The thick September issues of fashion magazines are landing on newsstands: THWACK! They are such a big deal in the publishing world, companies brag about their advertisements appearing in them, as if they had not paid handsomely for the honor.
The magazines boast some flashy selling points: Sharon Stone poses naked for Harper’s Bazaar. Serena Williams does a muscle-defying split while balanced on parallel bars for New York magazine. (Technically, it’s an August issue, but it’s the bi-weekly’s big fall fashion one.) Vogue has been beating the drums for its cover girl, Beyoncé.
These are all terrific images, but one wishes that these photographs would tell us something we didn’t already know. Or that they would drive home the already familiar messages in a new way. If fashion doesn’t offer us transformations, what’s it selling point?
Most photographs of Williams, for example, tend to emphasize her curves and her strength. It would be more intriguing to see her power captured in a way that does not rely on leaving readers gobsmacked over her washboard abs. The New York magazine story talks about the racial politics of discussing her power over her grace on the tennis court. But the images, with Williams in bodysuits, swimsuits and a clingy black dress, speak more directly to her muscular physique rather than her athletic grace.
But it’s the Vogue cover and accompanying online video that are especially disappointing in their familiarity. In the Mario Testino photograph, Beyoncé is wearing a beautifully embroidered, blush-colored Marc Jacobs dress. A ruby, sequined coat is tossed over one shoulder. This same look was the finale of Jacobs’s fall 2015 runway show, but it has been wholly transformed. On the runway model’s angular physique, the gown and coat had a nonchalant glamour. One could imagine her draped lazily on a chaise with a martini in one hand.
There is nothing nonchalant about Beyoncé. One cannot imagine her languidly draped over anything. Ever. In the Vogue cover photo, the dress fits close to her curves, and sitting would be an affront to the perfect hourglass that has been deftly created. She is leaning against the arched wooden ornamentation of a formal interior. And in her chest-out, back-arched stance, the ensemble is sexy. Beyoncé looks directly at the reader. Her gaze is strong, and her lips are slightly parted. This is the third time Beyoncé has been on the cover of one of American Vogue’s regular issues. And in each instance, her expression has been essentially the same. Strong, authoritative, seductive. Lips parted.
Which is why, for all the beautiful clothes — from Jacobs’s dress on the cover to the exquisite Atelier Versace gown that she wears on one of the inside pages — there is something disappointing about the imagery.
We have seen this before.
We have seen Beyoncé wearing dresses with a mermaid silhouette that are designed to accentuate her figure. And even though Jacobs’s dress has straight lines and a near flapper-esque sensibility, Beyoncé is situated in such a way that that ease and movement are lost. We have seen Beyoncé’s rump before, most famously — if not most recently — at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala. It remains quite something to behold.
And so, as a matter of myth-making, Beyoncé remains on message, further solidifying — Can what was already rock-solid become even more immutable? — her image. It also helps that the hairstylist, makeup artist and manicurist for the Vogue shoot have all been on team Beyoncé for a long time. And in the magazine, she looks a little “Drunk In Love” mixed with “Flawless” mixed with daylight and a good mood.
There is also an accompanying video, on which Beyoncé served as creative director alongside Todd Tourso who serves in that role on her various other endeavors and live performances, which would explain why the video of the Vogue photo shoot looks like a Beyoncé video rather than a behind-the-scenes Vogue one that would have given the reader a few hints as to how the magic was made.
This is all makes for pretty pictures, but not the kind of extraordinary images that stick in the memory or help one consider a well-known person in a new way. To be clear, this is Vogue and so one doesn’t expect to have facades stripped away and a subject’s soul revealed. But Vogue has always been the lead instigator in its photographs. It excels at cultural fantasies and social fables.
For the political woman, Vogue can create an idealized image of power as aphrodisiac, only in the magazine’s hands it is the man who is invited to swoon over the authoritative perfume of womanhood. Vogue has a history of painting motley or outrageous performers such as Lady Gaga with a patina of glamour. In 2014, it risked alienating its readers who are fashion purists by welcoming Kim Kardashian West into the fold. The queen of Instagram gave the magazine newsstand sales and in return Kardashian West received an air-brushing of understated, uptown acceptability.
The Beyoncé cover gives us stasis.
In an era when media has shattered into a million different niche publications and Web sites, Vogue remains a fashion benchmark. Those who are on its cover continue to look like themselves, but as re-imagined by Vogue. They become a fashion myth that inspires, infuriates, romances and dictates.
Vogue didn’t touch Brand Beyoncé. So okay, more power to her for independence. But that also means that the possibility of a magical moment, even an edifying one, was lost.