the devil in (thin) disguise

Sorry, but the devil made me do it….or should I say, ‘The devil made me write this’. Oh, ‘what the hell’. Regardless, there is no shortage of opinions on the just released, much hyped and much buzzed about movie, “The Devil Wears Prada” based on the tell all book written by Lauren Weisberger, the former assistant to Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour. Ms. Weisberger’s novel is based on what her life was like (a kind of living ‘hell’ it seems) working for arguably the most powerful woman in fashion, a true fashion icon who could make or break a designer, and who was portrayed as being a highly demanding, difficult, almost sadistic boss.

There seems to be no shortage of plays on the word ‘devil’ which happens to be the KEY word in the title. I’ve seen everything from ‘The devil has his due’, ‘Devilishly delicious’, ‘Devilish good fun’, and perhaps the one that is most fitting, ‘The devil is in the details’.

Why is this the most applicable? Well, because delicious details ARE the little things that mean a lot (no more so than in the world of fashion where a mere ¼ an inch can make a difference). And getting the details right are paramount in order to properly portray the world of fashion magazines in a movie. And while “The Devil Wears Prada” is loosely based on the book, (and Meryl Streep even admitted she was NOT playing Anna Wintour but kept in her mind a collage of all the evil bosses she ever knew in order to bring to life the boss from ‘Hell’, Miranda Priestly), the film was pretty accurate and believable in portraying the fast paced, frenetic, backstabbing, highly charged world of fashion magazines, a world where the importance of superficial things is blown out of proportion; a world that puts a premium on how one looks, what one wears, and on being thin; a world marked by its own ‘self importance’ (even though it’s not exactly “curing cancer”, as Andy complained to her boyfriend in the movie); a world inhabited by larger than life characters who are nonetheless insecure with fragile egos; a world filled with women (and men) whose lives ‘depend’ on going to Paris for the collections, begin and end with fashion, and whose personal lives often bear the brunt.

And talking about details….while Ms. Streep may not have been playing Anna Wintour specifically- which would have been difficult as she bears no physical resemblance to her in any way- let’s just say that there were more than just a few ‘Wintour-isms’ included, so it was impossible NOT to think of the Vogue editrix. For example- her love of meat, her dependence on that Starbucks ‘fix’ (and it had to be brought to her quickly AND steaming hot!), the public divorce, and the office with its black and white photographs framing the wall- which Conde Nast insiders claim was almost an exact replica of Anna’s.

Enough details were in place to accurately convey that particular sense of awe, fear, terror, insecurity and intimidation that strikes young beginners like Anne Hathaway’s Andy Sachs, upon entering this amazingly exclusive, seductive and exclusionary world. The film successfully portrayed the difficult, paranoid, eccentric, demanding, egotistic ‘celebrity’ editors and bitchy back stabbing co workers who as I recall, always seemed to be in meetings behind closed doors, looking over their shoulders, in fear of being stabbed in the back, in fear of their jobs -or their lives (or both).

The scenes depicting the panic, the hurrying around, the tension, the meeting of deadlines, the constant re-shoots, were correct as well. As were the scenes of editorial meetings where editors congregated around a large desk and pitched the editor in chief his or her ideas for up coming issues (some of which were met with obvious disapproval, boredom or worse- annoyance). Accurate as well, were the scenes of the famous ‘run thrus’ where large rolling racks were wheeled into the editor in chief’s office and editors carted in clothing and accessories which they were proposing for upcoming photography shootings (sometimes the choices were praised, while other times, nothing seemed right, or good enough). One scene in particular even had Miranda asking her editors whether any of their ‘advertisers’ were represented; something that was extremely true to life since those ‘advertisers’ or ‘musts’ as we called them, helped pay for the magazine.

However, some examples of the visuals that were exaggerated or didn’t ring true were: 1- the size of the wardrobe closet(s) - in reality they’re much smaller and not as beautifully organized, and 2- the ability of a staff members to walk in and simply take whatever they wanted to wear (the closets were guarded, under lock and key, under constant scrutiny, and everything was signed in and out. Though admittedly, there were times when senior editors were able to ‘borrow’ certain items for high profile occasions.

And believe me, I know, I’ve been there. In fact, the fashion magazine world is where I spent over 20 years of my life. My first job (back in the 70’s), was as a fashion assistant at Seventeen Magazine- a position I left after one year in order to pursue my ‘dream’ of working for the decidedly more glamorous, ‘big time’ fashion bible, Harper’s Bazaar. Though I wasn’t hired to be the assistant to the editor in chief, I was hired as an assistant to one of the magazine’s most prolific and creative fashion editors (Rachel Crespin), later becoming a senior fashion editor myself. Long before college, this is all I ever wanted to do and I know the feeling of wanting the job so badly that I probably would have worked for free (and given the low paying salary, it practically was working for free).

While I never worked at Vogue, and never worked as an assistant to Anna Wintour, I did work with Anna Wintour when we were both fashion editors at Bazaar (she stayed for about one year). And while I certainly had my share of eccentric and intimidating bosses along the way, none even came close to being a ‘devil’…in fact, my experiences were mercifully and thankfully, quite the opposite. I mention all of this because my first hand knowledge of the fashion magazine world qualifies me as someone who can legitimately critique and comment about “The Devil Wears Prada” from an insider’s perspective.

The film has received almost unanimously rave reviews in terms of the acting (how bad could it be with the fabulous Meryl Streep as the lead character, a thinly disguised Anna Wintour - in this case Miranda Priestley- editor in chief of a thinly disguised Vogue Magazine- in this case Runway Magazine); Anne Hathaway was adorable as Andy Sachs, the unlikely young ingénue who is hired as her assistant; Emily Blunt was spot on delicious as Emily, Andy’s Bitchy (with a capital B) co-worker (complete with British accent, edgy clothes, and Vamp nail polish, not to mention her insults, body language, and gestures).

That said, while Stanley Tucci is enjoyable and expressive as Runway’s art director, his wardrobe struck me as a bit odd. Art directors traditionally dress in a very subtle and underdone fashion; they are not frivolous, flamboyant and over the top, but serious pros that gravitate to low profile, basic staples like black turtlenecks and white shirts, and not the over- scaled in your face plaid suit that was depicted in the film. But of course, let’s not forget that while the movie is fact based, it is not a documentary; it’s just entertainment folks (complete with happy, fairy tale ending). And here in lies the ‘horns’ of a dilemma.

The movie sparked the biggest reaction, the most discussion and criticism regarding the wardrobe, which was produced by the iconic, legendary and prolific Patricia Field, (of “Sex and the City” fame). That the wardrobe and fashion should be so closely scrutinized and studied under a microscope is hardly surprising given the subject matter. It IS a move about fashion and more specifically, the tony world of fashion magazines which is a peculiar, idiosyncratic, insular world unto itself, where image is everything and clothing IS key.

There was practically no newspaper, weekly magazine, or website that has not broached this subject and in fact, the cover story of the Thursday ‘Style’ section of The New York Times, June29th, “The Duds of ‘The Devil Wears Prada” by Ruth La Ferla, included the observation, “You’d think that a movie about fashion world get the clothes right, but fashionistas bemoan its lack of chic.” Ouch! The consensus of opinion within the fashion world seems to corroborate this opinion. But after seeing the movie, I had a slightly different view and felt that much of the criticism directed at Patricia Field was undeserved. In general, she fared far better than I was led to believe.

That said, while I felt the clothing choices for Anne Hathaway’s character and the assorted fashion editors and assistants scurrying through the halls of ‘Runway’ were ‘edgy’ enough and pretty believable, I did agree with many that Ms. Field’s choices for the most ‘powerful fashion editor on the planet’, were disappointing, a bit more more hit and miss, and in certain cases (like the fussy striped collar fur or the dowdy ‘Dallas’ portrait neckline black gown), it was more ‘miss’ than hit.

For the record, for those who argue that with an assistant’s lowly salary, it’s not realistic to think she could be dressed in Chanel head to toe, or dress ‘better’ than her boss. I beg to disagree. Actually, when I was an editor at Bazaar, there was a fashion assistant who wore Chanel (head to toe) on a daily basis, and whose boss also wore Chanel quite frequently. And may I add that this assistant managed to pull it off in a much more youthful, offhandedly stylish way. While I’m not suggesting that all assistants outshine their bosses, there certainly are cases (and not few and far between) where assistants have more personal style and savvy than their higher ups.

Let me point out that even though fashion assistants don’t make a great deal of money, they are not exactly from deprived, low income households- some are even from families wealthy enough to buy and sell Conde Nast or Hearst if they wanted to. (Well, almost). Vera Wang was once a fashion assistant at Vogue, and Tory Burch was a fashion assistant at Harper’s Bazaar. Need I say more?

The bottom line is that this is Pat's interpretation, and her goal was "to give Streep a regal look" according to AmNY (, because she "imagined her character as the Queen of fashion, and proceeded to dress her like a queen". To that end, Ms. Field reportedly relied on a $100,000 budget from which she borrowed clothes and accessories from Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, Dennis Basso, and Miuccia Prada among others (about half Meryl’s shoes were Prada). I don’t mean to be a Sunday morning quarterback, but she blew an opportunity to ‘educate’ America (as if they really care) as to the vagaries, the perfect below the radar details that spell the difference between being inherently chic, truly stylish, and not; the difference between merely getting dressed in of the moment designer labels and IT bags, and exuding personal style; the difference between merely following trends and affecting a signature uniform that transcends the vagaries of seasonal 'ins' and 'outs'.

By dressing Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) in an un-choreographed orgasmic mish mash of expensive designer labels, and ‘It’ bags, Pat seemed to be feeding into the notions and expectations of the general public (who is not immersed in fashion), and the way they may surmise or fantasize a celebrity fashion editor dresses. In order for this movie to have really rung true, rather than giving the public what they expected, Ms. Field should have concentrated on showing them the unexpected- what they perhaps didn’t know (which she was so adept at doing in "Sex and the City").

And the secret is, legendary fashion editors got where they did because they are masters at editing magazines, hence, they are usually masters (or should be) at editing their own look. They normally transcend the trends (and steer clear of IT bags); usually affecting some sort of signature 'uniform' by which they are recognized. This is the important element that was lacking from the Field produced wardrobe in 'Devil'. Think about the late Diana Vreeland, considered to be the “20th century’s greatest arbiter of style and elegance” who was fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar for 20 years and Editor in Chief of Vogue, or the late Carrie Donovan, who had been a Senior Fashion Editor at Vogue and later, Senior Fashion Editor at Harper’s Bazaar (a wonderfully nurturing woman whom I credit with becoming a fashion editor by the way). Neither one’s look was timid or for the faint of heart and the resulting effect had less to do with their actual clothing and more to do with their personal style. It was all about the little details: the way they wore their clothes. Neither could be considered traditional beauties, but each conveyed confidence and authority through their signature, unforgettable looks.

Not fashion victims but fashion pros, they chose simple, timelessly elegant clothes, and radiated inviduality through their grooming and accessories which were idiosyncratic, eccentric, and highly recognizable. Diana Vreeland, who favored very simple, pared down sweaters, skirts, and pants, was known for her black lacquered hair, rouged cheeks, red nail polish, and her bold matching Chanel cuffs. Carrie Donovan favored Halston’s unfussy, always chic cashmeres, Bobby Breslau’s slouchy bags, Elsa Peretti’s sculptural silver jewelry and belt buckles, and her oversized Chanel pearls. Her Halston- designed jersey turbans were not only a signature, but insured that she would never have to suffer a bad hair day. Talk about chic and modern!

Anna Wintour also has a very severe, strict, rigorous and definable look. Though she wears many designers' clothes (no, not just Prada), she makes the look her own and wisely selects only those items that complement her lithe frame, her lifestyle, and her position. Most importantly, she understands the concept of 'appropriate'. While she might wear jeans for the country, you would never see her in jeans at public events or during the work week. She is also highly consistent- you can bet she will be in knee length skirts, coats, and dresses; elegant boots or Manolo Blahnik sandals; carrying a small little clutch as to not interfere with the elegant line, or going purse less. (No suitcase- sized 'it' bags for her, regardless of how 'in' they are). Her perfectly straight hair will always be perfectly cut and blown and her famous bangs will always frame her eyebrows, Chanel sunglasses will always shield her eyes. And you can bet that in the winter (and maybe even in the warmer climates too), she will be wearing fur in one form or another…as a coat, a jacket, or lavish trim.

These three women had or have such consistent, identifiable personas, that each is instantly recognizable, almost becoming caricatures of themselves. In fact, so identifiable are their characteristics that one could easily sketch them with a few brush strokes and there would be instant recognition. This is perhaps what Ms. Field's goal should have been in bringing Miranda Priestly to life through her wardrobe. Pat should have upped the ‘intimidation’ quotient by going after an almost severe, spare, pared down fashion visage. She should have concentrated on finding a common recognizable thread throughout- a signature accessory that had her 'name' on it.

But when all is said and done, Meryl Streep has such an amazing presence, is such a great actress, and so completely convincing as the high priestess of fashion, the highly intimidating editor in chief of Runway, more than a few critics have already used the ‘O’ word -as in Oscar- (and no, I'm not referring to Oscar de la Renta) in reviewing her performance. To her credit, it almost didn’t matter what she wore….her formidable talent speaks volumes and transcends her wardrobe.

And finally, while I'm hardly suggesting that devil- like bosses don’t exist (based on my own personal, very lucky and positive experiences), I would like to think that the true leaders are so comfortable in their positions and in their own skins, and so confident (like the late Carrie Donovan), that they are more inclined to be wonderful mentors and nurturers to young underlings, as opposed to trying to make their lives miserable, and would willingly give credit where credit is due. Or should I say in closing "Give the devil his due!"
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