What Is Anna Wintour Really Telling Us About Fashion?

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Anna Wintour
Anna Wintour

The message that Anna Wintour has been sending for some time on how to dress has only recently reached me. It’s a message, by the way, pertinent to men as well as women, despite Vogue‘s primary concern with women’s clothes.

Only recently, it seems to me, Vogue and sister mags have dropped those silly numbers on their covers announcing how many looks can be found inside—618, 738, 1003. (Were they truly an effective selling strategy?) The obvious intent was that inside would be presented copious updates on how to look now. Vogue and its competitor mags were telling women, Here are the clothes to buy that you’d not only like to wear but should be wearing. (Yes, men’s comparable magazines, say the same thing. The difference is that most men aren’t susceptible to such whimsical dictates. Men want to wear the same old things.)

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So as I see it, paging through Vogue isn’t the place to get Wintour’s hardcore advice. Page through the May issue, for instance, and you find the inane comment in the “Vogue.com” column:

May means only one thing here at Vogue: The Party of the Year.

In the relatively thin issue you also come upon a stunning 11-page Steven Meisel photo spread in which Fei Fei Sun wears gowns by name designers under an Asian influence. You find an article on cover girl Carey Mulligan and another on Anne Hathaway. You find a picture of Kim Kardashian, an apparent Wintour favorite, in her recent blond phase and sporting the sort of racy Givenchy number that Audrey Hepburn would never have worn. You find a couple pages on women artists to know about.

Here’s what you won’t find, unless I somehow missed it: a photograph of Wintour. A letter from the editor, yes, but nowhere a photograph of her. And Wintour certainly doesn’t lack for images of herself, though I have the feeling she’s not a selfies person.

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Anna Wintour Photo by Mauceri/MacFarlane/INFphoto.com
Anna Wintour, with sunglasses
Photo by Mauceri/MacFarlane/INFphoto

In fact, Wintour is photographed everywhere, not just at the Party of the Year, and sometimes with her large-rimmed dark glasses and sometimes without. She’s snapped in the front row at runway shows and often in something designed by whomever’s collection is getting the introduction then and there.

That’s to be expected. It’s courtesy. It’s good business, too. But Wintour is regularly photographed elsewhere—at every stripe of social function, and/or with professional or personal friends. It’s those more or less informal shots that finally twigged me to what she is really saying to those who hear the unspoken sartorial advice.

For in these photos, she quite often wears what I think amounts to a uniform. You read that right. In those photographs she almost always sports a dress with short, cupped sleeves and patterns that are bold and colorful. (Does she ever disclose who the designers are for these items? Is it one? Many? Is there a seamstress toiling away at yards of fabric just for Wintour? Does Grace Coddington know? Does anyone know?)

If Wintour has ever written about this state of apparel affairs, I haven’t read it, nor have I ever read anyone else on the subject, but once these images are considered together, it becomes impossible to dismiss her core statement, which is not unlike that of her predecessor Diana Vreeland: Find your own look, the look with which you’re most comfortable, and stick to it.

Wintour has already hinted strongly at this stance with her over-the-decades unchanging hairdo—the bob that frames her face just so, although these days it’s beginning to seem as if the coiffure is closing in on her features, like curtains closing slowly on a meaningful melodrama.

Another way to put it is that while she runs a magazine thought to be about fashion—and it is, of course—it’s assuredly about fashions, plural, but it’s also about what Wintour herself is about: style.

Indeed, what’s too often carelessly forgotten about fashion, about fashions, is that they’re there as examples of new possibilities for people who understand style. They’re there as proposed additions to the wardrobes of stylish people. They’re there to be disregarded if they’re not in line with a person’s settled-on, yet ever-evolving, style.

Fashion, in other words, is the potential building block of style, which Wintour knows, even if she doesn’t habitually stress it in Vogue. Fashions are often followed by people who don’t get the concept of style but who instead think jumping on some presumed trend will render them fashionable, which is not its purpose.

That’s what Wintour is telling us with her personal collection: Her magazine is no more nor less than a handsome tool with which to fashion style.

Maybe what’s needed is changing the common reference from “fashion magazine” to “style magazine.”