By Lauren De’Ath
This is an edited excerpt from essay that discusses reading celebrity as ‘signs’ relative to their time and the subsequent ubiquity of “Brand Kardashian” in the digital age.
The constitution of good taste is often part and parcel of notions of class and authority. If ‘good taste’ is Vogue magazine, ‘bad taste’ is Pick Me Up. If ‘good’ is Amal Alamuddin, ‘bad’ is Kim Kardashian. But what happens when those two worlds collide? In 2014 Kim Kardashian appeared on American Vogue as their April cover girl. The contentious public reaction was one of the most polarising in media history and can tell us a lot about the changing face of Vogue and Kardashian- as a ‘sign’ of the postmodern age. Is her jump from relatively low-brow celebrity publications to the sophisticated world of ‘high fashion’ indicative of her perceived rising cultural value, or a mere cynical reflection of the consumerist nature of the fashion magazine?
In the UK, the only other women to have been criticised in similar circumstances were Cheryl Cole for her February 2009 Vogue cover and Victoria Beckham in 2008 (prior to launching her eponymous fashion label). The similarities between these women are clear in that they signify a diversification of females displayed in fashion magazines. Primarily, they are working class, grass-roots-up women who are perceived as ‘achieving’ fashionability by negative connotations of fame and fortune rather than possessing it ‘innately’ by talent and style. The notion that fashion is somehow a natural and inborn, as exemplified by the increasing youthfulness of industry models, implies that fashion has naturalised, unspoken rules and those rules are unyielding. Secondarily, both Cole and Kardashian imply an ‘ambiguous ethnicity’ that evokes the contrived invisibility of racism and racial issues in contemporary America and Britain. They both challenge the commercialisation of ‘whiteness’ and the standardisation of white, Caucasian models. Furthermore, Kardashian and her husband Kanye West are only the second interracial Vogue cover and the first to be sexually active with each other. This intersectional ethnicity speaks to a millenial generation’s fixation with post-race, borderless society.
According to Chris Rojek (2001) celebrities are the sum and creation of human needs and desire. There is something altogether democratic about celebrity; that they are in part created and sustained by the wider public. However, perhaps this is where the mass appeal and egalitarian notions of celebrity clashes with Vogue’s predisposition towards high culture and exclusivity. Much of our ideas of class and taste have remained unchanged since the Renaissance.
In Brillat-Severin’s 1825 text The Physiology of Taste, ‘good taste’ was a harnessing of ‘the senses to greater aesthetic purposes’ where ‘sound’ gives way to ‘melody, harmony, the dance and music’ and ‘sight’ to ‘painting, sculpture’. Physical love however is referred to as a tyrant ‘according to its invariable wont [sic]’. The themes of sexual desire as being somehow outside the remit of human control continues to seep into interpretations of human agency as well as reinforcing how notions of sexuality, reproduction and fecundity are somehow tasteless, lower and ‘Other’. Perhaps these ideas can be applied to the fashion industry’s reaction to Kardashian’s own endomorphic female form, where wide hips and large breasts signal maternality and reproductivity- at once defying the norms of the standard waif-like fashion model but also hinting at an overt, irrepressible sexuality- with all its existentially threatening pornographic affiliations. Notionally, these combined with Kardashian’s sex tape, do not sit well with Vogue’s generational readers’ overdeveloped sense of propriety and underdeveloped ‘female gaze’; the idea that women might get enjoyment from viewing another woman’s body by employing a homospectatorial look (Fuss, 1992). The traditional models with their narrow-hipped, boyish figures do not aggravate otherwise foreign feelings of inter-female desire that may be more accepted in younger generations who have grown up alongside an erotically-liberal, if not, pornofied mediascape.
Likewise, the Internet and social media has largely given way to a culture of sharing and baring all; a shameless necessity to uncover the private that imitates the culture of ‘the porno’. This gives rise to questions of dress and the act of dressing as a private event; the present-day proliferation of behind-the-scenes and dressing-room ‘selfies’ of models and celebrities threatens to- literally- expose and thus undermine the art of dress by rendering fashionable clothing more human and thus practical and low. Posed shots as symbolic of the culmination of the preparation and ‘labour of beauty’ are more artful and reflective of the whimsical ‘old world’ of fashion. As cultural and model theorist Stephanie Sadre-Orefai writes, ‘Models are expected to be…iconic and indexical’ but never literal.
The similarities between porn, celebrity and glamour are tacit in their cheapening characteristic abundance and excess. As Kardashian says in the corresponding Vogue interview with Hamish Bowles, ‘I just love to be so over-the-top’. Of course in exhibiting a garish veridical self, her brazenness is no doubt an aggravation to the more understated Vogue reader. Cultural historian Pamela Church Gibson (2014) in her article on ‘Pornostyle’ muses on the increasingly visible pregnant working class body in ‘high’ cultural scenarios, including fashion events. Using Beverley Skeggs (2008) she suggests that Vogue US’ decision to edit out pregnant Kardashian from press coverage of the Met Ball was symbolic of a pervading fear within the upper/middle classes of a multiplying lower class. These resonate concepts by film theorist Karen Beckman (2003) who suggests that in periods of women are dangerously vocal and visible in society, there is a tendency for establishments to ‘erase completely those [women] deemed superfluous’.
In a digital world however, this is an increasingly more difficult feat. Irregardless of the autonymity of the Internet which renders the dissemination of information democratic and limitless; who or what constitutes the ‘establishment’ and the power players are less and less easily defined leaving aristocratic, exclusive and excluding Vogue in existential crisis and Kim as the power player of her time.