There’s a point in the development of every self-defined intellectual when he—and it’s almost always a he—dismisses fashion as a meaningless frippery with no place in the life of the mind, lavishing especial scorn on the profession of modeling: Their “talent” is to wear clothes! he’ll sneer, in a tone suggesting that this encapsulates all that is wrong with the modern condition.
Read the last Popdose on SNL alum Rachel Dratch's life after showbiz.
This phase is often (not always) followed by a pendulum swing to the opposite pole, as inchoate iconoclasm gives way to postmodernism and the attendant fascination with artificiality and “the spectacle.” Fashion and branding become vitally important as an expression of the socially constructed and context-specific natures of personal identity. Every kid on the corner, judging you by the sneakers you wear, becomes a semiotician reading complex indices of tribal and socioeconomic allegiances, and fashion models become the secret heroines of the culture.
Some (myself among them) arrive after all this at a third position—though I’m not sure if it represents progress or retreat—of viewing fashion as just one component in an essentially ludic mode of presentation, not so much a defining characteristic as a plaything. (Unfortunately, by this rubric, to judge by what I’m wearing as I type this, one might assume I am “playfully” “presenting” as a hobo, which rather calls my position into question. To say nothing of my taste.)
The second position is more or less that from which Christian Salmon writes Kate Moss: The Making of an Icon, out this week from HarperDesign. It is a position he shares with his subject: “For Moss and her friends, fashion, was neither a frivolous subject nor more affectation…Its stakes…included a question of consciousness,” he writes. “[W]hen one was young and living in a London suburb, one was fashion-conscious. Choosing a garment, a pair of boots, or a jacket wasn’t just a question of taste. The choice also had a strategic stake: it was a visa used to cross social boundaries, a sign of identity.”
Salmon is a French writer, editor and academic. His real job title, though, is that of Public Intellectual in a country that still takes such things seriously, and consequently this is a very strange little book. HarperCollins has taken a postmodernist monograph—originally published under the more provocative title Kate Moss Machine, as likely in its pages to reference French philosopher/sociologist Jean Baudrillard as Karl Lagerfeld—and wrapped it in the trappings of a coffee-table book.
Salmon makes clear, though, that this is not a simple biography: “Biography is of no help in understanding a person who has become a social phenomenon, given that she herself is a social construction,” he writes. “It is not Kate Moss’s life biographers are writing about but rather an already written legend that is retold in the same manner, in a loop that constitutes what cultural sociologists call ‘the enchanted circle of legitimacy.’ Everything happens to her as if in a fairy tale, without her in tending any of it.”
There’s a bit more gristle in that passage than one usually finds in pretty picture books about supermodels. For all its highfalutin rhetoric, though, Salmon’s text is aimed squarely at that demographic that we used to call “middlebrow”—college-educated adults who can appreciate and follow an academic argument, given sufficient context. All the more mystifying, then, that HarperCollins seems to be targeting an audience that wouldn’t know political scientist/economist Francis Fukuyama from Vera Wang. It is a book divided against itself.
For one thing, the photographs are largely unrelated to the text. Salmon describes and analyzes a number of iconic photographs of Moss—mainly from fashion shoots and portraiture—but none of these pictures appear in the book. Instead, the illustrations consist mostly of documentary-style runway shots. They’re nicely shot, in the main, and Moss looks terrific in them. Which is to say that the outfits look terrific on her, while Moss herself basically disappears—undercutting Salmon’s argument that the Moss mystique is about “a busted-up form of beauty…in which the body was the hero, not the clothes; the body no longer transfigured by the clothes but rather disfigured by trials, a victim to all manner of alterations and degradation; a suffering body that was being given a voice.” It’s an eloquent argument, but it’s hard to square it with the evidence.
Salmon is fond of sweeping pronouncements, and he links the advent of the “busted-up beauty” that Moss represents to a generational shift—of the simultaneous longing for and disappointment with the notion of authenticity that (in Salmon’s view) uniquely characterizes Generation X: “For once the idea of a generation was not a mere media construction...Never had a generation been so anxious to define itself, to narrate itself even before it had lived, and worse, with the acute awareness of the impossibility of living real experiences. This generation was crushed by the awareness both of its narrative identity and of the impossibility of realizing it, condemned as it was to produce substitute narratives to replace real experience.”
The problem with this passage is that little word “never.” Salmon’s argument depends on his ignoring great swathes of our cultural history. His description of grunge culture recalls a host of earlier youth movements: “[It was] a carnival that ruffled aesthetic habits, flipped the categories of ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly,’ blurred the lines between genres, imposed a form of corrosive irony that attacked the codes of glamour…And because clothes were cheap, no one hesitated to transform them with a few clips of the scissors...It was a new attitude, free of complexes, taboos, and veneration.”
A new attitude? That’s punk, friends, right down to the DIY aesthetic. “When there’s no future how can there be sin? / We’re the flowers in the dustbin”: Johnny Rotten sang that in 1977. And the Sex Pistols were themselves inheritors of authenticity-seekers and malcontents from the Beat generation to the flappers back to Thoreau, who went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately.
To put Moss in that context—as avatar of a recurrent phenomenon, rather than a singular moment in history— does not diminish her presence and her impact. Indeed, it gives them resonance by tying them to universal themes that cut across generational cohorts. Because of Salmon’s insistence Kate Moss and the Generation X moment were lightning in a bottle, rather than another whistle stop on the cyclical route of pop culture, his text comes off sounding as shallow and historically uniformed as a fan magazine. It’s sharply written, highly quotable and rigorously argued—but it rests on premises that withstand scarcely a moment’s consideration. Salmon has an impressive intellectual pedigree, but Kate Moss: The Making of an Icon reads like Tiger Beat with a Ph.D.
Jack Feerick’s years of riding the rails with his bindle has led him to New York State, where he writes for Popdose and will shank any fancy-pants French egghead as tries to steal his can o’ beans.