Black She Wore

For her interview with Oprah Winfrey, Meghan Markle looked like she was mourning

Meghan Markle was well aware of what she was going to tell Oprah Winfrey in the most touted celebrity interview so far this year. Her tell-it-like-it-is would be so explosive that her words were all she needed to make an impact—no resplendent, In Style-worthy outfit required. So, she wore a matte-black, silk georgette, wrap-dress by Giorgio Armani that did not stand out against the set-like manicured garden of a third-party residence, where the televised chat took place. As she was seated on a patio chair—her back propped up by a large white cushion—throughout the time in front of Ms Winfrey—in Brunello Cucinelli, we could not really see the dress in its entirety. On the right shoulder, some abstract, white, leaf-like motif (reportedly a “botanical print” of lotus flowers) cascaded down to her right antenatal bosom. The not-too-plunging V-neck of the dress framed a small insignificant pendant. On her left wrist, what appeared to be a trio of skinny bracelets, one of them—a Cartier—reportedly belonged to Princess Diana. On her feet, pointed-toe stilettos, once popular among the secretarial profession. The styling was deliberately gloomy.

The Duchess of Sussex wore her hair centre-parted, pulled back to what appeared to be a low chignon. The do—face-framing fringe—looked self-styled, as if she used barbeque tongs instead of curling tongs. Her make-up was for lunch at a burger joint: actress-off-duty smokey eyes, cheeks—in her case, typically—over-rouged, and lips, deliberately not red, so that her words won’t come out flippant, and to better suit the glum she was radiating. It was, of course, going to be serious and she needed to look the part. She was not on Ellen’s set. Cheeriness was not required. The moment you tuned in, you might have thought she was at an appointment with her gynecologist, not a session with the most famous talk show host on our planet. For an IRL appearance on reality TV, Meghan Markle would have benefitted with a tip from one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. But, when one is going to put up an affront to the most-known and watched royal families in the world, one would need to look like happiness has dissipated, even if conjugal well-being is intact.

The choice of attire was, therefore, crucial. The outfit needed to underscore her distress, her pain, and her conflicts, but not her anger

When it comes to Ms Markle, it’s hard not to stand on one of divided sides. Was her TV performance-as-discourse noble or vile? The litany of her woes since joining the British royal household—her struggles with the in-laws, the British media (tabloid press in particular) and their criticism of her, and her fashion choices—culminated in the opening up to Ms Winfrey. Was this one-sided account to set the record straight or to air grievances? Or both? The choice of attire was, therefore, crucial. The outfit needed to underscore her distress, her pain, and her conflicts, but not her anger. Black—dead foliage aside—symbolises eternal struggle that seems to characterise her role as a royal, and contrasts with the white of her wedding dress, which might have meant a new, strife-free beginning. Black also relates to racism, an issue that has, as revealed in the interview, affected the Duke and the Duchess deeply. It is connected to mental health and, in the attendant darkness that Ms Markle claimed consumed her, the contemplation of devastating self-harm. No other colour would be as suitable as black, never mind if the wearer could look dour in it, or pity-arousing.

Her colour choice for a global TV appearance may be spot on, but it is hard to say if her incendiary revelations were just as good a decision. Ms Markle is American and an actress schooled in the candidly communicative ways of Hollywood in the post-#metoo era. She told Oprah that during her time in the UK, “there was no class on how to speak and how to cross your legs,” yet she was eager to open up, legs well-placed, about her grievous distress. It is unsurprising and is exemplar of the reason why American talk shows have no shortage of guests wanting to feel how “liberating” it is to “talk”, as Ms Markle put it to Oprah. But, a royal family is not the Kardashians. Members of the monarchy need no such scandalous, press-ready “bombshell” exposure. Or, frankly, any family. Meghan Markle may be wearing a clean dress for her appearance with Oprah Winfrey, but the laundry she aired was what so many could see as dirty. Yes, that’s a conservative stance, but, in this generation of easy exposé, aberrant nosiness, and talk show as psychiatric clinic, the less we lay open our discontent or disappointment publicly and sensationally, the less we divide those around us, familial and societal. Black or not, in black or other.

Screen grab: Harpo Productions/CBS

Super-Models Revisited

Claudia, Cindy & NaomiBalmain’s spring/summer 2016 campaign shot by Steven Klein featuring three of the supermodels of the Nineties: Claudia, Cindy and Naomi. Photo: Balmain

Olivier Rousteing was no more than 5 years old when super-models Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell (together with Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, and Tajtana Patitz) collectively became the superstars that models preceding them never turned out to be. Mr Rousteing couldn’t have been aware of these women’s status in fashion any more than being enthralled with the games that he played as a pre-schooler. Yet, now, he’s paying homage to them as if somehow they were an influential part in his early life and on his journey to becoming one of today’s most watched (and socially followed) designers. For the Balmain spring/summer 2016, he has united a trio of the original ’90s super-models to front the season’s advertising campaign. Is this innocent idol worship or another calculated round of celebrities to add to an already giddy pile of famous names?

The black and white photograph, first shared by Mr Rousteing via his Instagram page, is, perhaps, more than a passing nod to the women who partly shaped a generation; it is possibly a reference to the iconic, also monochromatic, photo that many believe launched the careers of these models and ratified the phenomenon that prefixed a rather prosaic job description with the word ‘super’ (despite the glamour it suggested, there is a rather comic ring to the name, more so if you consider Janice Dickenson’s claim to have coined the word). That photo, shot by Peter Lindbergh in New York in 1989, featured (a very young and raw) Naomi, (the older and more polished) Linda, Tajtana, Christy, and Cindy—yes, all were known by their first name, just like Madonna or lasses in Indonesia—in a surprisingly un-haughty pose and in rather unexciting clothes (jeans!) with, gasp, barely-there makeup. It would be a shot that fashion editors would later say typified Mr Lindbergh’s work: the models were handpicked by the man, they wore little makeup, and the clothes were often not over-the-top. Still, it made it to the cover of British Vogue in January 1990.

Peter Lindbergh for VogueThe Peter Lindbergh-lensed photo that became the cover of British Vogue in January 1990. Photo: Vogue

That Vogue cover not only seriously launched the careers of those on it; it opened doors to pop stardom for them. It was reported that as soon as George Michael saw that issue of the Condé Nast publication (then helmed by Liz Tiberis before her move to American Harper’s Bazaar in 1992), it was an instant casting call for his music video Freedom. In 1991, the super-model’s status was sealed when these women strutted in Gianni Versace’s March couture show—their starring roles in the Freedom video projected behind them. Mr Lindbergh, in the same year, directed Models: The Film. As the narrator in the black-and-white movie said, “The super-models are to millions of teenage-girls what rock stars are to teenage-boys: an adolescent fantasy comes true. The super-models are the princesses of modern-day fairy tale: the daughters of factory workers and broken homes have gone straight to the bank.”

And banking on their past aura and mystery is what the young designers of today are doing with models of yore, specifically the late ’80s, when “a pack of women emerged, whom the industry has since dubbed the supermodels, who enlivened fashion though personality and verve and helped attract the eyes of the world,” as Nigel Barker informedly wrote in his book, Models of Influence: 50 Women who Reset the Course of Fashion. Is the resurgence—“dream come true” for Mr Rousteing—a moment of nostalgia or a reflection of the boredom with today’s bland models with equally trite lives? As Grace Jones, herself a model in the ’70s before she took to singing and acting, said, “Models are there to look like mannequins, not like real people.”

Christy for Galliano SS 2016

Christy Turlington, shot by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, for John Galliano, now designed by Bill Gaytten. Photo: John Galliano

Perhaps it is the reflection of the times. While Rousteing’s chosen trio glammed things up with those hard-to-fathomed-how-desirable-they-can-be clothes, other old-timers are playing the reality card. Christy Turlington, shot by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, looks disconcertingly un-glamorous in John Galliano’s spring/summer 2016 campaign. Not to be outdone in the let’s-not-over-do-it stakes are Nadja Auermann, Stella Tennant, Eva Herzigova, and Yasmin Le Bon in Giorgio Armani’s “New Normal” (Normcore reborn?), Peter Lindbergh-lensed advertising series, all looking as if they’ve worn their school uniform for a high-school reunion.

The super-models of yesteryear are no more, just as our own posse of top girls—Ethel Fong, Hanis, Pat Kraal, Nora Ariffin—are but a distant memory, if at all enjoying any recall, for most Singaporeans. Many of today’s models, no matter how palpable their endeavour, still remain at arm’s length to the polish of the girls of those early years. Current faves Kendal Jenner and Gigi Hadid (the Hadids!) often look like school girls playing grownups, with no emotional connection to the viewer. Sure, every decade and every generation have their own aesthetic preferences, but has glamour, like fashion, become too ‘street’ and ‘real’ to be glamorous?

GA SS 2016 CampaignEva Herzigova, Stella Tennant, Yasmin Le Bon, and Nadja Auermann for Giorgio Armani, spring/summer 2016

“Models are glamourous because that’s what we do,” Cindy Crawford had once said. However, with Instagram, we often get to come up front with the not-so-glamourous aspect of a model’s life. The mystique is no more when professional and personal lives are one, when a private moment is public enjoyment, when online folly is all-round jolly. The “verve” Mr Barker mentioned is there, but it is more a spirit of desperation, aided by widely-exposed digital platforms, than a vigour of deserving success.

“I don’t just bring my body to work; I don’t just consider myself just a hanger for the clothes,” said Ms Crawford. If only Kendal and co concur.