Girl, Uninterrupted: A Q&A with Feminist Fashion Writer Kim France
There are women in this world who, when they hear the name "Kim France," literally gasp because they are so. Damn. Excited. And rightly so: As a writer, editor, and blogger, France has had a dreamworthy career in zeitgeisty print journalism. As one of the staff writers for the long-defunct but wildly beloved teen magazine Sassy, France was responsible for some of the already-edgy magazine's most noteworthy pieces—coverage of a fraternity rape ("The Rape"), an excoriation of George Bush Sr.'s so-called war on drugs ("How's That Drug War Going, Guys?"), and the self-explanatory "My Alcoholic Father"—as well as for introducing suburban teenage girls to A Tribe Called Quest and Monie Love. Elsewhere, her habit of wearing bicycle shorts under thenubiqutous babydoll dresses inspired a rebrand of the humble spandex as "Kim France Pants."
As editor-at-large for Spin in the mid-1990s, France put special emphasis on women and feminism in her stories on hip hop and indie rock. And she became the founding editor of Lucky magazine in part because she didn't quite fit the mold of the intimidating, styled-to-perfection Condé Nast fashion maven. Lucky was a near-instant hit in the magazine universe because it didn't pretend to be anything it wasn't—a fashion magazine that knew what it readers were there for (serious discussions of wearing denim with denim) and what they weren't (pandering human-interest stories). "How patronizing and condescending is the idea that women’s magazines have to do it all?” France asked rhetorically in a Newsweek interview shortly before Lucky's launch. "I don’t need to prove I’m smart by including an excerpt from Martin Amis…. If I want news, I’ll turn on CNN.”
Those same sentiments define Girls of a Certain Age, the blog France began not too long after being let go from Lucky in 2010. Like Lucky during the years France edited it, the blog is serious about fashion and simultaneously self-aware about how talking about fashion sounds, and it's not only about the clothes themselves but about the influences and connections and feelings that all inform how we get dressed every day. Titles mix fash-mag conventions with real-person irreverence ("I Do Love a Pair of Clunky-
Ass Sunglasses"; "At One With the Retail Universe"), and France regularly asks her readers to weigh in with their thoughts on current events, pop culture, food, and more.
The title gets at what makes the blog crucial, though: Aging women are not exactly considered fashionable in American media, and, except as a consumer base for products designed to halt or camouflage age, are largely invisible in an industry where youth and beauty reigns. France, who is 50, cultivates a readership that couldn't exactly be called thrilled about aging, but one that's coming to terms with it, particularly in the context of fashion as identity. (One memorable post series had readers challenging France to find things she'd wear from decidedly postmenopausal shopping destinations like Soft Surroundings and the Tog Shop.) The "About" section of Girls of a Certain Age describes the titular Girls as those who "look at pictures of their moms at their age and somehow don’t feel as grown up. Which bothered them for a while, but doesn’t anymore." If you're one of them, read on for more of France's take on fashion, feminism, and more.
ANDI ZEISLER: Let's talk about the title Girls of a Certain Age, and the blog's audience. Do you feel that it's filling a space that's been unoccupied by other fashion magazines and blogs?
KIM FRANCE: Well, the title is obviously a spin on "woman of a certain age," which is the French phrase I won't try to pronounce that refers to women who are, you know, older than middle aged but not elderly. Girls of a certain age are women who have hit 40 but don't yet feel middle-aged. Although I would say, based on my readership, that it's more a state of mind. But the blog as I conceived it was for women who were in their 40s and who cared about style and dressing well and didn't stop caring about fashion but who didn't want to go to a website where like the hems were up to their butts and everything was about nail art. They want a cool tone to things, but they don't want it all to be about being middle-aged, the same way that I didn't want Lucky to be all about shopping. There was no language in Lucky about, like, "Shop Til You Drop!" or references to fighting over the last Fendi bag at a sample sale. That was important to me at, and the same thing is really important to me here. Occasionally I'll refer to, like, my ass being too big for something, or the length of a skirt, but I really try to shy away from that stuff because it's depressing. Too many things that are directed at women in their 40s are like, "It's okay! You can still be hot!" Or, like, "You've still got it!" And it's like, "Yeah...why wouldn't I?"
The blog is very much your voice. It's not trying to be all things to all people the way a lot of fashion and style blogs do. One of the things you write in describing your readers is that Girls of a Certain Age "don't mind calling themselves feminists." I thought that wording was interesting—it's not like, "They're proud to be feminists!" or even just, "They're feminists." So I was wondering if that came out of a more general reluctance in the fashion industry to engage with feminism.
I wouldn't say the fashion industry, I would just say the whole fucking culture. It's interesting, people have noted that language before. I won't say that it didn't mean anything, because it came out of my head that way. And I think it has everything to do with the climate when I started the blog, which remains the climate now, which is one where women DO mind calling themselves feminists. Even someone like Susan Sarandon has backtracked and now calls herself a "humanist." I lowball all the time: "She doesn't mind calling herself a feminist, that's fantastic!" [Laughs.] But that is the way a lot of people in the public eye will talk.
So there's nothing in it that's specific to the fashion industry? Because there has been this longstanding belief that feminism and fashion are basically incompatible.
Well, the fashion industry is not a hotbed of feminist practice. It's just not. But it's also a place where women traditionally could succeed, where women held extremely high positions long before they did elsewhere. Women were running fashion magazines in the 1930, whereas at Newsweek magazine in 1970, women had to sue before they were allowed to be anything more than a secretary or researcher. So there was something really powerful going on, where women were executives and designers. Obviously you have big problems as far as how images of women are projected. And I have a huge amount of feelings about that; there's no way I couldn't, as an editor who oversaw a magazine where women were Photoshopped. I can't apologize for that, it was part of the business.
But I do feel like there's a real danger now—and this sounds really like neocon thinking, and I don't like that it does—of bringing girls up to think that magazine images have this particularly special power to oppress them. Fantasy exists in all sorts of venues—movies, TV shows, YA novels—and people swallow those fantasies, and what I think girls need to realize is that what they see in the pages of fashion magazines is—to varying degrees and depending on the publication—fantasy too. This is a topic where a lot more grey exists than ever gets discussed. This is going to be a very unpopular sentiment to express, but the fact remains that if you underretouch images so the lumps and bumps and zits are there, you get mail from readers saying that the models are ugly. And the realer you make the person on your cover look—like, by maybe not retouching every last line off the face of an actress old enough to have some lines on her face—the fewer covers you sell, by a lot. People want less reality than they maybe realize. At the same time, I think it’s safe to say that magazine editors have gone a little snowblind with the retouching wand and could all stand to tone it down a bit.
So much of culture now in general is about policing women's bodies. The whole awards-show, red-carpet spectacle, that didn't exist 20 years ago. The way we talk about female politicians' looks has become more pronounced the more female politicians come into the spotlight. How do you try to address this kind of stuff on Girls of a Certain Age?
The red-carpet thing, that's part of their job. They signed up for that.
But do you think it's interesting that it's become so omnipresent in such a short span of time?
Every culture has its way of fetishizing celebrities, and I think this is just this moment's way. It doesn't especially fascinate me any more than the fact that, in the 1950s, it was Photoplay magazine. I think the idea that female politicians would be judged by what they're wearing is repulsive.
One of my favorite things that you said about Lucky was about wanting to push back against the idea that fashion magazines are a one-stop shop where women get all their information, rather than a thing some women read in addition to the news they get elsewhere.
I hate to bash women's fashion magazines in any way right now, because they're all [having such a tough time]
and it makes me really sad. I hate to say a bad word about them. But there was room.
There are smart articles about politics in women's magazines, and that's cool. But how condescending to assume that they need to be there—no one assumes that about Golf Digest. There was pretty strong criticism of Lucky from certain feminist corners, and they really never got that piece of it, and I thought that was amazing. All they saw was that it was a magazine about shopping; they never saw that it was really feminist in a certain way. It was just about the one thing that it was about; it didn't condescend to the reader; it wasn't vulgar—which is very hard to do with a magazine about shopping.
A lot of your background is writing about music; you were editor at large for Spin, entertainment editor for Elle, and you wrote for VIBE. And you wrote a lot in the '90s about how feminism was located—not necessarily explicitly, but very solidly—in hip hop and indie rock. Do you ever think that fashion could play that kind of role in culture, where feminism is just baked in, not super explicit, a place where young women could be inspired to be feminists?
No. [Laughs] Which isn't to say that there aren't a lot of feminist ideals being played out in fashion. The fashion industry is an incredibly hard place, and to become a designer is a very hard thing to do. It is a place where you can decide, "I'm doing my thing," and it is a very female-centric place. But it's not a very self-reflective universe. There are a few designers—they're very fringe—who make clothes that they would say are inspired by feminism. Someone like Maria Cornejo, though? I don’t know whether she calls herself a feminist, but she's a totally feminist designer. She has spoken in interviews about how she won't design an uncomfortable heel, and all of her clothes are designed for comfort. Women in their 70s look as good in her pieces as women in their 20s. You can’t say that about many designers.
At the same time, it seems like as the fashion industry and the processes by which fashion comes into being are made more transparent through things like Project Runway, there is this kind of inherent opening for feminism. People now understand why, for instance, no patterns are cut above a certain size, or they see competitors freaking out about designing for larger women, and that becomes an explanation of how those narratives come to be in the larger world. To me, that's a positive thing.
I think it's great that people learn those things, and I can tell that when I read the comments on Girls of a Certain Age that [people] are much more fluent in that type of thing than they might have been 10 years ago. Designers don't know how to design for larger sizes, and their designs don't hold up for larger sizes. You know, one of the great things about HSN and QVC is that every designer wants to do a collaboration with them. Every designer. But you cannot do a collaboration with them unless you design up to a 3X. And most designers won't do it. Their stuff won't hold up.
[But] the fashion world, the advertising world, is still so much about your size and your beauty, and that's never going to change. There is so much money to be made on the plussize market, and it's still so far behind its market. There are plus-size models, and once in a while some designer sends them down the runway and it's fantastic and everybody claps. But it's still a novelty. It's still like: "Look! We're doing this thing!"
What do you think about the rise of street style and how that's changed the phenomenon of Fashion Week—the fact that now anyone with a camera or a lot of money fancies themselves a stylist?
What you see at the [fashion] shows is not street style. This is something I really have a bee in my bonnet about. The people you see in photos at the shows — that's not street style, those are people who go out and buy stuff that was plucked right off the runways and wear it. It's a small little group of editors and bloggers. Street style is like what Amy Arbus shot in the '80s, what Gary Winogrand shot without making a point of it, what Bill Cunningham shot. It's finding people on the street and things that are really coming from the ground up. In the second Lucky book, we used a lot of street-style photographs; we couldn't have gotten those shots today, photos of real women wearing stuff that they looked really great in. Now it's all these women from clown school. It annoys me, because real street style was such an inspiration for Lucky, finding that really cool girl on the street who was doing something unique and interesting that you wanted to copy. And now it's this awful thing and I want it to end.
You and [former Sassy and Lucky collaborator] Andrea Lee Linnett did two Lucky books, and then she recently published a book called I Want to Be Her!, based on her blog that's all about her sartorial inspirations and memories. If you did a book, what would it look like?
I've had so many ideas about what it should be. I tried to write a memoir, because during the period when I was editor of Lucky and my career was going like crazy, I went through the darkest period of my entire life. Like Lifetime-movie, bad thing after bad thing after bad thing. It made for a good story, and I started writing it. But I realized that when you tell your story, you're telling other people's stories too, and I just couldn't do it. Part of it was about my divorce, and [while] I really don't like my exhusband, I still didn't think he deserved it. I wrote a few chapters and then I put it away.
There's probably something around my own version of my 40s which is what [a new version might] end up being. The problem with the book I started writing is that it had funny moments but it was dark, and the book I want to write is lighter. I'm happier writing a book like that.
What would you say are some of the most important, most—I don't want to say "poignant," but maybe some of the most significant things you've learned being a feminist in the world of fashion and style?
One thing is that you learn that, in the end, shit's still run by men. At the very tippy top, it's still run by men. One of the things I realized in my career was that you can break the rules and be seen as a maverick, but you still always have to play the game. And you still have to suck up to the guys in corporate, in an incredibly retrograde, Mad Men style. I don't want to say that with bitterness, because that was the reality. It was just the reality. That to me was kind of amazing, to see that we've come an enormously long way [but also see] incredibly powerful women—brilliant, running huge things—just flirt like little girls with powerful men because they needed to. And they didn't want to sleep with these men, they just had to pump these men's egos up. I don't disrespect them for that; that's part of the game. That was kind of poignant.
One of the arguments about sexism-slash-patriarchy in the world of fashion and beauty that people will often make when, for instance, Bitch writes about impossible images and representations, is, "Well, but women run lots of stuff in fashion, and they're the ones who are putting these things out in the world and making these Photoshopping decisions, so aren't they the ones who are defining what we see as patriarchy? Isn't it them we should be blaming, not men?"
Sometimes it is women. But the thing that people also have to remember is that [one] must always follow the money. There are designers like Donna Karan who know how to dress curves and make women of all sizes look good [and] still send skinny-ass women down the runway. You want a dress to look good for the photographers, that’s what you do. There are women who aren't doing other women any favors. I do think that there are a handful of designers who, if they started booking healthier-looking models, could make a huge difference. If you look at just Cindy and Christy and Naomi [in] the '90s and compare them to the girls today—huge difference. That small handful of designers—no one blames it on them, but they are the ones who can make the difference
There's just a standard now, and it's really unfortunate that the standard's gotten to where it is. Every single image you see in a magazine is Photoshopped, and that's what people need to understand. It's not just an image of a model; it's an image of a landscape, it's an image of a plate of fish. All the images of men in men's magazines are Photoshopped. Every image that is supposed to be of reality is Photoshopped to not look like reality. I look at really old beautiful images by Man Ray in Bazaar—he didn't need fucking Photoshop! The photographers in those days didn't say, "Oh, we can fix it in post."
There's probably no going back. Where can it possibly go from here?
There's a higher consciousness of it, and that's a good thing. The more readers know about the artifice that goes into every aspect of fashion magazines, the better. My sister-in-law is the school psychologist at one of the private girl’s schools here in Manhattan. And back when I was at Lucky, I came to speak to a group of seniors. I brought one of our rough cover images, with the clear plastic overlay on which the art director writes all of his directions to the retoucher. The girls were fascinated by it—they saw that we had to smooth out all the bony spots where the cover subject was too skinny, and that her clothes didn’t hang perfectly, and that she had undereye circles, and a million other little imperfections. We’d been having a pretty heavy conversation about fashion magazines, and this totally changed the temperature in the room. They felt empowered by the curtain being drawn open. So I guess I’d say that since I don’t think that [Photoshopping] is going away any time soon, we all just need to think of ways to keep that curtain open.
Keep up with Kim at girlofacertainage.com. Photo by Todd Heisler, courtesy the New York Times.
Andi Zeisler is Bitch's editorial and creative director.
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