Review: Harper’s Bazaar Fashion: your guide to personal style

A missed opportunity from Harper’s.

HarpersHarper’s Bazaar magazine has just published this pocket-sized guide to personal style.

Sadly, I have to say I was disappointed in it. This is partly due to my own expectations: I had expected something like Vogue’s excellent style guide, More Dash than Cash, but it is a very different animal.

The Vogue book has gone through numerous incarnations, not all of them equally useful, but the early 80s edition, compiled by Kate Hogg, was my fashion bible as a student, and taught me many valuable lessons, such as always to wear the best of a type, basing a capsule wardrobe on a neutral, how to read a fashion photograph and the value of looking pristine, especially when you’re broke.

However, I do not feel that the Harper’s guide is aimed at me, and nor, I suspect, is it aimed at the average Second Cherry reader. It is, fundamentally, a guide to looking fashionable: I would not call it a style guide – it is far more designed to help the reader to follow trends, and encourage them to buy ‘must-have’ items and labels, many of which I would not be surprised to find are Harper’s advertisers. Realistically, a Hermes bag is beyond the budget of most of us, and most of us can get by very well without a Louis Vuitton bag or a Verdura cuff also. A quick check of the brands featured shows almost nothing at a mid-to-low price point, which I find significant. It is necessary for fashion magazines to kowtow to their advertisers because that’s how they generate revenue, but it’s not necessary in a book and is a missed opportunity by Harper’s to capitalise on their brand name without a hard sell. 

It strikes me that this book is aimed at a very specific readership: a woman between 25 and 35, city-based, single, child-free, works in an office, holidays abroad, is interested in celebrities and keen to look fashionable and trendy. If you are not this – if you are older, or live in a small town or in the country, or you work from home, or in a shop, or in a factory, or prefer hiking to lying on a beach, or you spend your days looking after young children, you will find little of use in this book, and what advice there is, is basic and can be found in many other guides. For instance, it isn’t helpful to be told to ‘ask someone who knows about these things’ if you can’t work out whether you’re short waisted. There’s an easy way to tell – if you can’t fit two hand widths between the base of your bra and your navel, you’re short-waisted. There are full instructions for how to measure yourself in the book Staging Your Comeback by Christopher Hopkins, if you want to be more precise.

Harper’s Bazaar Fashion is very nicely produced, and heavily illustrated with colour photographs, but I had something of a  problem with these images too, as I think the majority of the women in them look a mess. As style images, these are all very well if you think that see-through layers, mini skirts and towering platforms equate to style, but it’s a long way from my idea of what looks good, and even longer from what is actually practical.

To my mind, only in the vintage images do most of the women really look stylish, and the key here, whatever they are wearing, is simplicity. From Wallis Simpson’s perfectly tailored tweed suit with black trim (not that I would hold up a fascist like Simpson as any kind of role model to follow), to Catherine Deneuve’s pose with baby, these style mavens are very simply dressed. Value can be had here from simply deconstructing the photos (which this book does not do) and counting the garments – in Deneuve’s case, 2 (white capris, black sweater), in Katharine Hepburn’s, 3 (trousersuit, white turtleneck, waistcoat); Audrey Hepburn: 2 (strapless gown, gloves); Jackie Kennedy: 1 (white skirt suit).

In many of the modern outfits pictured, however, there are just too many ideas going on at once – one of the key characteristics of the godawful 1980s (and the godawful 1880s, incidentally). When this occurs – when layering is mixed with complicated cut and frills and print and a bit of lace attached, it is like five people all talking at the same time. Look at the photo of poor Rihanna in her Viktor and Rolf monstrosity on page 55. The writer describes this as a ‘look at me’ look, and so it is – but not in a GOOD way. I worry for anyone who’s following this as ‘style’ advice.
The best photo by far, in fact so good that I am going to see if I can find a copy of it for my inspiration wall, is on page 25, of Jane Birkin. This pic was taken about 40 years ago, but she looks fabulous – modern, comfortable, wearing worn-in jeans and a simple white t-shirt, her hair casually taken up, and her belongings in a wicker basket. Best of all, she looks totally comfortable with herself. And Birkin was not just an icon 40 years ago, the editor of this book might like to be informed – here in France, she is every bit as much of a fashion icon right now as she ever was. One of the most-worn items in my wardrobe, for instance, is a grey cashmere boyfriend cardigan with pockets that she modelled for La Redoute a couple of years ago.

Having said all this, the book does not entirely lack value: it is well produced, hardback and in a handy format, and if you have a fashion-conscious daughter or niece, it might make a nice present. However, if what you really want is help in developing a style of your own or building a wardrobe suitable for your life, a far better book is anything written by Brenda Kinsel (such as 40 over 40) or the utterly invaluable (whatever your age) The Pocket Stylist by Kendall Farr.

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