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Lives of the Fashion Saints
by Anne Steacy

In her introduction to this bizarre offering, Marian Fowler enthuses that it can be read as a manual to master "a revitalized concept of what it means to be female." The reader is then treated to a surprising set of feminist ideals, catalogue of virtues: heroic bulimia (Marlene Dietrich), transcendent dishonesty (Jackie Kennedy), altruistic manic-compulsion (the Empress Eugénie of France), emancipated cattiness (Elinor Glyn), finely honed manipulation (Wallis Simpson), single-minded self-absorption (all of the foregoing), and a gushing series of staggering excesses in the name of image. In her final chapter, Fowler worshipfully rhapsodizes: "Five women put on the habit of style, and took their vows. In its service they were dedicated, infinitely patient through long hours of fittings, disciplined enough to starve themselves to keep the line. Once the Duchess of Windsor asked [the designer] Mainbocher to make the skirt of a new creation tighter over the hips. `But your Royal Highness,' he protested, `if I do you won't be able to sit down.' `Then I won't sit down,' sighed the Duchess. There speaks a true disciple of style." Fowler, in summation, has the answer for contemporary womankind's existential and political dilemmas: gracefully floating scarves and hats with little veils.
Why would an author who presents herself as an educator publish something so silly and so damaging to girls? The Way She Looks Tonight comprises five brief biographies of women who influenced fashion, focusing on their clothes and props as tools of communication. Fowler skips gaily over episodes of abuse mounted on girls and women: ".publisher Gerald Duckworth-best known to posterity as the rogue who fondled a young Virginia Woolf and turned her off sex for life.." All five of these anorexic, desperate headline-makers were screaming the social and economic plight of women, through their made-up images: Glyn, by writing about trapping rich men, Dietrich by playing prostitutes. Fowler praises what amounts in each case to a terrified, greedy, and shallow quest. And though she can be funny-"a listing Napoleon III.leaning on his favourite rhinoceros-penis walking stick"-Fowler often sheds her sense of humour: of the demand for leopard coats just like Jackie's, which put that cat on the endangered species list (where it still remains), she writes, "This is serious fashion influence."
Clothed in endless cloying, hyperbolic descriptions of glamour-the language mounts like waves of hysterics toward such phrases as: "When parrot green met silver fox, Glamour began its slow, sure rise to highest billing and greatest beauty"-the book appears really to be a bitter rant against the way young women today behave and what they wear: "Mystery is `woman's basic metaphor'-a fact which present-day sex goddesses, baring their bodies to almost total nudity, might do well to remember"; "Elinor's confident chic, packed into trunks and hatboxes in the hold of the Mauretania, can encourage and hearten women readers of the baby-boom or an earlier generation who are tired of flipping through fashion magazines showing nothing but scanty designs suitable for sixteen-year-olds"; "Dior's New Look was the Last Look at really ladylike clothes before mods, minis, almost-naked full frontal fashions and other aberrations took over." Or perhaps it is merely a wistful, pitiable call to arms: Fowler places a strong emphasis on the need for adulation of mature women. Indeed, she tops her many abrupt, blanket assertions with this: "By the year 2000, thirty per cent of all adult American women"-she is Canadian herself-"will be age fifty and over. This powerful group will number forty-two million, and every one of them who remains free of cancer and heart disease will live to celebrate her ninety-second birthday. In light of these amazing demographic changes, it's high time to lead glamour back to the fountain of age." It is pretty surprising that none will be killed by men, starvation, or despair bred by the kind of society that places a high priority on conspicuous consumption. Fowler sublimates research material into first-person descriptions of her subjects' feelings and thoughts. For instance, "When Jackie saw herself in the large gilt mirrors.she gasped with the wonder of it all, for what she saw was a young and beautiful reigning monarch."
Descriptions of these heroines gagging, stumbling, and wearing tape and diapers in their pursuit of fame and power-juxtaposed with overwrought verbal caresses of chinchilla, chiffon, chenille, and cabochons and metaphors stretched like a 30A over a 42DDD-descend to their most absurd when, after a description of Dietrich as a drunken, drop-footed, bedridden recluse, signing photos for fans a couple of feet away from garbage cans for her urine and feces, Fowler says: "Eros stayed almost to the end." Her justification for this statement, aside from Dietrich's use of a Limoges pitcher as a bedpan, appears to be that at eighty-five the actress sent an itsy-bitsy pair of smelly Dior drawers to an admirer.
Why would Fowler lionize five essentially unhappy women? Why would she adorn them with beautiful descriptions of imprisonment: "A white evening gown [of Wallis's] had a huge red lobster frantically clawing its way down the front towards the ground, and freedom"; "Marlene was becoming victim and prisoner of her own wondrous creation, well and truly caught in crystal talons and coils of chiffon." Perhaps I got caught in Fowler's veil of lycra and lace and failed to see that it was a magnificent, sable-clad joke in the guise of tulle floating over the rash on society's bottom, not a giddy slash of pearlescent eyeshadow on the brow of biography.

Anne Steacy is a Toronto writer


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