Tags: fashion

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book: the affected provincial's companion

Lord Breaulove Swells Whimsy has written a lovely book called The Affected Provincial's Companion.

The book may go out of print soon, at least in its present form, so I'm just going to start right up front by recommending it to anyone who appreciates a touch of flair and charm.  The book is ostensibly aimed at men, and would be a treat for your favorite dapper gent, but I found plenty in here to love.  It is well suited for gift-giving, because it's such a gorgeous artifact: beautifully embossed green hardcover with scarlet endsheets decorated in birds, moths, frogs and such.

Whimsy writes in his preface that he considers it to be "of great importance that we develop for ourselves an ability to coax enchantment from even the most prosaic of settings, lest we fall into despair and abandon the vision of a more joyous, gentle world."  That for me sums up the pleasure of this book: it suggests the possibility of living a more delightful life.

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devil wears prada

There's this scene at the end of The Devil Wears Prada. It's the inevitable "happy ending" where the nice girl, having learned her lesson about the dangers of losing her soul to the vicious fashion industry, goes back to her old life, her old boyfriend, her old (though jazzed up) look. The nice girl, Andy, opens the conversation by telling her estranged boyfriend, Nate: "You were right... about everything." He smiles incredulously, and they're back together.

I'm incredulous too. He was right about what, exactly? About all the pouting and refusing to talk to her when she came home late and exhausted? About telling her he didn't like the free clothes that looked fantastic on her? About the vague complaint that she was betraying "everything they believed in"?

What they believe in is never made clear; one presumes, between all the evenings where her friends hang out drinking and bitching about their crappy jobs, they've been thinking about maybe volunteering for the Peace Corps someday. Anyway, we get the point; their values have more to do with lifestyle than ideas. (No wonder they have to fight against the allure of fashion!) Fresh out of college, what Andy's crowd believes in, mostly, is maintaining their sense of who they are. Largely defined by who they're not: they consider themselves anti-fashion people, so placing any importance on fashion is a betrayal.

Andy knows this, and feels so guilty about it that it never once occurs to her to argue the reverse: that Nate has no respect for her hard work in a job that's changing her life. Instead, ultimately, she quits the world of her boss, Miranda Priestly, and sinks back into the comfortingly familiar and less demanding dynamics of her college relationships. You get the feeling she hasn't so much claimed her independence as given over control to a gentler tyranny.

The interesting thing about Andy's job isn't the fashion per se, unless you happen to be interested in fashion. What's fascinating is how it immerses her in a completely new world, in which she begins with no knowledge or competence, and gradually works her way up to being a capable, respected professional. The experience is also a springboard to whatever other kinds of work she might want to do. Not only for the reasons she thinks (resume, references, industry contacts), but because it's turning her into the kind of confident person who can get things done. It's teaching her to be an adult.

The job pretty much sucks, in lots of ways: it's stressful, often menial, it puts her in contact with awful people, and it eats her life.  But it's also an amazing apprenticeship and challenge. She's given herself a year to stay with it, which seems like the right amount of time for her; unlike Miranda, Andy doesn't want her life to revolve around this field forever. But then she doesn't stick out the year. Miranda is disappointed. I'm a little disappointed too.

Her boyfriend is thrilled. Right away he starts making plans for how she can come be with him when he moves to Boston. Never mind that she's applying for jobs in New York. You get the feeling Andy has learned her lesson from watching her boss's latest marriage end in divorce. She's overheard one argument between Miranda and her husband, and the fight wasn't about Miranda being a massive bitch; it was about her husband's anger that she's the more famous and powerful public figure. He didn't like being "Mister Priestly".

Andy isn't going to make that mistake. Just in case actually quitting her job and showing her soft white underbelly isn't enough, she sits there in that final scene and smiles while Nate reprimands her some more. He says that she had given him up, for what? For shoes, belts, hats, handbags. She meekly agrees with him, but he's wrong. It wasn't the accessories that took her time and attention away from him. It was the work.

The Devil Wears Prada isn't a truly great movie, but I can't dismiss it as just another smug cautionary tale of a naive girl who loses and then regains her integrity.  That may have been the original intention of the book it was based on.  But the subtle way the film undercuts the obvious surface message, mainly through the contrast between Meryl Streep's smart, passionate, powerhouse performance as Miranda and Anne Hathaway's pretty/vacant Andy, makes the moral more complex.  We know from the start how the story will end, but I didn't expect that saccharine conclusion to turn out so bittersweet.