When Nancy Jane Hastings was asked at her admissions interview for Carleton University’s graduate journalism program in 1981 what kind of writing she was interested in, she said fashion. The interviewer laughed. Nevertheless, Hastings was not only accepted into the program, but was the first one in her class to get a job-at Toronto Life Fashion.
Like the Carleton interviewer, many journalists believe the words fashion and journalism don’t belong in the same sentence. Consequently, the field often doesn’t attract good writers, nor does it receive adequate support from many publishers, who try to produce it on the cheap. The result is coverage that is heavy on service, press-release journalism and thinly disguised advertorial while light on in-depth, well-written stories. Hastings, who went on to senior fashion positions at such magazines as Flare and Chatelaine before going freelance one and a half years ago, sadly admits: “There is a level of professionalism missing here in Canada.”
David Livingstone, fashion reporter for The Globe and Mail who has worked as a fashion journalist since 1977, feels there is another explanation for why fashion journalism doesn’t get much respect: “The first thing people like to say about fashion is that they don’t know anything about it, because to indicate otherwise would be to give the impression you’re too concerned with superficial matters.”
One reason fashion journalism is viewed as frivolous is that some practitioners treat it that way. Jeanne Beker, the host of FashionTelevision, for instance, wrote of her show in the November issue of Flare: “We never saw ourselves as fashion journalists, but rather as entertainment reporters. That mind-set probably accounts for much of the program’s success.” This attitude annoys Hastings: “There is so much fabulous history and art to fashion that to dismiss it as entertainment is wrong.” Trisse Loxley, a freelance writer and beauty columnist for The Globe and Mail‘s Fashion & Design section, identifies three types of fashion journalists. The first are writers such as Livingstone. “The man is a walking fashion encyclopedia, and his work is the work people will read 200 years from now to get a clue as to who we were,” she says. His writing reflects an extensive knowledge of the history of fashion along with an intellectual, yet unpretentious, view of fashion’s importance. Typical of his style is this observation on the spring collections in Milan: “Dolce and Gabbana have mined Italian cultural history, and in the process, proven themselves to be major players on the global scene, and of an influence on female dress in a way greater and more consistent than having made some hot duds worn by Madonna.” Livingstone, although a defender of fashion’s legitimacy as a subject, has a sense of proportion. “It is serious, but if that were always the case, I’d be worried that I’m going to open my sock drawer and think I’ve got enough to write about,” he says.
While the journalists in Loxley’s first category chronicle what’s going on, the second group, in which she includes herself, ask why, often in a tongue-in-cheek manner. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, pink is hot. Why is pink hot? Who cares if pink is hot? Who’s wearing pink? Or, let’s took at the social impact of pink.” Tim Blanks, the host of Newsworld’s Fashion File, does a good job of this in his regular back-page column for Toronto Life Fashion. He had this to say about the skintight clothing on the runways in Paris last vear: “At the Paris couture shows in January, outfits were so tightly tailored as to add a millennial gloss to the notion of clothes to die for. As visions of control tops redux tortured commentators, there was inevitable talk of the New(t) Conservatism.”
The last are the who’s-wearing-what writers. They include the many compilers of best- and worst-dressed lists, although there are more sophisticated examples. Here’s freelancer Serena French in a Globe column on a party after the opening of Sunset Boulevard: “The affable R&B diva Patti LaBelle, decked out in a red satin Moschino suit, signature nails, but uncharacteristically tame hair, enthused about her friend Diahann:’She thrilled me-the only reason I didn’t cry was that my eyelashes would have fallen off and I don’t have any glue.’While she tried to give good sound bite, LaBelle teetered on one Manolo Blahnik pump as The Hollywood Reporter ‘s George Christy attempted to drag her off.”
The problem is that much fashion”writing” doesn’t fit into any of Loxley’s three categories, but, rather, is more like catalogue copy than journalism. For example, the November 1995 Test-Drive section of Flare was a one-page piece entitled “Lips: The Great Light Way” featuring 18 lipsticks. There is a small paragraph with instructions-no kidding-on how to put on lipstick, but the rest of the text consists of copy blocks listing the products’ names and manufacturers. “Who needs to write anymore?” Hastings says of this approach. “It is all about pictures and cheap and nasty cutlines and no copy.”
Bonnie Brooks, editor of Flare, defends her magazine. “We are not a catalogue in the slightest,”she says strongly. “We don’t promote vendors’ products. We are the only magazine that I know of in North Airierica that has something called Test-Drive where we pay people to test products.” Joan Harting Barham, editor ofToronto Life Fashion, also denies that her magazine lists products in an undiscriminating way: “A catalogue means, this is everything we have at Talbots. We’re saving, here’s some of the best stuff and here’s where to get it,” she says. “A good fashion portfolio doesn’t need many words. You should get from the portfolio what the idea is and what the news is.”
Bernadette Morra, The Toronto Star‘s fashion editor, identifies other flaws of fashion coverage: “The stuff I read on the wires from cities all over the United States and other cities in Canada is really quite weak reporting. It’s ill informed, or it’s written in a very patronizing way, or it’s just so mean it goes over the edge the other way,” she says. Hastings also deplores the poor quality of much of what she sees: “It is really dreadful; most of it is absolutely junk. I recently saw an article in a cosmetics publication that was basically a rewrite of the press kit that I had read just moments before. It’s just so sloppy and so lazy-and it happens all the time.”
So why are the reporting and writing so bad? Partly because journalism students are seldom pushed in that direction by their professors, who preach the merits of more “serious” subjects. This attitude can also mean that journalists who try fashion writing don’t value the topic. In some cases, strapped-for-cash writers think they can whip up a couple of fashion pieces to pay the bills while on their way over to Saturday Night. As Morra says, “You need an interest and you need what a lot of journalists might not have and that’s a healthy respect for the industry.”
It’s not just freelancers who sometimes fail to respect the industry. Joyce Carter, who retired from the Globein 1994 after 31 years on the fashion beat, raises another concern, particularly in relation to magazines. “The lines between editorial and advertising are lost and that’s probably the root of the problem when you think about fashion writing,” she says. “There’s very little that I call writing in the magazines. There are reports of what they’ve seen and very little else. There’s no interpretation or speculation as to why. I don’t know of any fashion magazine that writes good fashion copy, because they don’t want to irritate their client base. It’s dishonest. That’s why I don’t pay any attention to the magazines. I only look at the pictures because I know where they’re coming from, and with that skepticism I can’t believe in their judgement,” she says.
A former editorial assistant at one fashion book says that when she worked at the magazine she quickly learned that editorial is the poor relative. “Yes, we had to recognize our advertisers,” she says. “It was a decision where if you have one product from one company and one from another, the natural thing would be to choose the advertiser, whether you wanted to or not. ”
Joan Harting Barham is emphatic that this doesn’t happen at Toronto Life Fashion: “When we do advertorials they are very clearly marked,” she says. “Advertisers suggest it [that their products get editorial mentions], but if they’re really serious about it we’ll say, ‘How about an advertorial that will say special advertising section? ‘ ” Bonnie Brooks also denies any slippage between editorial and advertising at Flare, although she alleges that it’s commonplace at a third fashion title. Certainly Patrick Walshe, vice president at Harrison Young Pesonen & Newell, a media management company, doesn’t subscribe to the idea of compromised editorial: “I’ve been schlepping a lot of media over a lot of years over a lot of product categories and I don’t know anybody who has tried to demand editorial in return for commercial space,” he says. “Once you start fudging editorial product you ruin the magazine’s integrity, and ruin the relationship with the reader, and you ruin the very thing you want to maintain, and that is strong magazines in this country.”
The puffy impression that much fashion writing creates may be because the main way criticism is practised is bv omission; if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Joan Harting Barham explains why this approach is used at Toronto Life Fashion: “You can attribute it to fear of advertisers, but I look at it that I have limited editorial space and I want to tell my readers about what’s new and what’s good. Why tell her about something andsay this is terrible?” Joyce Carter offers another explanation for the nice-or-nothing approach. “It’s difficult to do when you’re talking about young people starting out, particularly in your own hometown,” she says. “You could devastate somebody, and I think that’s dirty pool. I alwavs figured the cruellest thing I could do to anybody is to go to their show and then not write about it.”
However, critics wonder how journalistically sound fashion magazines can be if they are edited not by journalists, but by people from retail, buying or advertising backgrounds. Of the country’s major English-language magazines, all are headed by people who have worked almost exclusively journalism-except Flareand Images, a fashion and beauty magazine produced for Shoppers Drug Mart. “The problem that I see is that people who have no idea what women want are telling writers what to write, says Loxley.
Kate Macdonald, editor at Images, who has a background in retail plus 10 years’ publishing experience, believes that to be a competent fashion journalist you need both kinds of skills. “A journalism program is an excellent starting point, but you should also try to somehow specialize in the field or go through a fashion merchandising program, as I did,” she says. Bonnie Brooks, editor at Flare for the last two years, feels her past retail experience is an advantage to her job. “I was executive vice-president of Holt Renfrew,” she says with pride. “I was running 16 stores and several hundred million dollars in sales were my responsibility, so I know more about fashion and what consumers want than any editor could hope to know, because we were the closest link to the consumer and the designer. When Flare hired me it was because the magazine lacked relevance for the reader.”
Readers don’t seem to be much on the minds of newspaper publishers, rnany of whom have responded to the recession by cutting staff, particularly in fashion departments. Sports coverage, which could also be called frivolous, hasn’t been as affected. At The Toronto Sun , for example, the sports section has 20 writers while the fashion section has two. Over at the Star, which in the late eighties had a part-time fashion editor, an assistant editor, two full-time staff writers and a shared editorial assistant, Bernadette Morra and the shared editorial assistant are now the total staff. This means that Morra is often stuck in the office with editorial duties rather than out reporting. It also means that where the Star used to go to Milan, London, Paris and New York twice a year to cover the spring and fall collections, it now covers Paris once a year and New York twice. David Livingstone speculates that something more than economics is at work: “It probably has in it, historically, some real element of sexism.”
Whatever the cause, the amount of bad fashion writing, unfortunately, still overshadows the good. It is a vicious circle where a lack of respect and a dearth of good writing and funding result in bad copy, which reinforces the lack of respect. The result is that the true scope of the subject is often missed. As Joyce Carter points out: “Fashion is a lot of things-fashion is sociology, fashion is anthropology, fashion is history and fashion can be, although it’s easy to exaggerate, indicative of the way people are responding to the world aroundthem at a given time.”