More Than Just A Fashion Magazine

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What are the purposes of a fashion magazine? To inform readers of the latest fashions, of who is wearing what in the entertainment world, and where they may find the clothes shown in its pages every month? To provide a venue for advertisers to reach a readership potentially interested in their – primarily fashion and beauty – products, and generally to provide a supportive editorial environment that encourages firms like Chanel, Gucci, Dior, and LVMH to place advertising regularly so that the magazine’s publisher can stay in business and make a profit? To appeal to and reassure – the possibly fragile egos of – fashion designers, photographers, models, makeup artists, hair stylists and everyone else working in the fashion world by displaying and praising their work?
This article examines the intricate relationships that are continuously being negotiated between fashion magazine staff, the advertisers upon whose budgets they rely, the fashion world of which they form a part and with which they interact on a regular basis, and their readers. I will focus in particular on the different kinds of readers magazines address and analyse the latter’s position in the world of fashion in the context of what has been written about art worlds.
Research underpinning the essay consisted of more than 40 open-ended interviews with fashion magazine publishers, (feature, fashion, beauty) editors, and art directors working in Paris, London, New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong. It covered four international fashion magazines – Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire – published over a decade between 1995 and 2005 in the five countries concerned, and positioned vis-à-vis competing titles (both local and international) within their different magazine industries. One main aim was to find out how women - and issues relating to women - were, or were not, represented differently by these four titles (two American, two French) in various parts of Europe, Asia and the USA.
As a social anthropologist accustomed to carrying out long-term participant observation among a selected group of people (the locus classicus of anthropological fieldwork), I would have preferred to supplement this kind of ‘network-based fieldwork’ (Moeran 2005: 198-9), in which I was passed along a chain of contacts from one editor or art director to another around the world, with a more standard ethnographic study of at least one cycle of magazine production (or ‘frame-based fieldwork’). There are at least two reasons for this. Firstly, it is only through actually working on a project oneself that one comes to experience and understand its underlying social processes and unstated assumptions physically (as opposed to intellectually). In other words, I believe that an important aim of fieldwork should be the acquisition of knowledge through embodied experience. Secondly, previous frame-based fieldwork (in a pottery community and advertising agency) suggests that there is invariably some disparity between what people say they do and what they actually do (however well meaning they may be in their explanations and answers to questions). The job of the fieldworker is to prise apart informants’ own theory and situated action.
During the course of this particular research, alas, I was unable to gain permission to witness a magazine production cycle.[i] Although I was able to participate in and observe a studio fashion shoot in Hong Kong, and the shooting of two hair product ad campaigns in Tokyo, I have in very large part had to rely on what I have been told during interviews, and make my own subjective interpretations (on the basis of what I have read and heard elsewhere) of the extent to which my informants were telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth as they perceived it, or were unconsciously, subconsciously, or consciously presenting a rather more glowing picture of that unattainable truth.[ii] As part of this subjective interpretation, I should add that, overall, I was very impressed by the apparent openness with which those concerned - for the most part women - spoke to me about the hectic world in which they worked and struggled every month to create a product that was meaningful to their readers, to the fashion world of which they were a part, to their advertisers, and to themselves.
Because of these difficulties, but also because of the very nature of fashion magazines, which act as pivotal intermediaries in the value chain between upstream suppliers and downstream customers in the fashion industry, I found myself paying considerable attention to the magazines themselves as written texts and image banks. This focus on content analysis has been used both to endorse and to question what my informants told me during interviews.

[i] I am not the only one to fail in this task. Gough-Yates (2003:21-23) recounts similar difficulties - compounded, perhaps, by the fact that she was a woman - in her attempts to conduct ethnography among British women’s magazines. My impression is that I was treated far better. No interviews were summarily cancelled; no interview lasted less than an hour, and several went up to and beyond two hours. I am extremely grateful to all those concerned for their goodwill, time and patience, as well as to the Danish Research Agency for funding my study.
[ii] I should add that I have benefited enormously from my year’s fieldwork in a Japanese advertising agency where I spent considerable time learning about media organizations’ activities (Moeran 1996).

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