October 15, 2006

Essay Summary: Teen Fashion Magazines and Postmodernity

This is the beginnings of my first ever cultural studies paper :)

Dressed to sell: Postmodern aesthetics, consumer culture, and fashion in teen magazines

Since Angela McRobbie conducted a “qualitative content analysis and semiological study” of the British girls’ magazine Jackie in 1978 (Duke and Kreshel 52), many scholars worldwide have examined these texts and their place within the lives of adolescent girls. This academic interest is not surprising when one considers that, for example, although the circulation numbers are down significantly from a decade ago, there are nevertheless six magazines targeted at adolescent girls in Advertising Age’s list of the 300 top U.S. magazines (as measured by gross revenue from advertising and circulation) in 2004 (Endicott S1-S8).

In North America specifically, most of the research appears focused on the areas of self-esteem, health, gender and consumption. Some studies have concluded that the authority of the fashion press is limited (Crane, “Gender and Hegemony” 541), while others give greater weight to the ability of the media to influence consumption and lifestyle choices. Regardless, while a great number of content and discourse analyses and ethnographic studies have been conducted, there has been scant attention paid to how the aesthetics of these texts contribute to the various ideological discourses.

This essay will investigate the way that contemporary fashion products and commodity culture are presented in the editorial spreads of three mainstream North American magazines aimed at female adolescents: Teen Vogue, Seventeen and ELLEgirl. Although these publications continue to use traditional narrative and layout techniques primarily, they have also increasingly embraced postmodern concepts such as the death of metanarratives, a penchant for spectacle, and persistent ironic self-reflexivity in their content and aesthetic. As a result, they are somehow both formulaic and unabashedly discombobulated in both appearance and substance.

Contemporary images and layouts in teen magazines utilize postmodern aesthetics in order to promote commodity fetishism and hyperconsumption. This is ironic because postmodernity is traditionally associated with a greater emphasis on fashion individualism and originality for women (Crane 208), and postmodern fashion signifiers with subversive youth subcultures (Moore 325), such as the British punk movement and stylish Japanese Kogaru girls.

These once-rebellious and political youth subcultures, and the concept of youthful individualism itself, have now been commodified and resold to millions of young girls in an ahistorical and superficial package. Furthermore, visual approaches associated with postmodern aethethics such as pastiche, fragmentation and deconstruction were originally used only by avant-garde and anti-establishment fashion publications such as i-D and (the now defunct) The Face (Jobling 41).

How, then, have they been appropriated to promote such trivialities as movie stars and muk-luk boots?

[My conclusion?]

Teen magazines, much like other mass media today, display a host of postmodern characteristics in both their content and layout: fragmentation of subject matter, a lack of metanarratives, and the use of pastiche and bricolage to promote a host of diverse and occasionally incongruent trends, eras and styles. These stylistic elements and techniques are used for a variety of reasons: to distract, entertain, offer up signs in place of real meaning, and, most importantly, to provide the illusion of change and novelty in an age where fashion originality is “dead” (Mandoki 614) but the hyperconsumption of its (empty) signs must go on.

The fashion features found in these magazines, such as “Update your look” and “Where Did You Get That,” are brightly-coloured, visually appealing, and busy with graphics and images. However, they also have very little substantive content, and the sheer amount of visual activity and lack of narrative coherence makes meaning-making a challenge. Ultimately, the only constancy throughout these pages is the pervasive promotion of consumer culture and fetishization of images and fashion products.

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