“You think this is just a magazine, hmm? This is not just a magazine. This is a shining beacon of hope…” says fictional fashion editor Nigel in the cult film, The Devil Wears Prada, hinting at the fashion magazine as a beacon; a bible; a magical object that people worship and use to escape their everyday existence – an intriguing notion. Fashion as an industry is swathed in glamour and mythology. It certainly has a way of presenting something as mundane as clothing in an allegorical light, and here the fashion magazine arguably fulfills an important function: the myth-making of garments through a system of magic production. This system contains multiple players – one could call them magicians – such as the fashion editor, the photographer, the model, the journalist, the designer and so on, many of which have themselves a larger than life quality and iconic persona. Through a certain fashion alchemy, the magazine is born, so enveloped in symbolic value that it rises above its materiality to an almost divine state.

Origins of Magic

French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss described the notion of a “savage mind”, of untamed, magical thought in his seminal essay. Levi-Strauss here invokes a counter proposal to the scientific mind, which aims to only think in rational manners: the primitive mind who knows nothing of science, and instead generates and understands new meaning from whichever frame of reference and sign system they already possess. The “savage mind” is able to view objects as mythical, permeated with immaterial value, rather than try to understand them rationally. This is perhaps a more astute manner of considering the magic of the fashion magazine, for it is hardly a scientific equation that makes for glamour, although one can certainly try to identify key elements and practices that contribute to its emergence.

Imbuing inanimate objects with meaning and power they cannot objectively have is a characteristic of the savage mind, picked up by sociologist Karl Marx in his theories on commodity fetishism, describing that to fetishize a commodity – such as a fashion magazine – is to alienate a man-made product from its source of production – its material value – and to endow it with imagined magical properties. Fashion has its roots in culture and mystical rituals even from ancient times. Once such garments enter into the image-driven realm of the fashion magazine they become further alienated from their production origins, taking on more semiotic symbols and meanings rife for deciphering. However, this process of deciphering, whilst possessing certain stable codes, is predominantly subjective. Yet, as another French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard notes, we have an insatiable desire for the image as a symbolic object; wherein appearances not only reflect reality, but invent reality. This is even more so true within fashion system – where the visual plays the biggest role in the generating of an imagined world of glamour.

Systems of Magic

With the fashion magazine as an allegory, we can say that fashion practitioners transform material garments into magical fashion through technical rituals, such as the production of a fashion editorial or a fashion show, giving spectacular fashion a spectacular space to live, for much of what is produced has no place in the real world and rather serves to contribute and keep alive the fantastical aura that is the signature of this glamour industry. In his formative The Fashion System, semiotician Roland Barthes discusses the transition of mere garments into this mysterious concept of “fashion,” stating that this takes place with the aid of words and images – such as those within the fashion magazine. Through textual and visual enchantments, using magical linguistics with phrases like ‘summer’s hottest print,’ magazines become a force that is at once authoritative and mythological. This kind of assertion: that a certain fabric or color will rule seems like clairvoyant magic, and it attests to the power of the fashion magazine that they are able to in many cases produce self-fulfilling prophesies. Fashion is an expression of culture, and the notion that fashion is a visual portrayal of the zeitgeist (spirit of our times) is enchanting.  Magazines certainly capitalize on such notions, casting themselves as the fortune teller able to divine what the future holds. In a more poetic sense, we could say that the magazine is a record of such ephemeral, material memories as the fashions of a time. Fashion is transient, but its power is lasting; its magic remains.

The troupe of magicians includes editors, photographers, fashion designers, hair stylists, advertisers, and so on – some of which have cultivated a magical persona in their own right. Designers such as Karl Lagerfeld are heralded as prodigies, and the elusive, magical moment of “inspiration” (although in reality not always as genius as it seems) that allow them to create their collections are their magical powers. Editors like Anna Wintour, through careful curation of her own appearance and brand image as an ‘arbiter of fashion’ become larger than life, in a similar vein to celebrities. This reinforces these characters’ position and power in the fashion industry and in a way, the names of such personas also become fetishized, detached from the actual person and circulate magically in common consciousness. The fame of such personas, along with the glamour of a historically exclusive industry, has made it a subject of fascination and increasingly the inner workings are being revealed through films, documentaries, social media and the presence of outsiders at fashion shows. 

However, instead of destroying the mystery, this has made the industry more captivating than ever. Philosopher Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of collective belief offers a possible explanation as to why this is. According to Bourdieu, the magician’s power, his miraculous signature or trademark, is put on a readymade article and in so doing transforms the object into something magical that demands a ludicrous price tag that in no way reflects its material value, but rather its symbolic value. Films such as The Devil Wears Prada, along with documentaries such as The September Issue reveal these signatures, these meanings, these magical systems that produce a magical product: the fashion magazine. However, these systems of production are portrayed in a narrative format, further alienating the aura from the reality. This backstage, symbolic value is what gives fashion, and fashion magazines their power – their associations with aspiration and fantasy, and the yearning for escape into a “better life” – which in a capitalist society refers to a life of wealth, luxury and glamour.




Aspirational Magic

Part of the fashion magazine’s magic certainly lies in its role as aspirational object, with its ability to seemingly elevate the mundane nature of everyday life and the practice of getting dressed by showcasing impossibly fantastic haute couture and designer garments that symbolize the life of luxury that consumers dream of. Here, fashion magazines are inextricably linked to fashion’s origins: as signifiers of social class. Fashion magazines, and in particular iconic titles such as Vogue, are attached to so-called high-culture. Consumers from high-culture buy the magazine as it showcases how they should be behaving, and consumers from low-culture buy the magazine to learn how they should be behaving in imitation of the class they aspire to occupy – a magazine equivalent of the Simmel-Veblen “trickle down” theory that returns us to the opening line of this article, with the magazine as a “beacon of hope…” for what life could be within the coveted echelons of high-culture. For those not existing on the “inside” of this elitist industry, titles like Vogue can symbolize a lifeline to culture that they could not access otherwise. In the celebrated 1990s television series, Sex and The City, the main character Carrie Bradshaw buys a Vogue magazine instead of dinner one night – as she can only afford either the one or the other – because she felt it “fed” her more. It fed her the fashion dream. 

Although a dramatic portrayal, these instances do hint at a certain intimacy between a reader and their fashion magazine. Much like the intimacy between wearer and fashion, magazines have the ability to express our identity and to announce to the world that we are the kind of person that reads this magazine. Thus, it could be said that we hope to project something about ourselves with the magazines we buy – and as such magazines are constituents of conspicuous consumption, existing in the same realm as designer accessories. A magazine can be viewed as a status symbol in the same way as a Birkin bag or Gucci loafers – conveying a certain amount of cultural capital.

The Future of Magic

Recently, the artificiality of this fashion dream is being questioned. For magazines such as Vogue certainly produce magical images and text, they don’t simply report. Everything within such glossy magazines are staged, and paid for by advertisers. But if magazines sell dreams; is it necessary for magazines to be authentic rather than spaces of fantasy? This of course depends on whether consumers still want to buy dreams. The traditional way of analyzing fashion – with high-culture dominating low-culture, would certainly merit a certain measure of artifice. However, fashion is increasingly looking to youth, street style, subcultures and other instances of so-called low-culture, for inspiration, and as such trends have progressively been driven by individuality rather than social standing. This could signal the breaking down of the magical system by low-culture.

With the dawn of the post-modern condition, the modernist notion of grand narratives, and singular authorities has been in social decline. There now exists an abundance of opinions and the influence of any one group or institution is greatly reduced. Despite the pluralities that proliferate on the runways nowadays, magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar tend to still hold on to the outdated idea that there is but one “new look” that they can advocate in any given season. Identities have diversified as new generations no longer feel the same pressures to conform to the Vogue-dictated “look of the season”, but rather aspire to be a more original version of themselves. Perhaps in this era of hegemony, dictators like Vogue will lose their power. There is certainly a greater number of independent magazines, media and fashion influencers than ever before as the demand for authenticity and new authorities increases.

However, it might be rash to assume that systems of power that have reigned for over a century will dissolve so easily. Magazines are cunning, and have slowly started to appropriate trends from low-culture and re-package them as luxury. The fashion dream survives. Vogue might not be the superpower it once was, but it remains a household name, and veritable fashion ‘bible.’ And where titles like Vogue fail, new titles that are more conceptual and authentic, such as 032C, System, Vestoj and Antidote, spring up to fill the gap. Perhaps the highly subjective digital chatter we are surrounded by has made magazines a more important source of guidance than ever before. In the age of information, readers increasingly value something with real substance, that can be trusted amidst the noise. And so, the talismanic magical experience lives on through one magazine or another, with a generation that increasingly values materiality and physicality in a digital world.

As such, the fantastic world of the fashion magazine remains, as reputed fashion professor Elizabeth Wilson asserts: “A world in which reality and fantasy mingle and become confused, a world in which we go adorned in our dreams…”


Words & Images: Yolanda Senekal

*This essay has been reworked from a piece I did for my MA Fashion Studies class “Fashion Cultures”