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Vogue Does 'Lesbian Chic,' But Does Anybody Care?
Max Mosher: "Vogue has essentially cast a heterosexual romance with two women"

We’re having a Beyoncé moment. You just have to roll with it. After much-discussed appearances at President Obama’s inauguration and the Super Bowl, it would’ve been overkill for Ms. Knowles to also perform at the Oscars. This Dream Girls fan was holding out for a last-minute surprise appearance, but I was content with the First Lady wearing the last of the night’s many sparkly dresses. Beyoncé, or ‘Queen B’ as the headline dubs her, stares out from the March issue of Vogue with the regal confidence of the Queen of Pop. She’s at the top of her game, but change is on the horizon. Everyone I know was at little sister Solange’s concert last Friday.

The March issue also features a photo spread by Mario Testino titled ‘To Rome With Love.’ First of all, I was surprised that Vogue let Testino go to Rome again after his garish, awkward editorial with Sienna Miller in 2007 (chronicled in the documentary The September Issue.) The esteemed photographer appears obsessed with soaring white statues.

Testino meant the Miller shoot to be cinematic. (“The cheerful side of Italian cinema,” Anna Wintour warns him in the film. “Not the dreary, depressing side…”) But it’s the new spread that tells a compelling story. Models Joan Smalls and Raquel Zimmermann pose as a lesbian couple on vacation, perhaps on honeymoon, in the Italian capital. They attend a series of sculpture galleries while holding hands, cuddling, and locking lips, as you do when in Rome. In the best picture, they kiss passionately behind a classical sculpture of a pair of nudes wrestling–two very different homoerotic embraces placed side by side.

The spread is an excuse to show off suits from the spring collections by Mulberry, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Hedi Slimane. But only Smalls wears them. Zimmermann wears more traditionally feminine combinations of skirts and jackets by Christopher Kane, Donna Karan, and others. The clothing isn’t the only thing that separates the models–throughout, Smalls strikes assertive masculine poses (hands in trouser pockets, stern eye contact with the reader). She’s possessive of Zimmermann, wrapping her arm around her shoulders or whispering in her ear. Zimmermann, in contrast, appears content with the feminine role, blankly staring off into the middle distance, painted lips slightly parted.

Essentially Vogue has cast a heterosexual romance with two women. They’ve cannily referenced ‘lesbian chic’ while recreating the gender dynamics of the 1950’s. At first I thought I was a bit offended by it. If the Vogue editors wanted to be truly subversive they could’ve embraced genderf-ck attitude towards the styling, rejecting all roles by dressing the models in both men’s and women’s wear.

Blogger Phlossy Roxx noted the racial implications of the coupling. “Whenever Hollywood or fashion do an interracial lesbian theme/shoot the black female is always the butch one… always.” She adds, “If Joan had worn sneakers with her pants suits, I would’ve almost been inclined to say that the inspiration for Joan’s character was Ellen DeGeneres.”

I still prefer giving a prominent spot to a non-white model like Smalls over doing what Vogue did elsewhere in same the issue–take Carolyn Murphy to Japan, use locals as props, and style her blonde hair like some kind of postmodern geisha. 

The longer I considered the shoot, the more I appreciated it. It may be reading too much into it, but when Smalls literally wears the pants, it suggests masculinity is a bit of a performance. And there’s a precedent within lesbian culture for Smalls and Zimmermann’s roles. It reminds me of the famous cover of Vanity Fair with k.d. lang getting a straight razor shave from Cindy Crawford. Long before concepts like “genderf-ck” (or Ellen DeGeneres, for that matter) lesbian bar culture was divided into butch and femme identities. Although later attacked by feminists for imitating heterosexual couples, during the 1940’s and 1950’s queer women who didn’t fit into the butch/femme dichotomy were suspected of being outsiders or even undercover cops. Later scholars argued that butch/femme culture, rather than copying straights, was in fact a uniquely lesbian tradition.

Not to suggest that Mario Testino is an expert in lesbian history, though he may be. Who knows? Vogue is about publicizing clothes, not waging war on gender paradigms. Casting one model as “the man” and the other as “the woman” is an interesting way of showing contrasting trends for spring. Critics have found many reasons to be offended by fashion magazines lately, from Hurricane Sandy photo shoots to photographers casting a white model as an “African Queen.” The smooch between Smalls and Zimmermann has attracted little attention.

At some point, the most shocking thing about a same-sex kiss is that no one is shocked at all.

____

Max Mosher writes about style for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @max_mosher_

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