’s () famous cultural dimensions are much loved by organizational and marketing social scientists. And yet, the elusive, ‘soft’ aspects of culture – now you see it, now you don’t phenomenon, complexity and diversity of sub-groups within a ‘culture’ make us weary of the fact that we should be cautious not to generalize about all cultural and national values.
Our article only proves that such pitfalls are almost inherent in the project of intercultural comparison of global products. But the fact remains that there is still something that other researchers and ourselves consistently find when we observe a global or international product in a local context – a cultural variation which can be hardly accounted for by chance alone.
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