Culture has been replaced by Kulture: Vogue has put Kim Kardashian on the cover of its April issue. The decision marks a monumental reversal for the magazine, which had long avoided the risqué shticks published in other publications catered to women.
That’s sad, both for the magazine’s loyal readers (me included) and for American culture as a whole. At its best, fashion is not only an aesthetic choice but a moral one: It’s an expression of values. The way a woman dresses reveals a lot about who she is and how she wants to be perceived. By making that decision deliberately, women exercise their First Amendment rights in a way that’s simultaneously intimate and public. Done properly, the clothes are the canvas for the woman, not the other way around.
For nearly a century, Vogue has celebrated this intentional, intelligent process. Though the magazine is distinctly left-leaning, many of the values it has advanced have appeal to a conservative audience, too. Throughout its history, Vogue routinely portrayed the beautiful, often captured the good, and sometimes even managed to publish writing that got at deeper truths.
Anna Wintour pushed the magazine to higher success by re-crafting the editorial tone, making it both inclusive and aspirational. At its best, the magazine teaches women how to live tastefully and graciously, regardless of whether they can afford designer clothes. (Got a $20 fashion budget this month? Buy a good lipstick or nail polish, pair it with a good personality, and you’ll be perfectly in style, one recession-era article suggested.) Vogue also led laudable cultural efforts. For example, in recent years the magazine has banned the use of models who are under 16 or who appear to have an eating disorder, hoping to present better role models for its readers.
The cultural impact is huge, as I know firsthand. I bought my first issue — May 2003, featuring Cameron Diaz, sword-swallowing and cannon-launching, in a whimsical circus shoot — when I was a junior in high school. The May 2004 Nicole Kidman shoot by Irving Penn remains my favorite ever; an article on perfume and scent memory inspired me to pick out Dior’s Hypnotic Poison, a fragrance I wear to this day; and I still think of Plum Sykes’s witty article every time I lose a button.
But Vogue’s influence was not all so superficial; it prompted me to begin thinking about what kind of a woman I would like to become, urging me to do so with purpose. A 2006 obituary of Oriana Fallaci fueled my budding interest in foreign correspondence; a 2007 profile of Jennifer Hudson was an uplifting reminder that strivers can succeed; and years’ worth of issues emphasize that kindness, charity, and friendship are as beautiful as any couture dress.
Unfortunately, in recent years, Vogue’s quality has been slipping. Famously, a March 2011 profile of Syria’s Asma Assad spent 3,200 words gushing over everything from her accent (“English but not plummy”) to her body (“thin, long-limbed”) to her family’s “wildly democratic” instincts. Oops. More recently, the magazine has opted to run a polarizing profile of Wendy Davis, and last month’s cover featured Rihanna — even though a woman who returns to her abuser is hardly a role model.
The choice of Kim Kardashian goes one step further. Anna Wintour’s editorial letter becomes an anticipatory defense: “Part of the pleasure of editing Vogue, one that lies in a long tradition of this magazine, is being able to feature those who define the culture at any given moment, who stir things up, whose presence in the world shapes the way it looks and influences the way we see it. I think we can all agree on the fact that that role is currently being played by Kim and Kanye to a T.” Rather than influencing culture, Vogue is now following behind, picking up the scraps.
For those who aren’t keeping up with the Kardashians: Their reality show pretends to be about a family, but has really found a Walmart variation of mass appeal because of the gorgeous if insipid Kim, a former Paris Hilton groupie who rose to fame after a leaked sex tape. Her only genius has been channeling her tawdry prominence into cold, hard cash, which is in turn spent in the flashiest and trashiest of ways. In the matriarch’s home, Vogue reports, “family pictures abound — [Kim’s mother] Kris even has some framed images of her underwear-clad daughters from the 2011 Kardashian Kollection for [a] Sears campaign.”
Kanye West has more obvious talents — the first two verses of “Gold Digger” are the pinnacle of his wit — but he comes across as materialistic, too, in Hamish Bowles’s anguishingly overdone write-up of the couple. The article is as decadent as its subjects, and exactly as meaningless.
By Bowles’s reckoning, Kim Kardashian has “flashing Ava Gardner looks” and a “Sophia Loren figure.” She “idolizes Elizabeth Taylor” and even thought of buying the actress’s old house — but “it wasn’t realistic for me to purchase. It only had a one-car garage.” The article details how Kanye proposed by presenting Kim with a 15-carat diamond and flashing “PLEASE MARRY MEEE!!!” (three e’s, three exclamation points) across a San Francisco baseball scoreboard as “Young and Beautiful” played from a live 50-piece orchestra. Later, on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Kim dished about how her baby, a daughter ridiculously named North West, peed on Kanye during the Vogue photo shoot.
So what cultural value could this possibly have? Kanye struggles to explain: Kim “created something really powerful that the universe connected with, and I created something that people connected with, and then when we combine our information. . . . We can help communicate and educate and just bring more dopeness in general. It’s really just about dopeness at the end of the day.”
But dopeness is no substitute for class — and until Vogue remembers that, it degrades its brand.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.