What are the ethics of fashion magazines using war zones as a backdrop?

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This week, the fashion juggernaut vogue published a cover story featuring Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska looking grim against a backdrop of sandbags and once ostentatious marble pillars. In the magazine itself, more photos follow. One that particularly stands out is where, controversially, Zelenska poses in a navy coat over a long dress against the ravages of war in the country.

But July 26 is not the first time vogue aestheticizes a crisis. In 2010, the magazine featured model Kristen McMenamy drenched and surrounded by smooth, black oil – a response to the devastating Gulf oil spill at the time. But perhaps the most enduring photograph is from June 1941. Titled “Fashion is Indestructible,” the black-and-white photo shows an impeccably dressed woman in a suit standing in the rubble of a bombed-out building.

Zelenska’s cover recently received a divided public response: some felt it was a way to capture the emotional toll of Ukraine’s devastating war, while others felt it romanticized the armed conflict, thereby downplaying its damage. But fashion and war go back a long way, making the debate less straightforward than it seems. “It has been said that, as easy of an art as it may seem at the time, fashion coupled with journalism has the power not only to reflect the times, but also to influence changes (negative or positive) , especially in the process of shaping the impressionable minds of a generation to come,” NSSMag noted.

Fashion magazines – at one time almost interchangeable with “women’s magazines” and “women’s magazines” – had a historic role to play in mediating conflict with an audience trying to make sense of it. . During World War II, for example, vogue was instrumental: the magazine’s editors worked with Britain’s Ministry of Information to serve as a channel to talk to women across the country and implicitly educate them about their role in the war.

“Women’s magazines held a special place in government thinking during the war because, along with men in the forces, women bore full responsibility for family life; and the way to get women’s attention was through the pages of magazines which, in aggregate, were read by almost every woman in the country,” noted Audrey Withers, British vogues wartime publisher during World War II. “…every subject that the smart, sophisticated woman is currently interested in,” Withers wrote in a letter to US editor Edna Chase at the time, about the future of Vogue.


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At the height of World War II, Withers commissioned Lee Miller, an American model and photographer, to document the war from the front lines. Miller’s iconography included a photo of herself in Hitler’s bathtub after he fled his own residence – images that showed defiance, resistance and, above all, provided not only information, but an intellectual form of political engagement for the magazine’s readers.

The implicit message behind the cover of Zelenska in 2022 is no different: “Female voices in this war must be heard, must be represented… [Zelenska is] the first to talk about the human experience of war”, vogue Former Ukrainian editor Tetyana Solovey noted. The cover story itself explores the interiority of the first lady who has come to replace the emotional nerve center of the war – a world apart from the bluntness of geopolitical diplomacy.

But there is more to this issue: the play also continually emphasized her role as wife and mother – placing her at the delicate intersection between vulnerability and resilience and thus reinforcing gender roles during a loss of control in other areas of the country. Placing it in the heart of the grayness and desolation of war makes it a striking image. Some would say that’s the point: in addition vogueother women’s magazines played a crucial role in normalizing gender expectations during the war—educating readers about the war while emphasizing femininity.

Some commentators then rightly note that fashion and politics are not mutually exclusive – as fashion magazines have at various times applied soft power to shape political conversations among their populace. When women express interest in fashion, “it’s often weaponized as a way to deny [them] access to political conversations”, noted Lauren Duca in teen vogue. In 2016, for example, many fashion magazines became explicitly political following Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States.

Even so, a photoshoot amid the ruins of an ongoing crisis seems tone-insensitive at best, and insensibly offensive at worst. The photo shoot does not capture the front lines as the photograph of the Withers number did. While fashion magazines and the war have shaped a complicated history, there’s still a hard line separating photojournalism from photoshoots – with Zelenskyy’s cover story falling into the latter category, there’s real harm in whitewashing. the brutality of the conflict by trying to tell a story about a person rather than the war itself.

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