Sunday, 3 January 2010

What's Wrong With Fashion Journalism?

A piece in my newspaper about a dress that has proved very popular this season is illustrated not by a picture of the designers or the dress on a professional model, but with paparazzi shots of celebs wearing it. They include the usual suspects from popular, transitory culture: Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, Cheryl Cole, Rihanna...

We seem to have reached the point where the dress itself is almost irrelevant and the only credibility it has comes from the wearer. This is nothing new, of course. Without the wearer, the wedding dress of the Princess of Wales would have been of no interest in itself, any more than the one worn by Wallis Simpson for her wedding to an earlier Prince of Wales. Even people who make their living from writing about fashion would probably have to think a bit to remember who designed the first and go to the history books for the second (the Emanuels and Mainbocher, respectively).

Fashion writers, like any other commentators on artistic work, should be critics rather than popular cheerleaders. Loving frocks and the world of showbiz personalities are not enough. A fashion journalist needs to have the knowledge to differentiate between the good, the average and the bad – and to know why each one is what it is, just as a book critic can tell the difference between a Nobel winner and a Mills and Boon romance. But, sadly, you don't even need the fingers of one hand to count the number across the globe who do.

That's why fashion journalism as we have known it is dying, as new graduates from modern courses bring different agendas to the job and bloggers take over the field of immediate reaction. Things had to change, because journalism has allowed itself to become dependent on advertising revenues – which can, of course, be withdrawn if comments displease. Result: all commentary on any label with an advertising budget is now totally anodyne. Thank God for the bloggers who give an immediate and honest reaction which, let's hope, might some day also be an informed one (not always the case at the moment).

Meanwhile, if you want to see 'the star in the frock', cancel the newspaper and start reading Hello! and OK.


  1. Dear Mr. McDowell:

    Thank you for that brutally honest assessment of your profession and for your acknowledgement of bloggers' contribution.

    My only quibble with your post is that you neglect to mention the fact that some of the better-known bloggers are being co-opted by the fashion industry at a rather alarming rate. I wonder if their assimilation as evidenced by front row seats, gifts, invitations to events, etc. will eventually undermine their legitimacy.

    What made bloggers willing to speak their mind was the fact that they were outsiders looking in with little or no vested interest in fashion's ecosystem. Now that they have a seat at fashion's table, will they still be willing to speak their mind as freely?


    The Luxe Chronicles

  2. Yes, it does appear that 'fashion journalism as we have known it is dying'. I agree that the fashion industry's current obsession with the cult of celebrity is neither culturally nor creatively enlightened, however, we are living in times of rapid technological change - and this is possibly affecting the media more than any other part of the fabric of our society.

    We are in a process of enormous transition and cannot expect things to remain the same as they have been during our own lifetime, or times from recent memory. In my opinion, recording our thoughts and opinions through blogs (as you are doing here) is a way of passing on the learning and experience of previous generations. We can but hope that someone will read and take note.

  3. Your point is interesting and in some ways incredibly truthful. Yet you talk about fashion bloggers giving a immediate and appropriate judgement on the fashion industry and the events that take place within it. I myself am a fashion blogger and pride in the fact that I have both praised and criticised the fashion industry but with caution. This caution is not in response to the potential consequences of upsetting or even offending people within the industry I plan on making my career but instead (and this must be regarded as a view from a Student currently studying Journalism) that I am informed by my lecturers that I myself do not have the credibility to criticise entirely but to only give an opinion that is both fair and well constructed. Not only that but my blog is a place of published work. I don't wish to flaw my chances of breaking into the industry by taking the "moral" ground in dismantling what those around my have worked so hard to create.

    In response to Helene's comment on bloggers theoretically being bribed of their opinion it seems simple that your faith in some of those around you is failing. This in itself is a sad thought that one has to take on board when looking into "opinion pieces" and the fashion world.