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Colin’s Column | The Great Gatsby and the Epidemic of Pornography Masquerading as Style

In Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, Colin McDowell sees a reflection of everything that's wrong with today's fashion world.
The Great Gatsby | Source: Warner Bros.
  • Colin McDowell

LONDON, United Kingdom — So it has come, heralded with as much pride and anticipation as the triumphant Roman Legions at the gates of the city, just returned from a great battle. And, yes, The Great Gatsby, has been winning its own battles at the box office even if critical comment has been at best luke warm. Let us say right at the beginning that it is a very poor film. I have seen three of the four Gatsby films made (starring Alan Ladd, Robert Redford and now Leonardo DiCaprio as the eponymous hero) and Baz Luhrmann's luridly over-coloured version is by far the biggest failure.

Quite what there is in F Scott Fitzgerald's novel — virtually a novelette — that beats the cinema each time is hard to fathom. It is hardly because of the profundity or subtlety of the writing. Claims that The Great Gatsby is the great American novel are as grotesquely wide of the mark as the claims made for Luhrman's film. Hemingway, no admirer of Scott Firtzgerald, claimed that the great American novel was Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and it probably still is, but Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel; Carson MccCuller's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mocking Bird and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath are great books, as American as apple pie, and streets ahead of anything Scott Fitzgerald ever wrote. And, of course, the greatest of all humorous books by American writers, Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, is a classic expose of the period of Gatsby with more wit and wisdom about the attitudes in the 1920s in one paragraph than in the entirety of Fitzgerald's slight and slender volume.

Luhrmann's gaudy film with its pantomime mansions and Busby Berkeley party scenes debases what little integrity the original has by corrupting the history of a fascinating period in the ever compelling growth of the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. Its cheap emotionalism and vulgar filmic cliches are in no way an authentic reflection of anything in the 1920s. But it is sure as hell an authentic voice for our times in its lascivious drooling over the wealth and luxury of the attitudes and lifestyles of the super rich. The Great Gatsby in Luhrmann's version is a fashion story about greed and it entirely reflects the attitudes and beliefs of the high fashion world today. No wonder American Vogue went over the top about it. The whole film is as vacuous as the pages of most fashion magazines. And for that reason alone, it might be worth seeing a few years hence and will probably be looked at by social and cultural historians in the future as a parable of and key to our our own times because this film has little to do with the spirit of the 1920s and everything to do with contemporary living and dreaming.

It is the world we live in now that we are seeing on the screen and one that we, the fashionistas, have been instrumental in creating — a world of excess and self-indulgence that we have praised lavishly whilst encouraging its attitudes and allowing it to develop unchecked by any hint of real criticism for the values underpinning it. Like the fashion world, The Great Gatsby in Luhrmann's version is about excess and how it feeds on itself and leads to debasement and vulgarity. And that is why I am distressed that the film has already been a big box office hit. But should I be? It is essentially about our times just as much as that other runaway success Fifty Shades of Gray, because both are giving huge numbers of us what we want to see and read. And both have followed the lead of fashion in realising that financial success follows creative excess.

How much of the uncontrolled excess we see round us is the fault of the fashion world? I do not wish to make hard-working people in fashion the total villains, but our industry, from CEOs to college lecturers, has to take a lot of the blame for our social attitudes at many levels because fashion is the most socially impactful of all our leisure activities. It is enjoyed by increasing numbers and there are more joining the queue, ready to pay very high prices for objects that are ultimately expendable, even after a very short life, because conspicuous consumption is the best game in town and, as it requires no skills, the excess it encourages is open to us all. Anyone can buy anything as long as the bank manager agrees.

It is some weeks since Suzy Menkes commented on the fact that fashion weeks have become circuses for exhibitionists and the opportunity for fashion wannabes to stage freak shows at the security barriers of events really meant for the fashion trade alone. Since reading her comments, several long haul flights and breaks in the country have given me time for considering what Suzy said. She is right to draw our attention to the crazed values attacking the fabric of fashion in the highest echelons, in a hysterical madness fuelled by greed on a scale so obscene that it would shock even Croesus on one of his more acquisitive days. The cheese that baits the trap is the siren call of luxury and the criteria for buying fashion are the cost and the label. Taste has no part to play in this world, smothered as it is in sexual imagery of the crudest kind to be found outside the field of pure pornography and fuelled by petty snobberies that would not disgrace the nineteenth century Austro-Hungarian empire at its height.

Although snobbery is reprehensible, it is pornography masquerading as style that is the greater danger because it seems to be growing in excess almost daily. Where did it all start? Why was actually showing the clothes in magazines in a way that they can be seen a technique relegated to the realm of more 'wearable' garments whilst the exciting and beautiful creations from the great designer houses have slowly become submerged in sexual and snobbish fantasy that has become increasingly perverse in the hands of some of our technically brilliant photographers? And I am not thinking of the editorial pages alone. The advertising pages, controlled by the designers themselves, are often even more perverse and demeaning not only to women alone, but to us all.

Does a possible purchaser of a very expensive handbag bearing a famous name look at the ad in which a woman is being menaced by anything up to six men and think "Love it. I'll buy it. That is the life for me"? Is fashion now firmly in the fantasy world of Fifty Shades of Grey? Is the scenario in Fifty Shades really how women want to be wooed into buying expensive merchandise? How culpable is the fashion world in making glamour a fetish and excess an excitement? Who are the people changing our perception of women by their depiction of women? Are we all being objectified by our own stereotypes?

Let's start with the photographers (and the stylists and fashion editors who seem unable to deny them anything). Like psychopaths left to run free, they rampage across the pages of our magazines pedalling a sinister mix of pornography and salacious infantilism. And let us not forget that it was the photographers who were largely responsible for introducing the child model to fashion, with all the social consequences that have followed. I do not mean men like Terry Richardson who are pushing a jokey sleazy fashion approach, which is no such thing — the clothes are of really no interest in his work — or the fantasist Tim Walker whose fairytale world is again not really showing us fashion but taking us to fantasy places created by his imagination as a personal form of magic with more than a hint of decadence. No, the guilty parties are the ones who produce 'fashion' stories for the sort of magazines that are never found in the hairdressers's or plastic surgeon's waiting rooms. This is because the attitude to women shown in the photographs purporting to be fashion are frequently sadistic and always cast the female model as the victim — of men or beasts or even machinery. There is no other word for them but pornographic. Poor Helmut Newton. What a sluice gate of anti-feminism he unwittingly opened with his stylish photography of women pictured in extremes. He could never have imagined how viciously certain sections of fashion's underbelly would wish to debase women in the wake of the style with which a Newton photograph always celebrated their magnificent femininity.

Now let's look at the journalists, including, I have to say, Suzy herself. I could never understand why she or her editors thought it so important to get a point of view — and usually one of such stupefying banality that only the name attached to it could justify it in any way — from a front row celebrity immediately after a show. And I still don't. Why would the readers of The International Herald Tribune want a comment from a starlet or an uber-rich customer when they could have the privilege of reading without interjection the opinions of one of the world's very top fashion commentators? Looking back, we can see that the technique was the thin end of the wedge, influential by the sheer power of Suzy's standing on the international fashion stage. The practice was taken up by many of her fellows.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, their sort of commentary has been diminished in value to such a degree in newspapers that one increasingly searches hard for anything at all that is written with the authority that Suzy brings. And, for a long time now, written critical commentary has hardly existed at all in magazines owned by the international publishing companies. In fact, most fashion reports (if they still exist at all) are so anodyne, gossipy and boring that they are quite useless to the reader in search of the sort of informed content still available in other arts, where enthusiasm is expected to be tempered by a trenchant critical faculty. And it is that little word ‘informed’ that must be able to be legitimately used to describe fashion writers if they are to have any value

And it makes me wonder about the fashion journalists' attitude to bloggers. We are all aware that some fear that the barbarians are no longer at the gates, but in the citadel and often sitting in the front row. But should print journalists fret? This year's barbarians are next year's savants — in theory at least. If a designer feels that a fourteen-year-old is more likely to understand the show than a forty-year-old, he has a right to give the prime position to that person. And he could be right. With the average age of the fashionista dropping all the time, who is more likely to have the pulse of the moment, someone at college, blogging to friends, or someone over fifty or even in their sixties possibly disenchanted by what they see? But being young is not enough to empower any more than being old is to disenfranchise. Fashion is part of popular culture and can only be assessed as such. Whether we like it or not, the likes of Tom Ford and Dolce & Gabbana have become wealthy by realising that sex for the young is mostly very different from what it was in the days when their grandmothers were young — and they package their wares accordingly, with as little understatement and taste as possible.

So, although many view their advertising campaigns as little more than soft porn, many do not and, judging by sales, enough customers actually find that these campaigns speak to them sufficiently strongly to make them buy. And let's never forget the major change that has occurred in fashion merchandising in our times. The actual clothes often have less power than the ad campaigns and brand stories. What's more, the ad campaigns are so crucial to the wealth of magazine publishing that no editor will risk losing advertisers by allowing any critical commentary on the shows or the frequently bizarre behaviour of top designers. Thus another channel of legitimate commentary has gone and journalists are rewarded with treats. It is no accident that the press was once called the Fourth Estate. It was seen as something of value because it checked other forms of power, but that check goes when a journalist spends a weekend on a yacht whether it belongs to Sir Philip Green, Dolce & Gabbana or Diego Della Valle.

The journalists are not there as friends — in fact, in most cases, the host hardly knows who they are — but because the owner's PR has decided they are the ones from whom something can be obtained as payment for a free holiday. Nowhere is the old adage that there is no such thing as a free drink — or handbag, or dinner — more true than in fashion. And that also applies to the customer who is indirectly footing the bill for the largess, the gifts and the trips by paying grotesquely inflated prices for the merchandise. Even more so, it is a bill paid in far too many cases by the people who work to make the clothes, always with low wages and sometimes in appalling conditions about which every fashion insider is well aware, but is reluctant to comment, preferring the fluffy dream world of films like The Great Gatsby.

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