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 Tribune. The 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.
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.