The September Issue, R.J. Cutler’s dishy, glitzy, vibrant, and sensationally fun documentary about Anna Wintour and the inner workings of Vogue magazine, is the rare nonfiction film that is now poised to cross over – that is, to become a mainstream conversation piece and bona fide indie hit, like last year’s Man on Wire or, before that, An Inconvenient Truth, March of the Penguins, and the films of Michael Moore. (I don’t necessarily expect it to be that big; I’m just trying to sketch in the possibilities after its huge limited-run opening last weekend.) The film’s appeal seems obvious enough. Wintour, as I said in my review, exerts the electromagnetic pull of power, and the fact that she’s a woman only makes that more enticing. One person in the movie hails her as the most powerful woman in America, and however hyperbolic that statement may be, you at least have to stop and think about it for a moment in order to argue against it.
Then, of course, there’s the irresistible amusement of going to see The September Issue simply to check out how close Anna Wintour is to the fictionalized portrayal of her in The Devil Wears Prada. My own feeling is that a lot of reviewers, with their relentless, almost quasi-paranoid dissection of Wintour’s “coldness” and “fear factor,” have bought into the Anna-as-devil mythology even as they attempt to be a little more subtle about it. I mean, isn’t it really only her gender that makes these accusations – Wow! She’s so scary! A human iceberg! And look, the people who work for her obey her every whim! – exotic? Are there no scary/cool/implacable/ whim-driven male bosses in the land?
To me, though, what’s most fascinating – or, as the trend-spotters at Vogue might put it, nouvelle – about the success of The September Issue is that it rides the crest of a trend that’s been building for years: the mainstreaming of fashion culture for people who don’t think of themselves as giving a hoot about fashion culture.
Like, for instance, me. I grew up in the ’70s, when designers weren’t household names and fashion itself held a place that was arty, flashy-decadent, and sort of Euro. The introduction of Jordache jeans in 1978 was, in hindsight, the kickoff of a revolution. Suddenly, a company was asking you to pay good money to wear a label on your denim. And so, as sexy-cool as the fit or the stitching may have been, what you were really buying was the label, the cachet.
At that point the door was kicked open, but it has really only been in more recent years, with the success of Project Runway, that fashion has become a permissible spectator sport even for those whose idea of high-end shopping is a spree at J. Crew. If the popularity of The September Issue continues, you will no doubt see a lot of very ordinary – and ordinarily dressed – folks in the audience. That’s because the movie, like the marvelous Valentino: The Last Emperor (a surprise documentary hit earlier this year; it’s out on DVD this Tuesday), offers a glimpse into the fashion world for those who don’t pretend to have any special obsession with, or knowledge of, it. The September Issue gives us entré into a kind of media-glam secret society, but by allowing the movie to be made about her, Anna Wintour was really acknowledging that the secret is already out.
So how much do you care about fashion? And if the answer is “Not at all,” do you want to see The September Issue anyway?