There is a single thing worth noticing about the photo shoot of Chelsea Manning, this era’s second-most-famous transgender woman, in the September issue of Vogue. She is not glamorous.
Manning’s cropped strawberry blond hair is windswept and wet, and other than what appears to be a bit of mascara and perhaps some lip balm, there is little evidence of makeup. The styling, by Phyllis Posnick, is all about looking natural and relaxed — or as much as one can while being attended to by a village of fashion editors and assistants. The backdrop is a nearly empty, rocky beach — with foamy waves in the distance — on a fairly overcast day. An empty lifeguard’s chair sits off to the side. There is nothing particularly sophisticated or chic about the setting or the styling. This is not one of those white-sand beaches dotted with elegant cabanas and oiled-up bar boys standing at the ready.
Instead, this is Everyman’s beach — a place for day trips, not summering.
This is Manning’s fashion coming out in the pages of a magazine that transforms fashion into popular culture, politics into iconography, controversy into high gloss. However one might view Manning — as a whistle-blower or a traitor — the message of this photo is accessibility, normalcy, calm.
This is a far cry from the haughty, hyper-feminine Hollywood unveiling of Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair in 2015. Jenner’s long chestnut hair was done up in flowing waves. Inside, there were more pictures featuring perfect makeup, a glittering gold evening gown, retro ivory lingerie, contoured cleavage and legs stretched long like Marlene Dietrich. Everything about Jenner’s photographs, from the cover to the inside pages, declared, loudly and emphatically: I am the visual epitome of a woman, from the top of my perfect blow-out to my stiletto heels.
Manning is not so insistent that her femininity, her womanliness, is consistent with such narrow standards. Perhaps it’s because she is younger than Jenner by almost 40 years — a millennial rather than a baby boomer. Perhaps it’s because the culture has shifted in the past two years. (And with a single presidential tweet, continues to shift.) Perhaps it’s simply because Manning and Jenner are two very different people, and blessedly, that is reflected in how they are photographed, even though both were shot by Annie Leibovitz.
In Vogue, Manning wears a red Norma Kamali one-piece swimsuit. With its sweetheart neckline and wide straps, it has a retro aesthetic. And had Manning been styled differently, with smoky eye makeup and tousled hair, it would have been the perfect costume for a pin-up. Instead, the suit, with its tummy concealing ruching along the sides, is more reassuring than sexy. As swimwear goes, it’s not especially revealing. It’s conservative. It’s purpose isn’t to flaunt the body so much as it is to flatter it.
The accompanying story by Nathan Heller is filled with detailed descriptions of the various ensembles Manning wears as Heller accompanies her to a literary party and engages her in a conversation on the banks of the Hudson River. The list of designer wear is long and impressive: Altuzarra, Marc Jacobs, the Row, Vetements. Manning notes that she has a lot of fashion news to catch up on, thanks to her detention at Fort Leavenworth military prison. She has been a fast study and is particularly enamored of collections that blur gender lines, that do not aspire to create perfection but that revel in the off-beat — the off-kilter. When she posted an image of herself on Instagram after leaving prison, her bright red lips stood out against her cropped hair and simple black dress. The picture was controlled but inviting. She looked like she was headed to the office, not declaring her personal freedom. Although sometimes, freedom can simply mean the sweet ability to just be boring.
Manning isn’t on the cover of Vogue. Jennifer Lawrence stars in four different versions of the September issue, which celebrates the magazine’s 125th anniversary. And she gets the full Vogue fantasy gloss, dressed up as everything from a screen siren to (sort of) a 19th-century debutante. Manning isn’t even a head-turner. She doesn’t startle you by how pretty she looks. She is so pale against the washed out sky and the sand. The swimsuit pops into focus before she does. Manning is looking directly at the camera and smiling. She doesn’t look relaxed. (Perhaps only a professional celebrity could fully exhale in the bullseye of Leibovitz’s lens.) But Manning definitely looks pleased.