Springtime for grunge.
Imagine a photo of our favorite fashion wunderkind, with the caption reading: "When this photo was taken, Karl Lagerfeld hadn't bathed for three weeks...."
--Cary S. Leibowitz
It's the Smell of the New Grunge Spirit
The media packaging of twentysomething culture adds insult to a generation whose careers and economic opportunities are already injured by the luckier timing of the baby boomers. Now they are deprived of their subcultural moment too, as the media recognizes them as a target audience, packages them as gen. X, and tries to sell it back to consumers of all age groups. Borrowing possibly the last oppositional gesture available to today's young people--that is, humility with an attitude--high fashion seemed to outdo itself recently in the paradox of selling antifashion as fashion. As we stagger from "recovery" to "recovery," the zeitgeist is grungy in fashion as well as in the art world, where the hardass antimastery mastery of the '80s has been challenged, or rather has withered into the kinder, gentler, "pathetic esthetic" of the '90s.
For about two issues this winter, looking pathetic was validated by major glamour outlets such as Vogue, Harper's, and Allure. Pieces were devoted to the new "waif" look in designer interpretations of the ratty garb favored by attractive antifashionable young people who graze thrift shops for shabby and outmoded attire. Opening the floodgates of glamour to the thrift shop set raised the specter of an unbearable enjoyment, a radical glamour democracy that was quickly held in check by the reeruption of impossibly skinny and pixielike models. Fashion's affair with the living substance of aura, seediness, and mortality was unbearable, obscene; like the maternal body, it was an impossible pleasure quickly repressed by a strict grunge etiquette of thinness, taste, and the patronizing attitude exercised toward teens. A recent beauty piece in Allure noted the new low-maintenance gamine look among "nice girls" in London. Amazingly, the trend can be pulled off, according to the article, because centuries of "breeding" proper skin, teeth, and legs permit certain young ladies to go around like slobs, without the threat of "social death." The piece includes a list of "Dos" for "whey-faced waifs," including, of course, "wash hair infrequently" and "carry an obscure book."
While grunge seems to celebrate the aura-rich residue of yesteryear's garment, what clothes have gained in terms of "character" has been rudely snatched from the models. The new pixie-waifs are getting promoted as the successors to the Supermodels, who seem to have achieved a High Gothic apotheosis (or total market saturation), now that Christy Turlington has achieved Total Fashion Undeath in the form of numerous replicants in the Costume Institute at the Met. Towering above them as their dazzling apogee and poet, RuPaul is the Beauvais Cathedral of Supermodels, a seven-foot-tall drag queen who spreads love, light, and acceptance through virtuosic styling. While Supermodels achieved distinction as pseudopersonalities replete with names, breasts, and power butts, the new crop of "grunge" models are like some kind of anorexic superegoic revenge on sexual difference; sans hips, sans tits, sans adulthood, they are markedly bereft of the "aura" conferred by experience, or, at least, by gender. While kinder gentler garments relieve us of the impossible ideal of perfect commodities, the new models are a less relieving presence; projecting themselves as blank presexual slates, they implicitly neutralize the spirit of real grunge consumers who accept their own endearing imperfections by opening their hearts and closets to shunned styles, or the merely shabby. This healing moment of acceptance is undermined by the obviously brief shelf life of the new faux waif, emphasizing the commoditylike obsolescence of teen looks rather than acceptance of the sublime body of grunge that ages as fabulously as leatherette.
In an uncanny piece of timing Audrey Hepburn died recently, rustling up eulogies of her grand career as the original faux waif. As Holly Golightly, Hepburn was a "real fake"--a winsomely broke, slim waif with an updo who comes to NYC to remake her self in fabulosity. She also played well-dressed waifs in movies like Funny Face, My Fair Lady, and Love in the Afternoon: inevitably a father figure would erupt to Pygmalionize her into social security. The real operative fantasy of the film also included a safety net. She may seem like she is winsomely broke but "really," that is, in fantasy, she was always already bathed in the aura that you know she's a Hollywood aristocrat--that is, a real "real fake."
What then are we to make of the shift in the imaginary sartorial superego, from Supermodel to Waif? The eruption of the Supermodel has to be read in part as the last hangover of the '80s. Led by a senile WASP Dad imago fighting the Evil Empire, our mythic national self-image was dominated by cartoonish action figures from Rocky and Rambo to the Terminator and Dick Tracy. In the sobering '90s, a rainbow coalition of lawyers provides the supporting cast for our new Fleetwood Mac-fixated presidency. This supposedly down-to-earth turn is reflected in the sartorial superego by a new openness to recession-proof chic in which it is OK to resurrect nasty '70s attire, as long as the women thus "freed" from "dressing for success" are also "freed" from being taken seriously as grownups. The imago of the new faux waif is safe and innocent, surely not about to bludgeon a yuppie lawyer with his own corporate tools like Sister Hillary. Go girl.
Affirmative Subjective Destitution
According to a recent, heartrending book by Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown, girls start off as confident and good at math as little boys; when they hit puberty, they "learn" to be total wimps. If not, they get pathologized, patronized--deemed uncooperative, pushy, or prima donnas. In little boys these qualities are read as leadership, self-confidence, and focus. Most girls are so stunned by other people's bullshit that they get "socialized" to doubt their own perceptions of an external world (which systematically keeps them down). In a healthier avatar of the '90s ingenue, Sassy magazine allows girls to claim their teen years as politically aware pert young things able to enjoy fashion magazines with irony. What could be more healing than knowing that my postironic consumption of glamour will be validated by my sassy sisterhood. I love you guys! One is never too old to read Sassy, including Uncle John Waters, who remarked that if he had a daughter and she didn't read Sassy he would punish her.
Have you looked in the mirror lately? I don't even think you're a woman. You're a she-devil!
--Ed Begley Jr., to Roseanne Barr (sic), in She-Devil, 1989
The mammary power repressed from recent couture returns in the real of TV--in the power bosom of Roseanne Arnold, who works the genius of the grotesque body, going beyond ego completely. Her recent Esquire cover is a '90s version of I Dream of Jeannie as the revenge of the phallic mother. Roseanne's rereading of the Jeannie text is a historical rupture in which she restructures the narration of the past. In the Roseanne version, instead of retreating to her little bottle at the whim of Master Larry Hagman, the domestic genie is as big as the bottle itself. Balancing a tiny Tom Arnold on her finger, she is obviously able to swallow up Master and spit him out when necessary. One is reminded of the relative petiteness of sperm in contrast to the great egg. I have learned from the advent of Roseanne; I have been instructed by her.
Her real act of genius is how she "made her symptom work for her": by "coming out" as a fat housewife she took charge of her subjective destitution and turned it into her power. She is like totally spiritually uplifting. Hoisting her fat butt up there into the symbolic network, she does it serious damage by blowing up the difference between goddess and schlub. Remarkably free of the victim discourse, she has opened up a radical revolutionary moment; as announced in her autobiography, she is out to "save the world" by extending her psychosymbolic power nipple to the unthin and unrich. Increasingly well-styled and plastic surgerized by the day, she continues to work the taboo yum-yum of the maternal substance; her fine-tuned bullshit detector assures us that she will always embody both access to glamour and its lack. A rude sprout of enjoyment on the body of correctness, with her big tattooed booby hanging out, she embodies the radical power of those with nothing to lose but their desire. We hail Roseanne as the sublime body of grunge.
Rhonda Lieberman is a writer and critic. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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|Title Annotation:||Glamour Wounds; female fashion attitudes in the 1990'|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1993|
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