One of the odder side effects of the extraordinary success of the Harry Potter film franchise has been the positioning of the actress Emma Watson (aka Hermione Granger) as a budding fashion icon. By the time she hit Leicester Square in vintage Ossie Clark for the London premiere of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which opened on Wednesday, she had already hit newsstands as a punk rocker on the cover of British Elle and as a Marie Antoinette coquette in the American magazine Teen Vogue. She is about to hit everywhere else in the world via the Burberry autumn/winter advertising campaign. There hasn’t been a hat trick like this since Nicole Kidman’s commercial and creative ubiquity post-Moulin Rouge. No wonder rumours emerged (later denied) that Watson was getting the accessory every celebrity needs to reach ultimate trendsetter status: her own fashion line. She’s Natalie Portman-meets-Kate Moss – all before the age of 21.
Yet, somehow, I’m not convinced. The curriculum vitae is there, and the red carpet track record (Watson has sported such edgy labels as Rodarte, Alexander McQueen and Balenciaga, though most often appears in Chanel) but, still, I look at her and feel I am seeing style’s straw (wo)man. Clearly, this view is not shared by the fashion world – Burberry’s Christopher Bailey, a man whose taste I generally find flawless, said she had a “classic beauty …great character and …modern edge” – and so I wonder: what am I missing?
As the parent of a nine-year-old, I certainly know the books that made Watson an “icon”; I’ve read them all more than twice. And I’ve seen the films an embarrassing amount of times. I’ve watched Hermione’s hair morph from its adorable Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone bushiness into a teenager’s post-puberty blow-dry, and Watson’s heart-shaped child’s face narrow and lengthen. Her transformation has, of course, been matched by those of her co-stars – by the revelation of Daniel Radcliffe’s weirdly thick eyebrows, and Rupert Grint’s startling size – none of which was foreshadowed in the books. One of the perils, after all, of choosing actors young and committing to them through an eight-film series is that you never really know how anyone is going to grow up. But through it all Watson managed to do what the boys have not: become trendy.
Why this is I am not entirely clear. The character of Hermione is no more exciting than that of Harry or Ron, and she certainly isn’t any more adult, or sexual. Indeed, when she first appears as a love object, thanks to the adoring if verbally challenged Viktor Krum in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, her pink ruffled party dress seemed more Disney than Paris. In fact, it made many a subsequent appearance transformed into a polyester fantasy in the Hallowe’en wardrobes of six-year-olds.
And while Watson is pretty, she is pretty in a normal way: she’s very girl-next-door. Indeed, the charming, spiky precocity she evinced in the first movie has been in a form of retreat ever since, perhaps because she herself is retreating, announcing to Teen Vogue that she might even stop acting post-Potter VIII.
As a result, brainy though Hermione/Emma (who is said to be about to attend Brown University) may be, she doesn’t seem like the kind of girl you dream about becoming; she seems like the kind of girl you dream about getting on your Scrabble team. And it’s not because she’s underage and so doesn’t speak to older generations – I’ve thought it would be wonderful to look like Natalie Portman ever since the actress starred in Léon (1994) at the age of 12. It’s because there’s something unchallenging about Watson’s essence. Which suggests that fashion may have adopted her not because of her own innate style but because she doesn’t actually have any innate style – though she does have recognisability. They can make of her what they want.
This is a new approach for the industry, which has in the past gravitated more to mould-breaking types, but it’s clearly a strategic decision – otherwise, my guess is we’d be seeing Watson’s contemporary Kristen Stewart, of Twilight fame, all over the place. Twilight is sort of R-rated Potter; the series teens graduate to, and Stewart has a magnetism that is interesting, as did Natalie Portman before her. She’s certainly a more charismatic screen presence than Watson and, frankly, someone more likely to sell someone like me clothes. I might be struck by all sorts of self-doubt and mutton-dressed-as-lamb issues afterwards, but chances are I would still be sucked in, as would, it seems to me, others her own age. After all, if you are using clothes to pull – which is to a certain extent what everyone uses them for – wouldn’t you rather end up with Robert Pattinson than Rupert Grint?
And yet Kristen Stewart hasn’t appeared on any glossy covers other than US Weekly and its gossip kin (are the vampires getting together or aren’t they? – summer’s most pressing question). As far as fashion mags go, these days the covers are rated PG. Approachability and accessibility are the bywords of the moment, when the too extreme and too expensive have, for the most part, sunk under a wave of recession censure, and this goes for celebrity representatives as well as the clothes they wear. Given we are deep in a era we’d rather forget, it makes sense the people we choose to embody it would be forgettable, too.
Unfortunately, I am by heritage steeped in the tradition of bearing witness. Consider this my effort to remember.
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published