Friday, May 18, 2007

Style, Advertising, and the Cool Factor

This week, I turn again to the Los Angeles Times, which generously continues to provide plenty of blog fodder with show-biz and style stories that range from the encouraging to the downright depressing. Here are a few examples.

On the positive front, Gina Piccalo reported that the "celebrity posse" is now passe. The excesses of celebrity have hardly been eliminated, so expensive hairdressers, chic stylists, personal trainers and private chefs are not quaking in their Uggs (okay, I'm really out of the loop; are those still considered fashionable?). However, Piccalo reports, "Big entourages are now widely seen as the sign of a neophyte, a has-been or a wannabe." Celebrities who require throngs of service-providers or scads of hangers-on are becoming the minority.

And what could be a greater demonstration of stuff-gone-mad in contemporary life than an assortment of human beings used essentially as accessories? Celebrity posse downsizing, or, even better, its elimination, is a great example of the cool factor in action: if it's no longer cool for celebrities to be perceived as high maintenance, then low or at least lower maintenance becomes desirable. Of course, it is all a matter of perception as Piccalo notes: "Authenticity (even if it's feigned) is a sure-fire way to stand apart from the decadence . . . chronicled by . . . the tabloids." But, it's the direction of the trend that's important and that trend is headed toward "less," not "more." Ostentation, in the form of stuff or people-as-stuff, is not cool.

Another interesting story came from Mimi Avins who wrote about the "anti-heirloom" wedding dress. Designers have been infiltrating the lower-priced market for all kinds of goods for quite a few years; think of Martha Stewart and Michael Graves. Now the market for formal bridal gowns, which are usually incredibly pricey, is host to more affordable creations by the likes of Isaac Mizrahi and Viktor & Rolf, no slouches in the designer pantheon. One J. Crew spokesman said of the type of bride who would be attracted to that company's lower-priced gowns, "She has a casual attitude and a pared-down style that comes from a level of sophistication." Translation: she's cool because less is more.

Most encouraging was a comment from 'Project Runway's' stylist, Tim Gunn (sorry, I don't watch the show, but based on the following quote, I do like the way this guy thinks). In an article by Booth Moore suggesting that buying the season's "It" handbag is not necessarily the smartest decision a fashion-conscious woman can make, Gunn says, "[T]here is a kind of social embarrassment to having an It bag. I would rather say, 'Gee, this is a $4,000 bag. Why don't I spend $600 instead and give the balance to charity?'" For those of us who have difficulty comprehending any reason to spend $4,000 on a bag, this kind of comment from a popular fashion stylist represents a huge leap forward and rates a mighty cheer. Thank you, Tim Gunn, for making it clear that it's simply not cool to spend that money so thoughtlessly.

On the downside, there was also a story by Kim Christensen about Deleese Williams, a woman who planned to be on the "Extreme Makeover" reality show (again, sorry, I don't watch the program). She was going to be given major facial plastic surgery and breast implants, but her participation was cancelled because the recovery process would take too long to fit the show's production schedule. According to a lawsuit filed by Ms. Williams, her sister had been "goaded by producers into videotaping 'hurtful and horrific statements' about [Ms. Williams'] appearance to heighten the drama." The lawsuit alleges that the sister ultimately committed suicide because of her grief over having said those things and then having the show back out of the planned surgery, thus causing emotional trauma to Ms. Williams.

While it's impossible for us to know the family dynamics at work in this situation, or the emotional health of any of the participants, what we do know is that a woman was so distressed about her physical appearance that she felt it was necessary to go through major, multiple surgeries to feel all right about herself. Accompanying the article was a fairly large photograph of one woman holding up a snapshot of another woman. At first glance, before reading the article, I thought perhaps the nearly-invisible woman in the little snapshot had been the one who felt she needed surgery and that something had gone wrong in the process, leaving her "emotionally scarred," as the headline read. Not until I'd read the photo caption carefully did I realize that the other woman was the potential focus of the make-over. I was stunned.

While it's unlikely anyone would call Ms. Williams fabulously attractive in this picture, she just looked to me like an average gal. She's thin (that quality is certainly in high demand), has long hair, maybe a mole on one side of her face. Hardly someone I'd peg as a candidate for an extreme physical makeover. But my opinion doesn't count; her feelings about herself were what led her to seek such drastic means of "improvement." In her mind, she needed to get some new "physical stuff," otherwise she'd never be happy. How many other women feel the same way? Too many.

Advertisers have us under their spells. We're constantly being told that we're lacking something and that's why our lives aren't the way we want them to be. The solution? Buy whatever they're selling, whether it's an expensive wedding gown, the season's It bag, or even a whole new face. Then you'll be surrounded by an adoring posse of admirers.

Oh, wait. That posse's no longer quite so cool, nor is the ultra-expensive wedding gown, nor the extravagant handbag. If we can just get to the point where the obsessive need for the ever-young, ever-flawless face and body isn't so cool either, we'll really be making progress.

I can dream, can't I?

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob