A spot-on sartorial satire

Image of Vanessa Friedman

Fashion and satire have never been easy partners. The problem is that although fashion seems like a world ripe for mockery, its very absurdity – the extremity of appearance and, values and language that makes outsiders think it should be a perfect subject of satire – actually makes it impossible.

How do you out-Lagerfeld Karl Lagerfeld, for example, with his high white collars, white ponytail and metal jewellery? How do you out-dress Anna Dello Russo, who changes outfits multiple times a day?

Short answer: you can’t. Which is why films such as Prêt-à-Porter (1994) and Zoolander (2001) don’t really work, and why the most successful fashion satires aren’t satires; they are documentaries – or reality TV shows – such as Unzipped and The September Issue. (In the latter, Vogue-ette André Leon Talley plays tennis with a Louis Vuitton racket and Louis Vuitton towel, a scene eerily reminiscent of Mel Brooks’s 1977 satirical movie High Anxiety, in which Madeline Kahn makes an entrance in a Louis Vuitton car wearing Louis Vuitton clothes.)

Or so I believed, anyway. As of this week, however, I’m adding another genre to my satire “success” list: young adult fiction. To be specific, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, the bestselling series that had its feature film opening yesterday. Although it’s being billed as the second coming of Twilight – aka catnip to the tween and teen crowd – I think adults everywhere might consider buying a ticket.

Because as much as the story is about the way reality shows cater to our basest instincts, the violence of video games, how adults use children to their own ends, and the evils of totalitarianism, it is also a spot-on satire of the contemporary fashion world.

At issue are three areas specifically: the growth of plastic surgery and other appearance shifters; the role of the stylist; and the part image plays in politics. The story is set in a world comprised of sectors with different industrial purposes and income/standard of living levels. All fund a ruling “Capitol” known as “Panem”, where citizens lead lives of extreme indolence and indulgence. They have become so self-referential, their ideas of beauty are twisted into the ridiculous: blue and pink hair, with equally impractical footwear and dress.

Think Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj, with shoes by Alexander McQueen and dresses along the lines of Viktor & Rolf’s surrealist confections of chainsaw-sculpted tulle. Think Lady Gaga. You’ll get the idea.

The film’s producers have picked up on this, launching Capitol Couture, a blog featuring wardrobe tips, how to dress for a Hunger Games party, and the work of the above designers as well as that of corsetier Mr Pearl and Jean Paul Gaultier. Oddly, given how awful most of the denizens of Panem are, the tone is celebratory. If clothes reflect character, the book and film are direct hits on the superficiality, lack of perspective and skewed values of the fashion world.

Of the few jobs actually performed in the Capitol, some of the most feted are those of the stylists – those men and women charged with making over the various contestants in the titular Games, which (for those who don’t know) involve pitting children from each sector against each other in a violent televised fight to the death. Before they go into the arena, however, they get gussied up for various interviews and parades, which is where the stylist comes in: the better the candidate looks, the more marketable, the more people will be rooting for them and the more invested in their success the viewers will be.

Looking good helps to keep you from getting killed, in other words, a more extreme version of what actually happens now on the red carpet, where a great dress can offset a terrible performance.

The heroine of the book, Katniss Everdeen, becomes a symbol of rebellion and, eventually, the leader of an actual rebellion, thanks largely to a dress made for her by one of her stylists: a flame-coloured, flame-embroidered number that bursts into flames (in the book the cape lights up; on screen it’s the skirt) and leads to her becoming known as “Girl on Fire”.

The point of the dress is to be “unforgettable”, says Cinna, Katniss’s stylist, and it’s as good a description of the power of image I’ve heard, and as good an explanation of why, for example, Isabel Spearman, a former fashion PR, has gone from being Samantha Cameron’s wardrobe adviser to – at least according to the recent White House dinner list – her “chief of staff”. Her choices help determine the public perception of the first lady.

As to why no one has really picked up on this parallel all I can think is it has to do with the same reason Andy Warhol wore silver wigs: he said people were so distracted by the colour they didn’t focus on the wig itself. In this case, everyone is so focused on the kid-vs-kid horror, they aren’t thinking about the fashion message. But they should. It’s a doozy.


More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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