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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

George Orwell Reviews Mein Kampf (1940)

The Only Known Footage of George Orwell (Cir­ca 1921)

George Orwell and Dou­glas Adams Explain How to Make a Prop­er Cup of Tea

For 95 Min­utes, the BBC Brings George Orwell to Life

George Orwell’s Final Warn­ing: Don’t Let This Night­mare Sit­u­a­tion Hap­pen. It Depends on You!

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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Comments (4)
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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.

  • zindagi hacks says:

    Here’s an end to your strug­gle of find­ing the best out­fit for every occa­sion. Explore women fash­ion tips for dif­fer­ent events & needs with styling guides.

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