In November 2003, the Prince’s Trust, an organization set up by Prince Charles to help disadvantaged young people, organized a charity event in the Albert Hall: “Fashion Rocks,” a collaboration between the worlds of music and fashion. It was hosted by Elizabeth Hurley, the epitome of a new type of celebrity. She has been photographed constantly for nearly ten years, and used for countless magazine covers, including British Vogue. She has a multimillion-dollar contract with Estée Lauder, and her private life is constantly subject to close tabloid scrutiny. Everyone, it seems, knows who she is—she is often named in headlines as, simply, “Liz.” If a job description is ever necessary, she is referred to as “model and actress.” Yet apart from magazine covers where she is used because of her celebrity, and the Lauder campaign, she does no modeling. The films in which she has appeared—with the exception of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) have done very badly at the box office. It would be more accurate to say that she is part of a new group of celebrities who have been instantly created by and perpetuated within the media. She is, quite simply, a construct—and, paradoxically, it is this that makes her a celebrity.
Her career in fact began in 1994, at the London premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral. She accompanied her boyfriend, Hugh Grant, and borrowed a dress from the London offices of Versace. The black dress was short and revealing—held together by large, strategically placed safety pins. The following day she appeared on the front page of all tabloid and middle-market newspapers in Britain, while even the broadsheets saw fit to include the “story” on their inside pages. Since then, she has been continually photographed, and the dress has been retrospectively discussed as “That Dress.” Indeed, when Grant was convicted of an indiscretion with a Hollywood prostitute, the English Sunday paper found the woman in question and photographed her wearing a red version of the Versace dress, which they put on their front page. Unsurprisingly, Versace has offered Hurley clothes for every subsequent photo opportunity, and she has repaid them by being photographed in all of them. One of the dresses was slit so high up the thigh that it revealed a pair of knickers in a leopard-print fabric to match the dress. Hurley is a perfect example of the new breed of fashion celebrity for, unlike fashion celebrities of the past, her taste is often deemed to be questionable. On this particular occasion, she was censured in the press for having worn this outfit, since it was to a “society wedding,” and it was suggested that she had wished to divert attention away from the bride. This is in direct contrast to the former notion of a fashion celebrity who attained his or her status precisely because their taste in clothes was deemed to be excellent.
While there are still fashion celebrities who have been selected for their ability to look stylish—the model Kate Moss is a perfect example—the majority of today’s celebrities are seen as legitimate targets for sartorial criticism. A weekly staple of journalism is now a roundup of the past week’s fashion triumphs and disasters; if a celebrity wears a particularly unbecoming or unsuitable outfit, an appearance in the papers the very next morning is guaranteed.
A “celebrity,” however, as opposed to an “icon,” has always had a notoriety over and above the sum of their talent. But one of the many problems with today’s culture of celebrity is a seeming disregard for the absence of any particular talent apart from the simple fact of being photogenic. Another is the disproportionate amount of media attention given over to celebrity stories. The past decade has seen an unprecedented growth in the cult of the celebrity—it is very different from the carefully controlled interest in “stars” that characterized the heyday of Hollywood.
Interestingly, it has meant huge shifts within the fashion industry, which seem to have gone at times unremarked. For instance, it was traditional within magazine journalism—from its infancy at the end of the last century until the late 1990s—for leading fashion journalists to have some effect on the success or failure of a particular collection, a particular look, and for the journalists themselves, if prestigious enough, to be able to assist the career of new designers. Some journalists are still sufficiently well known to be photographed as celebrities in their own right, known for their own particular style. Just as from the 1930s to the 1950s the characteristic “look” of Diana Vreeland was frequently discussed, so today Anna Piaggi of Italian Vogue is still photographed, as is Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune. However, these are among a few exceptions—arguably the photographs from the collections are now of the celebrities in the front row—and it is their choice of designer or outfit which makes for success. Julien Macdonald owes his career as a designer to the fact that he was asked, early on, to design for Kylie Minogue. Donatella Versace has ensured the continued good fortunes of the house for which she designs not only through her shrewd use of different celebrities—she organized a wedding party for Jennifer Lopez, and always dresses singers for music award ceremonies—but through the fact that she has become a fashion celebrity in her own right. Her characteristic heavy makeup, long bleached-blonde hair, and year-round suntan are the constant focus of media comment.
Not only have journalists lost their power over designers, they have watched their employers make radical changes to cope with the new obsession with celebrity. The magazine InStyle, launched in America in 1998 by the publishers of People, has been extremely successful and has created a new template for fashion journalism both in America and the United Kingdom. Celebrities, rather than models, are now used for many cover shots, while the fashion and beauty pages tell their readers how to emulate particular star “looks.”
Journalism has gone through extraordinary changes over the last century. A hundred years ago, “celebrity photographs” were rare within magazine journalism, and tended to involve the aristocracy or royalty. There was still some use of sketches; the British magazine Queen was specifically set up to portray the weekly activities of Queen Victoria and her companions and to depict the lifestyle of the very uppermost echelons of British society, and these scenes could not be photographed. But the development of the cinema brought the royal family onto the screen in newsreels, and they became the subject of special short films on ceremonial occasions. Princess Alexandra—later Queen herself—was of great interest because of her elegance in dress—royalty and aristocracy continued to be of interest as the new media forms developed. In the period between the two World Wars, Pond’s ran a famous advertising campaign which used “society ladies,” invariably titled, to endorse their range of skin-care products. But tastes gradually changed—celebrity endorsement for cosmetics and beauty products was more likely, by 1939, to involve a Hollywood star.
As advertising has become more sophisticated, so it has cast its net more widely. Not only has it used celebrities from every sphere of activity—the first sportsman to appear in a fashion-related advertisement was Henry Cooper, the British boxing champion, who advertised the aftershave, Brut, in the 1970s—but it has also created its own minor, usually transient, celebrities through its campaigns. A perfect example within the fashion sphere was the Calvin Klein men’s underwear campaign, which ran during 2002 – 2003 and used an obscure young surfer, Travis, rather than a well-known model or a famous figure. Research showed that although women responded very positively to his image, men found his long hair and soft features off-putting. He was replaced in the Autumn 2003 campaign by the Arsenal soccer star, Fredrik Ljungberg, who has a more macho image—his hair is shaved, he wears a medallion, and the pictures all show clearly the large black panther tattooed on his lower abdomen.
Interestingly, despite the growing popularity of sports over the past century, fashion advertising was relatively slow to involve sportsmen and women. Things changed during the 1980s and 1990s—arguably Nike owes its global dominance to its use of the basketball star Michael Jordan, and more recently they have used international footballers such as Edgar Davits. The tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams have appeared on magazine covers and lent their names to sportswear, while the Russian Anna Kournikova was used for a Berlei bra campaign with the tag line “Only the balls should bounce.”
The most notable development within the 1990s, however, has been the link forged between fashion and soccer. Eric Cantona appeared on the catwalk for John Paul Gaultier, while younger stars have modeled in men’s fashion magazines. David Beckham’s enormous popularity has meant that he has moved from fashion-related advertising—sunglasses, watches, children’s clothes—and magazine shoots to becoming a global brand in himself. He and his wife, the former Posh Spice, went on a tour of America in 2003 when their agents advised them that it was necessary, given the fact that many Americans are unfamiliar with soccer stars. He and his wife are important because they are among the new “celebrity couples” whose activities the media can chronicle and whose image is of interest. Their American counterparts are perhaps Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston—she was voted “The Most Popular Person in America” in the Forbes poll of July 2003. However, apart from Aniston’s early contract with L’Oreal, neither she nor Pitt has taken part in direct advertising. Nevertheless, they can “endorse” products simply by wearing them when snapped on the street—they have popularized Maharishi trousers and Birkenstock sandals.
Celebrities within the music industry have been courted, too, both in the 1960s and more recently. In the past singers were used in fashion spreads or asked to lend their name to a range of merchandise—now they are directly approached by leading fashion brands to join film stars in rendering “luxury brands” more democratic. Donna Karan used Bruce Willis, action-man hero, in the 1990s, while Madonna modeled Tom Ford’s early designs for Gucci. She also appeared in a Versace campaign photographed by Herb Ritts—but recently she has lent her celebrity to the high street, in a Gap television commercial with Missy Elliott. The high-fashion brands have tried to widen their appeal through the use of singers such as Christina Aguilera, in the Versace campaign for Autumn 2003, and Jennifer Lopez, used by Louis Vuit-ton in the same season. At the same moment, Tommy Hilfiger announced that he wanted to create a new image for his sportswear and had recruited the musician David Bowie and his wife, the ex-model Iman, currently working for Bulgari. Hilfiger sportswear is currently popular among the young and has some “street credibility”—this latest celebrity appointment suggests an attempt to interest forty-somethings in his sportswear, based perhaps on the success of Juicy Couture tracksuits after Madonna and Jennifer Lopez were photographed wearing them. Rap stars have been courted assiduously in an attempt to gain the kind of appeal Hilfiger’s range possesses; the singer P. Diddy has launched a collection of casual wear, Sean Jean—while in another attempt to give expensive brands a broader appeal, Missy Elliott has been used as the face of Garrards, the royal jewelers.
This new reliance on celebrities for high-fashion endorsement is not worrying in itself—what is problematic, both within the industry and, more importantly, in a wider sociological context, are the sociological and psychological implications of celebrity obsession. It is tempting and not too far-fetched to suggest that the current climate owes much to the life—and unfortunate death—of Diana, Princess of Wales. In the early 1980s, she was far from being a glamorous fashion icon—and it was this perceived “ordinariness” that made her so appealing to the press at first. She had a haircut and a taste for frilly blouses that set trends precisely because this Earl’s daughter seemed to the public to be “one of them,” however false that assumption was. Her experiments with different hairstyles and her fashion education—she received guidance from the staff of British Vogue—were avidly followed. So too was the developing drama within her personal life. She featured in newspapers worldwide, and magazine editors found that her face on a cover guaranteed sales. Her battles with her weight—and her admission of her bulimia— were chronicled as carefully as the problems within her private life. When she died, the scenes in England were both extraordinary and unprecedented.
Arguably, the public had developed over two decades a need, even a craving, for celebrity worship—and the press has responded. The current pathological interest in body image, with its accounts of the different diets and fitness regimes followed by particular celebrities, seems to be spiraling out of control. And certainly in Britain, there is concern about the size of individual credit-card debt. A recent survey showed that the average woman now spends far more on shoes than in the past, and this is possibly linked to the fact that “Manolos” have become a household name through the television program “Sex and the City.” They were worn not only on-screen by the heroine, Carrie Bradshaw, but by the actress Sarah Jessica Parker, who herself became a style icon. The new attempts to copy star images, decor, and lifestyle, the hours spent scouring celebrity websites, can only make for a stifling of individuality in dress, a feeling of discontent, and, more disturbingly, an unhappiness with faces or bodies that are not perfect.
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