William Norwich: On Fashion Week and the “Tyranny of the Red Carpet”
Author: Gee Henry
October 18, 2016
The author William “Billy” Norwich is a legendary fashion editor and writer who started writing about fashion for the New York Post and later put in a significant amount of time at publications like The New York Times Magazine and Vogue. His new novel My Mrs. Brown has been described (by none other than the New York Times) as a “gentle rebuke” to today’s fashion industry, with its obsession with over-the-top, red carpet-ready flashiness. In the novel, the title character is an ordinary woman of a certain age who lives a life as far away from the red carpet as you can imagine, with just enough money to get by, and certainly no flashiness. By chance, she comes in contact with an elegant black Oscar de la Renta suit that she immediately falls in love with. With a $7,000 price tag, it is way out of her budget, but her quest to save enough money to travel to New York City and purchase the suit provides the novel with its incredibly poignant conflict. It might be the sweetest book you read this year. Lambda Literary caught up with Norwich to talk about his book’s gay subtext, Fashion Week, and the “tyranny of the red carpet.”
So, it’s so fitting that we’re having this conversation as Fashion Week comes to a close! How many Fashion Weeks are there these days? It always seems like Fashion Week.
Yes, it always seems like it is fashion week, somewhere. And it is. If it isn’t Fashion Week then it’s some fashion event. Social media being such a cornerstone of fashion advertising, events feed the “feeds.”
Right now it is spring 2017 clothing being shown. And first there is New York fashion week, which ended Thursday. London Fashion Week started yesterday, mid- this coming week it is Milan Fashion Week for about six days, followed by London. There also are Fashion Weeks in Sydney, Beijing, and more.
And My Mrs. Brown is such a fashion novel to me, but one that sort of upends the whole social media circus that the fashion industry can sometimes descend into.
My Mrs. Brown began as a reaction to the tyranny of the red carpet: meaning, the message of the red carpet is that you are never fully realized unless you are wearing princess gear, dressed for the ballroom. It seemed to me that women of a certain income did well to decipher all that and make sense of it, and they have options when they shop. But a woman who is 50-plus, like Mrs. Brown, who doesn’t have much, if any, extra income to ever need a ballgown, was pretty much left out of the fantasy. Mrs. Brown is cleaning at a beauty parlor, she’s taking in mending for the local dry cleaner. Maybe her dress is something to wear somewhere she is as unlikely to go as an Emmy Awards: to a boardroom.
When you started working at Vogue in the 1980s, I’m sure you were one of the very few men who worked there.
I wrote an essay for The New York Times Magazine called “Homme Alone, 2003,” all about being a man in the minority working at Vogue.
And in your novel, almost all of the main characters are women. Was that intentional?
I’d say it was more natural than intentional. What happened was, I found in a thrift shop a copy of Paul Gallico’s Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris, which I’d never read. (I’d read Paul Gallico but not this. I’d never heard of it.) In it, published in 1958, a London charwoman after WWII—after all the darkness and rationings—sees one day in one of her clients’ closets a Dior gown that was like an explosion of color and pattern. And color returned to her world. In the Gallico novel, Mrs ‘Arris resolves that she will go to Paris to get herself just such a dress. I kept wondering: if that woman was American, living now, what would the dress be? It would be a tailored suit.
What happened next is, as I wrote—starting out with, if you will, a more intellectual idea—the character of Mrs. Brown came through. Sorry to use hippie speak, but she came through. What the dress was, and where she’d wear it… surprised me. And yes, in the company of other women.
The female characters in the book—to me—are archetypes of the sort of characters one might find in the world of fashion. Mrs. Brown is of course the woman of a certain age who can’t find a comfortable, beautiful suit to wear. But there’s also Mrs. Staunton, who knows fashion but can’t help herself but to look down upon those who don’t. There’s Florida, the supermodel who makes a good living modeling clothes but sees herself as a mere “clothes hanger” for them. And of course there’s Rachel, who knows and loves both fashion and the fashion industry, but never lords her knowledge over Mrs. Brown. Am I reading too much into the book when I think that the characters are meant to represent certain factions of the industry?
No, you’re not reading too much into it.
Another thing I loved so much about the book was the undercurrent of class and finance. There’s one scene where Mrs. Brown is watching television, and she sees that a rancher has won $118 million in a lottery. It’s almost like a throwaway line, but there are so many moments like that in the book. The beauticians at Bonnie’s Beauty Parlor, where Mrs. Brown works, are always worried about losing their jobs. Mrs. Brown herself finds it almost impossible to save money for her dress. It made me think of how the fashion industry thinks of money. Like, when I worked for a designer a million years ago, she advised me to summer in Fire Island, as though that were an option for me, financially, at the time. I think there’s a sort of image that most people have of people in fashion that everybody’s got an inheritance or a six-figure job, but that’s so untrue of 90% of the industry. Were you trying in some way to talk about that, or about “class”?
I think that there are a lot of people now who go into fashion who do enter from a privileged place. Fashion is considered a worthy career — which of course it is — but it wasn’t always what one’s parents wanted their kid to do. They used to prefer doctor or lawyer. So parents are supporting their millennials to go into it. As such, you have a lot of enabled spenders. Also, in the fashion world, you have a lot of people who would prefer to spend their pay on a new handbag then save for a rainy day, so you have people who say things like “summer in Fire Island.” This reminds of one time—actually, I should say, one of the many times—I was concerned about my savings. I told someone I was having trouble making ends meet as the cost of New York living was rising, and she said, totally seriously: “sell something.” Like a painting on the wall.
One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Mrs. Brown finally makes it to New York and notices… the smell. And then she gets on the bus and can’t ride in it standing up because of the constant lurching back and forth. It took me back to my early twenties when I was just learning how to stand up while riding in a bus (I still haven’t learned how to do this to my satisfaction). You’ve lived in New York City for so long, how did you recapture these memories of your first days here? I can hardly smell the city anymore these days, I’m so used to it.
Because I’m not used to certain things, and I’m not trying to be funny. The smells kill me, I avoid buses because I can’t stand, I once looked up while rushing to work at Times Square Conde Nast and noticed so many people smoking that it looked like it might be hell-smoke…
What I’ve never gotten used to is the steam that comes out of subway grates. I see people walk right through it as though they were walking through a gentle breeze, not a super-heated mist of germs and smoke.
So I have a “gay literature” question. Do you see My Mrs. Brown as a gay novel at all? I guess I do. It’s got a gay author, of course. But then some of the characters—especially the beauticians at Bonnie’s—seemed like gay-men-as-women to me. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I hadn’t thought about the beauticians in that way, as a sort of Jean Genet situation. How I think the novel is a gay novel is this: I am gay. And the book is an homage to my mother who died when she was 66, and I was 20. After a long illness. Gay men and their mothers. When I sat at Simon & Schuster with Trish Todd, who acquired and edited the novel, she asked me, before she decided to acquire it, who I thought would read the book? I hadn’t been asked that before in my meetings. Out of my mouth came the answer: Anyone who loves their mother. As a boy, watching my mother’s decline starting from when I was seven–a really long illness with remissions she had–she’d buy a perfume, or I remember a new coat, and she didn’t get to use or wear such things much, but they were interventions, just having them to admire. The late Evelyn Lauder’s many fundraising efforts for breast cancer research also included support of women after surgery. People would go to hospitals to help people during treatment—when the skin changes so much, and of course, self-esteem plummets—how a bit of lipstick and being fitted for a wig lifted spirits. Dressing is an intervention. And I think gay men can relate to this? A way out from repression and prejudice was always clothing and grooming. I am equating illness with oppression; anything that depresses the life spirit.
That’s really beautiful, and that’s what helps even a cynic like me appreciate the fashion industry. The times when it steps in to give us all a way to feel a little better.
So, William, is that why you wrote My Mrs. Brown?
I wanted to write since I was six, when I discovered what a writer is and what a writer does. Because of my mother’s illness—she also subscribed to Vogue, which back then was published twice a month—I learned about style and clothing and vanities and “gracious living,” not as acquisition or status seeking, but for soothing. Style as intervention, as I mentioned. Out of college I taught school for a couple of years, and then, while I was getting my MFA at the Columbia Writing Program in fiction, I got a job assisting a very well-known fashion journalist at the time, Eugenia Sheppard. That’s where I learned how to write journalism and how to write about the dreams and interventions of fashion. (Also interior design and entertaining.) It’s how and why I entered my field of interest and wrote about it. (Also as a gay man—this goes back to 1983-85—in journalism, these were subjects where gay men didn’t have to hide. I never wasn’t “out,” if you will forgive the poor English there.)
Well, I think that’s all I have for now. Thank you so much for writing such a lovely book and talking with me about it.
Thank you so very much for liking My Mrs. Brown and wanting and arranging to do this! You have honored me very much.