I admittedly know very little about the ultra chic world of haute couture, but I nevertheless was struck dumb by a recent story in the NYT which reported that the high fashion magazine W had published a 28 page photo spread animated by the theme of “homeless chic.” It has been over a week now and I still find myself somewhat speechless.
The world of high fashion is a fantasy world and I’m fine with that. We all have fantasies—equipment for living—that help us to buffer the demands and stresses of everyday life; and truth to tell, human existence in general would be poorer without the imagination that fuels and is in turn fueled by the world of fantasy. There is a little bit of Walter Mitty in all of us, and it’s a good thing too. But, of course, there are limits. Sometimes those limits are driven by material and objective realities—either WMD existed in Iraq or they did not—and sometimes they are driven by a moral sensibility—either claims to racial superiority are socially acceptable or they are not. And sometimes both. But in any case, when our fantasy life exceeds the common sense—and more, when it takes advantage of the less fortunate or puts others at risk—we need to step back and question the implications of the world we imagine.
The photograph above is the eighth of fourteen images that appeared under the title Paper Bag Princess. It shows an “urban waif … all wrapped up in designer wear—and wares.” More specifically she appears to be asleep in an alleyway and the caption tells us that she is wearing a Prada wool coat and belt, Chanel arm warmers, and Miu Miu socks. But of course, she is wearing more than just designer clothes. Her stylish dress, which seductively reveals her skinny, alabaster thighs, is made from a white paper shopping bag that sports the Prada logo. And more, she has “fashioned” a bed and pillow out of five or six other similar shopping bags. Apparently relegated to sleeping in a back street alley, she is nevertheless stylish. Who says the homeless and forsaken can’t live in fashionable comfort!
The photograph—and indeed the entire photo spread—is morally callous. Unlike other attempts in the world of fashion and elsewhere to romanticize the homeless, casting them in various registers as noble or tragic figures, or in some instances as the eccentric and lovable bag lady, here the representation is a visual irony that operates at an odd and disconcerting intersection between empathy and disgust, invoking an affect—“homeless chic”—that conflates the frivolous with the grotesque. What makes it especially problematic is how it reduces homelessness to what in the title of the layout it calls “street style,” as if living on the street was an entirely and freely chosen identity or mode of being; operationalizes that street style in terms of our cultural stereotype of the “waif”; and then visually mocks the stereotype as if its representation bears little or no moral consequence.
One can only wonder what is really being peddled here. Surely not clothing. In the 1980s Rosalyn Carter gave an interview in which she accounted for the public adoration of then President Reagan by noting that “he makes us feel comfortable with our prejudices.” In no small measure this photo layout seems to be doing something similar as it invites the audience that might identify with the world of high fashion to don the fantasy that homelessness is a cosmetic problem that can be solved with just the right sense of style and vogue.
Would ‘twer that it were true.
Photo Credits: Craig McDean/W Magazine