The Devil Wears Durkheim

Devil_wears_prada One good thing about life on the road is the opportunity to catch up on movies.  On the flight  over, I saw Casino Royale, and as I bounced around Germany, I saw Children of Men, Nacho Libre, Departed, and The Devil Wears Prada.

I was surprised how sympathetically "Devil" presents the fashion industry.  It ends, as it must, with Andy Sachs repudiating the fashion world and taking a "real" job at a "serious" newspaper.  In the meantime, director David Frankel and writers Lauren Weisberger and Aline Brosh McKenna manage a more sophisticated view.

At one point in the film, Andy (Anne Hathaway) dares to laugh as Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) struggles to make an editorial decision.  Miranda challenges her, and Andy replies,

No, no, nothing. Y’know, it’s just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. Y’know, I’m still learning about all this stuff.

Miranda says,

This… ‘stuff’?  Oh… ok.  I see.  You think this has nothing to do with you.  You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back.  But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean.  You’re also blindly unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns.  And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets?  And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers.  Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of a clearance bin.  However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.  From a pile of stuff.

We don’t like the fact that the fashion world helps construct our culture.  Should something so superficial be allowed to give shape to who and what we are?  Most say "no."  Especially when the architects of the industry appear to be not only superficial but mean, demeaning, selfish, egotistical and vain. 

So condemnation is the order of the day.  In this case, Anna Wintour and Vogue were irresistible targets.  (The film is of course based on a book of the same name, and this reports, in fictional form, the author’s stint as a Wintour’s assistant.)

The trouble with the traditional view is that it often fills fans of fashion with a certain self loathing.  Their love of fashion obliges them to hate themselves…at least a little.  How could they care about shoes and handbags?  Can they really be a superficial as this ?

So it was a pleasure to hear another argument, especially when given so beautifully by the preeminent actress of the American cinema. True, the balance offered by Devil does not represent  the intellectual versatility of a Russian novelist, but it is vastly better than the monochromatic approach of the average film.  It may also be evidence that contemporary culture is mustering a more intelligent view of itself.  Well done, Frankel and company.

References

I thank unamed volunteers at Internet Movie Database for the transcription of the passage above.  There are more quotes from the movie here.

For the full imdb treatment of The Devil Wears Prada, go here.

Acknowledgements

To Joan Kron who taught me to take fashion seriously.    

9 thoughts on “The Devil Wears Durkheim”

  1. That fine moment was balanced by Meryl Streep’s bravery in appearing with what appeared to be zilch makeup, in a scene with quite different emotions.

    The surface thrust of the emotional scene (her husband had left her) was, she had poured too much into her job. But I thought, plenty of marriages break up, more’s the pity. If that happens, it’s kind of nice that the wife rolls off in a limo with an assistant.

    Not a bad film, with probably necessary sops thrown to the feminist (fashion is too much ado about too little) and post-feminist (don’t shortchange your emotional life [while having everything anyway]) narratives, but setting up some traction for more humane ambiguities.

    Don’t you think the tonal mix observable in Devil/Prada would work well in 21st-century advertising (and other messages), which seems to have tilted thus far toward GenY(?)-ironic and neo-hip audience flattery? But then I don’t see TV, so maybe it’s already there.

  2. You know what…you’ll never believe this but I saw this in a hotel room at a Casino on the REZ in Edmonton…and that very quote you posted…I thought…”I wonder if Grant has seen this movie?” I swear, I’m not making this up…I thought it was such a brilliant scene and statement and overview of how unconnected we are with some of our things and where they came from…and I thought of you and your blog!

    Candy who is a bit of a fashionista…

  3. I’ve become more fashion-tolerant than I used to be, but the scene actually made no sense. Gee, there was a chain of cause and effect, unnoticed by Andy that led to a cerulean sweater lying in a bargain bin when she happened to need a sweater.

    So what? That should do nothing, logically, to change Andy’s opinion that it was a matter of complete indifference to HER whether she ended up buying a cerulean, white, or orange sweater, nor her opinion that people who do worry about such things are frivolous and superficial. You can’t derive an ought from an is–in this case, you can’t derive “you ought to care about the fashion process” from “color diffusion in the apparel market results from conscious choices by particular designers.”

    Exacting choices of color can be defended better than that.

  4. The scene you quote is my favorite in the film. I think the point Andy was trying to make was that she was unaffected by fashion. By calling it “that stuff” she was articulating her distance from it. She didn’t care about it because she defined it as irrelevant to her life. I don’t think the point was that she should CARE about fashion but that it is impossible for her to be OUTSIDE fashion. There is no “outside.”

    The idea that any of us are outside the coding mechanisms of culture is impossible, as you know very well, Grant. “Not participating” in the system that produces “this stuff” would mean dropping out in ways too radical for most of us to contemplate. Grabbing a sweater from the bargain basement of a department store is as much a “fashion statement” as wearing an Hermes scarf, just a very different one.

  5. Tom: No, grabbing something indiscriminately from the bargain bin is not necessarily a fashion statement (although it could be). A statement implies an intention to communicate.

    Observers may be able to draw correct inferences about a person from his apparel, but that is not proof that the person is making statements; otherwise, observing that his fly is open would be proof that he is a flasher. A person may simply be unaware or not pay attention to certain aspects of his personal presentation. This inattention could be due to inadvertence, incompetence, or indifference.

    Andy was subjectively “unaffected” by fashion to the extent that she didn’t notice it. (Of course, she was objectively affected by fashion because other people noticed her appearance in comparison with others and treated her differently as a result.) But to the extent that she didn’t give a damn whether her sweater was cerulean or aqua or azure, Miranda’s rebuke misses the mark because it doesn’t prove that she should care.

  6. Steve: there are myriad level of “intention” through which we communicate. Andy’s “unaffectedness” seemed “affected” to Miranda by virtue of her dismissive “this stuff” remark. That comment came across to Miranda as a studied rebuke of Miranda’s world, a purposeful stand against, not a genuine “not caring.” If not for that “off the cuff” comment Miranda’s soliloquy would make no sense.

    One does not simply find oneself at the bargain bin. One makes a long series of choices, some less reflectively than others, to get to that place. Somehow, they are all connected with one’s “identity.”

  7. Of course Andy was making a statement with her clothing, but not one about color. Andy was laughing because she thought it was a ludicrous waste of brainpower to worry about which exact shade of color to pick for the belt. Miranda argued that such choices were important because they determined what colors ended up on Andy’s back.

    But if Andy didn’t care–if she would have been just as happy had the fashion machinery delivered some other color to the bargain bin and thought all serious people should be similarly indifferent–then Miranda’s argument for the importance of that machinery is beside the point. The color choices of the fashionistas had no effect on Andy’s ability to make her statement that she didn’t care much about her clothes. So Miranda’s argument that the colors had been “chosen for her” by the fashion community was irrelevant.

  8. Considered this the paramount scene in the movie: the thesis laid bare: Fashion matters. As weak an argument as it may seem: of course you’re both right (Steve and Tom). Your arguing both sides of the inherent conflict of the scene. But the true artistry of scene is Miranda’s absolute righteousness and comfort and authority – later stripped away entirely when we realize that for all her decisiveness and confidence dressing people, she lacks power and grace with the people, themselves. Business v. Personal Life. I thought the great message of the movie was: Balance. Nothing is as important – or unimportant – as it seems.

    And it made me reconsider fashion – and the clearance rack – in a new light.

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