Archive for the 'Fashion' Category

Sixties Without Any Substance: My Critique of Alexa Chung’s Interviewing

With her piece for the latest issue of Harper’s Bazaar UK, Alexa Chung adds print journalist and interviewer to her already extensive résumé. Harpers heralds Chung as a “muse, designer, model, DJ and TV presenter” – a job title as long as it is meaningless. Why the UK-based magazine even has a “British issue” is beyond me, but Chung has been chosen as the issue’s cover girl as she “epitomes a uniquely British style.” Her assignment for Harpers was to interview three female icons from the 1960s; Penelope Tree, Marianne Faithfull and Pattie Boyd. These short interviews, only six questions each, appeared alongside a profile of Chung conducted by journalist Stephanie Rafanelli. In contrast to the Q & A style of Chung’s interviews, Rafanelli’s piece was longer with the dialogue interspersed throughout the feature.

Chung’s opening question to Penelope Tree set the tone for all three interviews; an unusual ramble, more of a recounting of facts than an actual question. “You were born in England, but moved to New York when you were very young. Your mum was a prolific socialite and you were left to your own devices.” I’m sure Tree is aware of these facts and does not need them reiterated to her. Chung’s concern that the readers of Harpers may not be aware of Tree’s life story is justified, but this information would be a lot more suitable in an introduction before the article than embedded in the question.

Her first question to Pattie Boyd was almost as belabored “You were discovered as a model in 1962, while you were shampooing at Elizabeth Arden. Then you modeled for Mary Quant. What was it like?” Chung then quickly half-answers this question herself by adding “There must have been a real buzz.”, leaving Boyd with nothing much to do but agree with the statement. This was quickly followed second, almost identical question “what was your most iconic memory?” Chung has a habit, perhaps due to nervousness, of asking duplicates of basically the same question. During Pattie Boyd she asks “what struck you about him?” followed directly by “what was going through your mind?”

She also seems insecure about the strength of her own questions, cramming them with Sixties references and choosing questions to include several in the each. This usually leaves the interviewees confused about what to address first. As each interview progresses, Chung’s questions become shorter and less belabored but the interviews rarely have a conversational quality. The only narrative structure I could find is that they are ordered somewhat chronologically. I postulate that if the order of questions were reorganized, the interviews would still feel very similar.

During her interview, Penelope Tree recalls how during her time at a strict boarding school in Massachusetts she began planning to escape to London. As a reader, your natural reaction is to wonder how she managed this, but Chung never follows up with her. This is very dissatisfying. You get the sense that she, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to veer far from her prepared script.

Her interview with Marianne Faithfull is the exception. Most questions are derived from Faithfull’s previous answers therefore the interview feels more like a natural conversation. But despite their rapport, her questions remain depthless and Faithfull’s post-Sixties struggles are never alluded to. In her own interview, Chung is adamant that “the girls in the Sixties were never over-shadowed by the men they dated.” Yet ironically, while interviewing these women, she spends half the time asking them about their love affairs. She never asks Maryanne Faithfull her about her own music career, opting instead for questions about her ex-husbands Mick Jagger and artist John Bundar.

As a more experienced interviewer, Rafanelli managed to get some revealing quotes from Chung, including her resentment towards members of the public stealing her Sixties style: “Everyone copied my soading coat.” There is a mysticism surrounding the Swinging Sixties in London, one that Chung certainly buys into. She contemplates how she has always been “attracted to the groupie vibe” Her use of the word vibe is interesting here since during her interviews, she seemed far more concerned with the idea of the Sixties and the styles of these women than their actual experiences.  She understands very little about actual place of women then and fails remember that these “women” were in fact incredibly young, often in their late teens.

Harper’s describe Chung as a “reincarnation” of these Sixties icons. An interview is a conversation with a purpose, and the purpose here seems to be to lend creditability to Chung by associating her with this bohemian past. Her constant references and borderline obsession with dates are used more to prove her knowledge of this period, than actually contribute anything to the interviews. What results are questions crammed full of facts, but interviews of little actual substance.


Dissecting the Magazine Cover: Rihanna on Vogue

On this month’s cover of Vogue, posing in an embellished lace floral Chanel dress, Rihanna looks like a confident symbol of rebirth. The decision to dye her hair a poppy-red is surely no accident, representing a post-war period in her life, where the battleground has cleared and flowers have been allowed to flourish. Rihanna’s journey after a traumatic domestic abuse attack has played out through her fashion choices at a series of public stages including music videos, award show appearances, and magazine covers.

Floral motifs were present at the beginning of Rihanna’s career, where her fashion choices echoed her Barbadian heritage, giving her a genuine distinction from pop and R’n’B singers already on the market. In her first music video ‘Pon De Replay’ she sports a gold bikini top, a floral patterned dress, large gold hoop earrings and numerous chunky bangles. These Caribbean accents were Americanized by pairing them with casual baggy jeans and Converse sneakers to give her a more relatable look for her target audience. This early public image was certainly wholesome, but had less of the exaggerated girl-next-door quality thrust upon other pop stars like Britney Spears, or what I like to call the “Like a virgin (like we’re all stupid!)” persona.

As her career progressed, Rihanna’s style choices became more unpredictable, modeling an ever-changing parade of fashion choices and shorter haircuts. This new, daring fashion style was a considered, intelligent decision to distinguish herself. Rihanna worked closely with producer Jay Z, and therefore suffered from numerous accusations of simply being a clone of Jay Z’s wife Beyoncé.

In the ‘Disturbia’ music video , she had more gothic fashion style, wearing dark colors, chocker necklaces and mesh top barbed wire motifs. This “edgier” phase in a pop star’s lifecycle usually occurs two years or two albums, whichever happens to come first, into a pop singer’s career. This new fashion persona is usually signaled by the release of an edgy or artistic music video. Britney Spears, exhibited a more gothic look in the ‘Stronger’ video where she sang the infamous line “My loneliness ain’t killing me no more”, a reference to her first single. Christina Aguilera’s ‘Fighter’ was a kind of experimental art video with a convoluted butterfly theme. Whether true of not, these videos gives the impression of a pop star’s increased creative freedom or adult status, and a familiar cry from every entertainment magazine heralds, “[insert pop starlet here] is all grown-up!”

Next along the pop star lifecycle trajectory is an extremely provocative phase which is often the result of a slump in sales or a massive rebellion against their constructed virginal image. Throughout her career Rihanna wore her sexuality on her sleeve – or rather on her hips – using provocative, tight-fitted clothes to accentuate her curves. Animal prints were a reoccurring motif alluding to an animal and instinctive sexual nature. While many mothers of teenage fans may not approve of this highly sexual demeanor, it is certainly a more honest, if not healthier, attitude towards sex. There was never any doubt that Rihanna and her then-boyfriend Chris Brown were having a sexual relationship, refusing to do the usual “oh we’re just good friends” routine followed by a disingenuous giggle.

The next dramatic change in Rihanna’s fashion sense was brought on by tragic event, when she was viciously attacked by Chris Brown. The night of the attack she was wearing a flowing, pastel watercolor Gucci gown; a feminine style that almost completely disappeared in the years following the attack.

Although Rihanna refused to speak publicly about the incident, she spoke through her fashion choices, shifting to an androgynous but still highly sexualized look, alternating between re-appropriated masculine suits and army styles. Rihanna used fashion to cope, building a protective wall of harsher materials including leather, spikes and structural material. Large shoulder pads were her assertion of power during a difficult time, much like how women in the workforce chose them during the 1990s and Reagan-era.

Hairstyles and tattoos also played a huge part in her new look. She shaved the side of her hair, a poignant symbol of entering the army and now possesses no less than thirteen tattoos, including one on her chest “Never a failure, always a lesson” backwards so that she can read it in the mirror.

But Rihanna’s cries through her fashion choices and lyrics, “I, I, I, I’m so hard. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, I’m so hard. So hard, So hard, So hard, So hard.” are reminiscent of “the lady doth protest too much. ”, an over compensation indicating that perhaps she was struggling more than she would allow herself to admit in public. Her music videos for ‘Russian Roulette’ and ‘Hard’ were flooded with war imagery and she wore aggressive artifacts revealing top made of bullets, shields and army jackets. There is also a knowingness to her fashion choices; her army helmet is shaped with Mickey Mouse ears possibly making statements about pop star’s constructed identity.

It’s important to note that a pop star can often have little power over what they wear, so there is always the concern that these public personas could be forced upon Rihanna. But I’ll finish with her own words about her personality, and hope for her sake that it isn’t purely constructed by other people: “Brilliant, resilient, fan mail from 27 million”.