LIKE A not too bright but glamorous lover who blows into town once a year, the fall fashion magazines, slick and chic, show up in late August, filling their readers with shameful desires. But after a hot session between their glossy covers, you wake up queasy with the knowledge that you've just spent 700 pages in the company of an empty-headed dolt who has a slavering obsession with rich people, a callow seducer with none of the "Vote Labour, Sleep Tory" charm you'd hoped for in a late-summer fling.
The simpering debs and withered cronies of the old ruling class cling desperately to life in the pages of Vogue. In the very first fashion feature, a mere 100 or so pages in, someone with the improbable name of Bree Mortimer, who turns out to be Babe Paley's granddaughter, looks back on the ancien r駩me: "I did my high school senior thesis on Versailles. I could see Marie Antoinette walking in those rooms in the palace, and I could see myself in her beautiful dresses!" (Marie is everywhere this month, with W, Harper's Bazaar, and Vogue spotlighting Antonia Fraser's new biography of her majesty. Could recessionary worries and mobs in the streets of Genoa be fueling her reappearance?) Over at Elle there's a paean to another monarchy that ended in disaster. A feature entitled "From Russia With Love" offers a lot of fur hats and this sentiment: "No one knows how to play dress-up better than a czarina," along with advice like "Decadent clothes are elegant when makeup is kept au naturel." Vogue chimes in with a piece about a society wedding in Cuba (the couple "were given a special dispensation to hold the event in a 17th-century church in the heart of Old Havana. The earl's ancestor George Keppel had commanded the British troops that won Cuba for England . . . "), practically drooling at the prospect of a return to the good old days of the hacienda. The hacienda never went away at Versace: Its fall ad campaign features a series of vacant-eyed, bejeweled ice maidens standing on rolling lawns in front of great houses with dark-skinned minions-gardeners, pool boys, maids in uniform-slaving away in the background.
The Versace women are fictional, but real heiresses—the bubbleheaded kind you thought disappeared in the 1930s—are back. Fashions of the Times has an interview with former debutante Cornelia Guest, a high school dropout who moved back in with her mother in 1995 and rides horses in lieu of scanning the want ads; W has a feature on legatee Marjorie Gubelmann, who slumbers in a pink-trimmed bed with a pillow that says "Princess Sleeps Here" and offers genial suggestions like "Put on all your jewelry and put another piece on." But Elle really scrapes the bottom of the barrel, offering a tribute to "America's sweethearts, the Bush twins" that claims to speak for all of us when it says, "The country's in love. Perhaps it's because the nineteen year olds are so gorgeous. . . . Unlike Chelsea Clinton . . . the Bush babes are deliciously upbeat and low brow . . . "
The Bush scions aren't the only ones allowed to be deliciously upbeat and lowbrow. The author of "Indulge Me," an article in Bazaar, confesses to owning around 20 pairs of one particular style of Manolo Blahnik shoe (special-ordered by her "beloved" salesman, since she's size 11) and goes on to discuss her purchase of a $1,700 alligator pair. In Vogue's "The Personality Jean," the writer explains that "it's not unusual now for a pair of insanely wantable jeans—say, Duarte, Roberto Cavalli, Tuleh—to come in the $600 to $1,000 bracket, and nobody's arguing." But even the mags admit that certain items are not intended for their plebeian readership: W reports that a special Amex gold card created by fashion designer Alexander McQueen will only be sent to 500 select people. (The rest of you can just charge those $1,000 jeans on your regular gold cards.) The same magazine has a piece about a member of "Middle Eastern royalty" who commissioned a one-of-a-kind perfume concocted from something called Agar wood, a kilogram of which costs $100,000. Even more sinister, W tells us that Bulgari, a jewelry company, hired novelist Fay Weldon to write a privately circulated novel that she guaranteed would say nice things about women and jewelry. (According to Weldon, it's made her feel "part of the very old and reputable tradition of patronage.") Though the article didn't disclose how much Weldon was paid for this spectacular sellout, one assumes it's enough for a trip to St. Moritz, a place Elle touts as a "jet-set classic." Unfortunately for Weldon, even if she packs her bags at the first flake, she's already too late: In "Mountain Do's," W declares, "Heading off to St. Moritz again this winter? Boring!" (And no doubt crawling with Elle readers.)
DRIPPING WITH JEWELS on the slopes they may be, but who says richies aren't sensitive to the environment? Two young ladies in Vogue spend $2,700 each for a week at a Brazilian "boot-camp spa" called the Ashram, where there isn't even toilet paper. And Herm賬 in its fall ads, presents its luscious merchandise heaped next to stuff identified as desert sand from Namibia (a calfskin handbag) and Australian marsh oak leaves (a kidskin coat). But nature isn't the only cause on social butterflies' minds—there are so many obligatory malady-of-the-month benefits to attend that it's almost impossible for arriviste ailments to garner bashes of their own. Still, a really special infirmity can sometimes make inroads. According to W: "One disease—a benefit circuit newcomer—may well have the star power to buck the trend." (The lucky winner is brain tumors.)
Of course, you don't have to schlep to those soirees without help. Even if the fete is at your own house, there are ways you can deploy servants to make things easier. According to W, Georgette Mosbacher, a cosmetics titan who owns a company called Princess Marcella Borghese, sends her driver for engravings and embroidery several times a week. "For my dinner parties, I will take a silver mint-julep cup and have it engraved with the date and the name of the guest I'm honoring." Perhaps she could run out and get those monogrammed julep glasses herself if she wasn't wearing stuff like this season's high-heeled boots, footwear W describes as "corsets for the calves."
But all the giddy do-gooding and toilet-paper-less travails pale in comparison with the revolting spectacle that occupies W's main fashion spread, a series of photographs taken in Bangkok that unabashedly celebrates the traffic in human flesh. Not content to use Wat Po or the Royal Palace as backdrops, the photographer has pressed Thai citizens into service as fashion accessories. The action starts slowly with a photo of a model in a Ralph Lauren trench coat hanging out in a cockfighting pit, but picks up steam a couple of pages later, where a sad-looking muscled guy wearing nothing but a pair of bikini briefs and a tag that says "41" is waiting for customers in a doorway. And oh, the delights to come: A two-page spread offers a stern blond mistress wearing a dust mask and a Ferre houndstooth wool jacket, looking down her nose at toiling seamstresses in what can only be a genuine sweatshop. But the pi裥 de r鳩stance is a line of prostitutes in pasties and underpants, some barely out of childhood, parading atop a boardroom table under the gaze of a female master of the universe who looks nifty in a Miguel Androver cotton shirt and a Louis Vuitton wool skirt. What's in store for the October issue? It's too early for confirmation, but there are rumors of shatoosh shawls wafting in the breeze at a Taliban stoning, Sudanese slaves frolicking amid models in saucy halter dresses, and a gaggle of gals in striped playsuits soaking up the sun at an execution in Texas.
This piece originally appeared in the Village Voice on Sept. 5, 2001.