Fashion, Inspiration, Licentiate Columns

Licentiate Column 07/02/13: What’s a Muse?

Lady Amanda Harlech and Daphne Guinness swap identities and duke out their general muse-iness, as shot by Karl Lagerfeld for V Magazine

In fashion, words tend to lose their meaning – often to the point of crass offensiveness. Only in fashion are we supposed to call prints ‘ethnic’. If we called people ‘ethnic’, a blanket term that just means ‘not white’, we’d be in a lot of trouble. Likewise, nude is a no-go word, because all it really means is ‘skin coloured, but only if you’re a pinkish-looking person’.

Still, these terms get used, often out of an ignorance that is either innocent or willful. Each is just as harmful as the other. I know I’ve used both, definitely before thinking about what they actually meant. Words are powerful. In fashion, people tend to forget that words can be just as powerful as images. Fashion people are slaves to appearances. Why shouldn’t they be? The whole fashion industry boils down to making nice-looking things that people will foolishly spend pots of money on.

The meaninglessness of certain words and the preference for what the eye can see is self-evident in the words ‘muse’ and ‘icon’. There are so many muses and icons floating around in the atmosphere these days that they should be branded as a new element – the super-inert gas. Models can be muses, high-born ladies with bottomless wallets can be muses and (I shudder while typing this) even baseless harridans like the Kardashians can be muses.

What’s the difference between a muse and an icon, really? An icon is there to be unquestioningly worshipped while a muse provides inspiration, feedback and criticism. It is impossible for Alexa Chung to be your style muse – unless you’re creating something new and you have Her Stylishness on your Skype contacts list for a good old collaborative critique session.

In the book Muses: Women Who Inspire by Farid Abdelouahab, fashion muses are nowhere to be seen. The book focuses instead on artist’s and writer’s muses as, the author says, it focuses on an altogether more romantic era. Where is romance in the 21st century? It disappeared, along with the dodo and and the chance that Ireland will legalise abortion on a par with our EU brethren. A shame, really, as the likes of Dora Maar and Alice Liddell could have shaken fashion as much as they did art and literature.

Who are the modern muses? The late Isabella Blow certainly was one. Her eccentricities, jolie laide face and PR abilities helped to propel Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy to great heights. Lady Amanda Harlech is a modern muse in a very old-fashioned sense. She joins Karl Lagerfeld at every fitting, reacting to his ideas, constantly offering feedback. In modern parlance, she’s a consultant as well as a source of inspiration, but ‘fashion consultant’ is far too clinical a term even for Kaiser Karl.

What’s quite sad about the relationship between fashion designers and their muses is that the muses, almost always women, are inspiring more than they are inspired. It makes almost no sense. All these beautiful, smart, creative women are eclipsed by the men who draw from their talents. Lee Miller, a model, artist, writer, Cordon Bleu cook, world traveller and photographer is overshadowed by Surrealist photographer Man Ray.

It’s time for a role reversal. We need more male muses for female fashion designers and writers. I’d like to announce that I’m on the market for a muse. Any takers? You can find me at the usual address.

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5 thoughts on “Licentiate Column 07/02/13: What’s a Muse?

      • I heard that too. If I had to opportunity to interview anyone in fashion, I would choose Daphne in a heartbeat. Her editorial in Tatler Hong Kong still inspires me (and makes me envy her wardrobe) every time I get a glimpse of it!

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