The first marvelous thing about Lori Goldstein’s new book is the title: Style is Instinct. It’s a sort of fashion koan, inviting a multiplicity of interpretations: is she proposing style is instinctive? That it’s a person getting dressed with her cerebellum? Telling us what a stylist does?
It’s also an answer to a question that I always thought was idiotic until Goldstein asked it: what is the difference between fashion and style? Fashion is suggested to you, through magazines, through advertising, through runway shows and blogs. Fashion points to the boot or the coat and says, “That.” Fashion can be taught. Style, writes Goldstein, is something else: “the expression of a personal philosophy about beauty, about the world, about the nature of life itself.”
Goldstein’s expression comes in four sections. The first two are her Songs of Innocence and of Experience, except that her fall from paradise, a section called The Sickness, is a lot of fun. “Just beyond the edge of convention is what I call the sickness,” she writes, “that moment of individuality that transcends the pretty, the perfect.” What follows, like a glorious punchline, is Goldstein’s Fall 2000 Versace campaign, a Valley of the Dolls tribute that put models in an estate in Beverly Hills, swathed in candy-colored clothing, and imbued with what Goldstein calls “a stunning sense of boredom.” It’s eerie, too perfect to be beautiful, and to look at it is to become uncomfortably aware of how a fashion advertisement tries to pull one over on you.
Goldstein’s Songs of Innocence is The Divine, a counterpart to The Sickness, “where the sacred balances the profane, and light illuminates the dark.” Every image seems to glow with that icy feeling, that slight blurriness real or imagined that suggests the subject was once living, which you always get from looking at early photography. It’s in Paolo Roversi’s photograph of a kind of electrified Statue of Liberty from April 2005 W, and Annie Leibovitz’s Fall 2007 Nina Ricci campaign, in which a fawn-like woman emerges from a fecund forest in a dress like a floating sea anemone.
The third section, Harmonious Discord, is like a manifesto: “My fashion does not create a look but a world where that look can exist. My rules are not about separating–they’re about bringing together.” This section perhaps best typifies the familiar Goldstein aesthetic: the piling on of jumbles of layers that somehow look vital and cohesive. “A woman can wear nineteen items of clothing at once, and it can work perfectly if the patterns and layers complement each other,” she writes. “And in that case, twenty elements would have been too many, and eighteen, too few.”
Her final section, Pop, shows Goldstein’s work with celebrities. This could be the driest part of the book, cloying to people who may not study fashion magazines like medieval texts, but there is the 1990 Gap campaign she did with Annie Leibovitz, the ghostly First Lady portraits Jean-Pierre Khazem shot for W in November 2004, the iconic nude Demi Moore on the cover of a 1990 Vanity Fair (even nudes require styling, and in fact Moore was planning to wear Isaac Mizrahi).
Nearly every image invites a long time looking, and in fact, the book invites a sort of high-mindedness that the average fashion book does not. It is dabbed with quotations from the likes of Thoreau, Vonnegut, W. Somerset Maugham, and the naturalist John Burroughs. And Goldstein’s introductions and reflections on significant shoots are written with a sparse passion that recalls modern architectural writing, like that of the International Style (you know, “less is more”) or post-modernists (you know, “less is a bore”). The images live in both the lowest and highest echelons of taste, from the Palm Springs-inspired shoot she did with Steven Meisel for the May 2000 x
Vogue, to Mario Sorrenti’s February 2005 W photograph that recalls Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.” But we’re asked to engage with them from a decidedly highbrow standpoint.
I’m embarrassed to admit that this made me wonder whether the book was a fashion book for non-fashion people. Whether one gets more out of it if he or she is used to gazing at art is impossible for me to say, though I can say that I got much more out of it than looking at the average batch of fashion editorials. Perhaps it’s best to say that Goldstein rewards the intelligent eye and the well-read mind. Fashion is pedagogic, and style is instinct, but taste must be acquired.