NEW YORK, United States — There’s something not too inexplicable about the way an appreciation of food cuts to the quick of a love of life. Hal Rubenstein always wrote brilliantly sharply about restaurants. He was a man who could give the word ‘fabulous’ the weight it merited as a measure of the marvelous. And he spun his appreciation into cogent, acerbic opinions about everything else that engaged the senses, culminating in his own cult-worthy magazine Egg. So it came to pass, a few decades ago, that Martha Nelson, then editor of InStyle, employed Rubenstein as her hired gun on the frontier of fashion.
And what a shock she got.
“I had no idea you were so sentimental,” Rubenstein remembers Nelson saying. This is the man who, brooking no argument, now declares: “The three most important words in the English language are ‘I love you.’ And nothing beats them.” But he’ll go on to add, “The three words that come second are ‘I don’t know’. And we have too many people who will never admit that.”
The lover, the illuminator; Rubenstein plays both roles to a tee in his new book The Looks of Love. Its subhead, “50 Moments in Fashion that Inspired Romance,” would seem to position it as a successor to his 100 Unforgettable Dresses, which has so far sold 60,000 copies and is now into its fifth printing, an unparalleled accomplishment for a tome that falls into the category of coffee-table. Except that The Looks of Love is scarcely coffee table as we know it. For one thing, it’s word-heavy — 70,000 to be exact — crammed with nuggets of information. Carrie Bradshaw had 25 lovers over the course of Sex and the City’s six seasons; Hal counted so you don’t have to. Which means that, if there are pictures — and many of them are lovely — it’s the text that demands attention. “I want you to slow down,” says Rubenstein, “to see that somebody wrote something that really mattered to them. Of everything I’ve done, this is the closest to how I think, except for maybe restaurant reviews I did years ago.”
The word ‘fashion’ is off-putting for people who don’t feel fashionable. You’ll notice the word ‘fashion’ is not used anywhere in the book.
It scarcely matters whether you’re a longtime aficionado of his work – mea culpa – what stands out in The Looks of Love is the seductive tension, unusual to say the least given that it is going to end up under a lot of Christmas trees, between a text that celebrates love while “honouring the broken heart as much as the first flush of romance.”
The book opens with what Rubenstein calls “the most elementary love story of all,” starring the ridiculously pretty Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw and a terminal ailment that interferes with their relationship without impairing their looks. “Where do I begin?” bleated Love Story’s theme song. Begin right here, with a piece of music that soundtracked every wedding thereafter, including, Rubenstein delightedly points out later in the book, the nuptials of the King and Queen of Cool, Mick and Bianca Jagger. The way he makes such connections is one of the joys of The Looks of Love.
Then comes chapter two, Kurt and Courtney, and the quirky nature of Rubenstein’s moments in love takes shape. Movies, television, music, fashion, advertising, seismic societal shifts: Nicole Kidman shilling for Chanel No.5, Will and Grace, Elizabeth Taylor’s multiple marriages, American Gigolo, Woodstock. It was there that Rubenstein’s car got stuck in ten feet of mud and he broke up with his boyfriend before they’d even reached the amazing vantage point where they could appreciate Sly and the Family Stone’s performance through a thundercloud of marijuana smoke at 3am on Saturday morning. So that particular pairing didn’t work out, but love ultimately takes (at least) two, and Rubenstein’s couples run a rapturous gamut; from Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet to Sonny and Cher to Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie and Warren Beatty’s Clyde and Alexis and Crystal’s never-ending catfight on Dynasty — everything extemporised so that a bigger point is made about how and why people respond to cultural stimuli. And if that sounds dry, you simply haven’t read Hal Rubenstein.
There’s a chapter devoted to a manic Tom Cruise trampolining on Oprah’s couch. What better way to back up Thackeray’s line “Love makes fools of us all, big and little?” That melancholic prospect underpins an insinuating tristesse in Rubenstein’s book. Suggest that to him, though, and he’s quite taken aback. “Melancholy? No,” he insists. “The book is about the depth of romance, the depth of love, and how everything we do influences how we feel and behave and dress.” Rubenstein is perfectly happy to label himself “a fool for love;” the key word there being “happy” when he talks about his parents’ relationship or his own union with David Nickle, the book’s dedicatee, or his enduring fan-boy crush on Gene Kelly. With his next breath, he acknowledges: “Falling in love is easy, staying in love is tough.”
The book is about the depth of romance, the depth of love, and how everything we do influences how we feel and behave and dress.
All of which is why the image that endures most for me — from a volume of enduring images — is a photograph of Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams at the 2006 Oscar ceremony. She’s wearing a Vera Wang fishtail gown in a stunning shade called “Bahamian yellow,” and they’re a ravishing picture of blissed-out beauty. Just over a year later, they’re no more, and a couple of months after that, he’s dead. “Even for them, happiness became a struggle,” says Rubenstein. In his introduction, he poses the dichotomy a little more poignantly. “Ardour is one heartbreak away from insanity.” It’s the subtle way his book underscores the madness of love that gives it the welcome sting that keeps you coming back for more.
And that also raises the issue of why books about fashion — which is how this one is clearly being positioned by its publishers — tend to be so gutless. Rubenstein has his theories: “The word ‘fashion’ is off-putting for people who don’t feel fashionable,” he says. “You’ll notice the word ‘fashion’ is not used anywhere in the book. And I think the tonnage of fashion books that are nothing but assemblages of photographs of people’s careers with no annotation have destroyed people’s desire to actually buy them. They’re a couple of hundred dollars, they’re limited editions, they’re a compendium of magazines and they don’t teach you anything. They are true coffee-table books in the sense that I’ll put my coffee right on top of them.” Rubenstein wonders if fashion has lost the knack of connection. At InStyle, he was one of the people responsible for using celebrities to popularise fashion. As he puts it now: “If it’s good enough for Sandra Bullock, it’s good enough for me.” It worries him that fashion seems to be turning inward, “not necessarily turning people off, but isolating itself from the other cultures in how it’s treating and publicising itself. Fashion got bigger, but it lost focus. It increased its power to excite but it has diminished its power to mesmerise.”
It may seem much too glib to point to The Looks of Love as a way to re-mesmerise, but it is surely books like this, with its fiercely articulate roam across not simply the major influencers of fashion of the past half century but also the most perfectly realised expressions of designer visions — Versace, Galliano, McQueen, Van Noten — that activate a sense of how vast, unexplored and far-reaching the subject of fashion truly is. Rubenstein himself is a bit of a Zelig character, present at and maybe even instrumental in several watershed fashion moments. There are suggestions of such in The Looks of Love. They make you hungry for more.