George Orwell Blasts American Fashion Magazines (1946)

Vogue-1940s

While the print magazine industry as a whole has seen better days, publications dedicated to women’s fashion still go surprisingly strong. Perhaps as a result, they’ve continued to attract criticism, not least for their highly specific, often highly altered visions of the supposedly ideal body image emblazoned across their covers. One critic called it an “overbred, exhausted, even decadent style of beauty,” with nearly all of the women on display “immensely elongated” with narrow hips and “slender, non-prehensile hands like those of a lizard.”

This hardly counts as a recent phenomenon; that particular criticism comes from 1946, the critic none other than Animal Farm and 1984 author George Orwell. He lodged his complaint against an “American fashion magazine which shall be nameless” in his “As I Please” column for the British TribuneThe New Republic, which subsequently ran Orwell’s broadside stateside, re-published it on their web site last year. On the magazine’s cover Orwell sees a photograph of “the usual elegant female, standing on a chair while a gray-haired, spectacled, crushed-looking man in shirtsleeves kneels at her feet” — a tailor about to take a measurement. “But to a casual glance he looks as though he were kissing the hem of the woman’s garment—not a bad symbolical picture of American civilization.”

But this wouldn’t count as an Orwellian indictment of the state of Western society without a harsh assessment of the language used, and the author of “Politics and the English Language” doesn’t neglect to make one here. In the fashion magazine Orwell finds “an extraordinary mixture of sheer lushness with clipped and sometimes very expensive technical jargon. Words like suave-mannered, custom-finished, contour-conforming, mitt-back, inner-sole, backdip, midriff, swoosh, swash, curvaceous, slenderize and pet-smooth are flung about with evident full expectation that the reader will understand them at a glance. Here are a few sample sentences taken at random”:

“A new Shimmer Sheen color that sets your hands and his head in a whirl.” “Bared and beautifully bosomy.” “Feathery-light Milliken Fleece to keep her kitten-snug!” “Others see you through a veil of sheer beauty, and they wonder why!” “An exclamation point of a dress that depends on fluid fabric for much of its drama.” “The miracle of figure flattery!” “Molds your bosom into proud feminine lines.” “Isn’t it wonderful to know that Corsets wash and wear and whittle you down… even though they weigh only four ounces!” “The distilled witchery of one woman who was forever desirable… forever beloved… Forever Amber.” And so on and so on and so on.

From what I can tell by the fashion magazines of 2015 my girlfriend leaves around the house, while the specific terminology might have changed, the brand-strewn overall wordscape of meaninglessness and obscurantism remains. Orwell surely didn’t foresee that lamentable linguistic and aesthetic situation changing any time soon — though it might surprise him that, despite it all, American civilization itself, in its characteristically unsleek, inelegant, and provisional way, has continued lumbering on.

You can read Orwell’s short essay on Fashion here.

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Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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  • Ben O! says:

    Theirs a lot of language in fashion magazines are portmanteaus (combinations) of words that often have onomatopoeic qualities (words sound like what they mean). We should recognize the beguiling potential of fashion jargon to convince people to buy, but not dismiss the aesthetic pleasure that this jargon and similar less meaningful sentences and phrases can instill in the listener/reader.

  • Arletta says:

    Lumbering on? Yes! Like a great wounded beast, stumbling and crashing through the forest, in its death throes, being sung to its death by the bewitching the beguiling, the sleek, the sultyr, the incredibly and inevitably fake queens who demand the peasant class kiss the hem of their robes, though they offer nothing in return but meaningless words.

    Orwell would not be surprised. He would see the slipping further and further into decay, of America, just as Rome.

  • Arletta says:

    However, for the record, I agree with the comment about the aesthetic pleasures of the wording in such magazines. Oh, not the really stupid bits, but, much of it.

    Plus, it is a learning opportunity, to pay attention to the non-stupid bits. When you go to a store and tell the clerk you need a dress, and, that clerk asks you questions to narrow your choices down, how will you answer, if you don’t know what they are talking about?

    You can’t. So, it’s just as well that you’ve learned what contrast piping on a 1940’s inspired lapel, with an exaggerated peplum and narrow waist fit in a sumptuous caramel suede, topping a bronzed silk swish of a skirt with blooming lilies seed bead hem detail really means.Not to mention all the other things you’ve learned. Because, if you are a woman, and, you go anywhere, and you want to wear decentish clothes to wherever it is you go, you are going to need to know at least some of that.

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