The Devil’s in the Details

What the film gets right about fashion magazines.

Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada 

Even at a fashion magazine, the devil rarely wears Prada. According to the New York Times and Women’s Wear Daily—both of which recently published articles griping that The Devil Wears Prada provides an inaccurate, outsider’s view of the fashion industry—any stylish editrix would more plausibly be swathed in of-the-moment labels like Chloe, Marni, Rochas, or Marc Jacobs. And it’s true that the film gets many details wrong: No editor in chief worth her Manolos would allow her hair to go white-gray, as Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), the film’s villain, does; nor would she wear a silk leopard-print blouse straight off the Dynasty set. You’d also be hard-pressed to find fashion editors who put themselves together in the fussy manner of the film’s characters. With their swarms of gold chains heaped upon embroidered jackets layered over sequined tops, all of it cinched by wide belts and accessorized with knee-high boots, these editors look like conceptual art assemblages. (“More is more” seems to be the film’s guiding aesthetic.)

Then there are the editorial underlings. Rare is the assistant who would costume herself as elaborately as Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), the film’s protagonist: On successive days, she approximates Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (swingy green coat with leopard collar and cuffs), Ali MacGraw in Love Story (long belted jacket with snug knit cap), and Jane Fonda in Klute (minidress and overcoat paired with up-to-there boots). Rarer still is the girl who would risk her job by raiding the “fashion closet” to acquire such a wardrobe. But such discrepancies can easily be seen as the calculated choices of the film’s savvy costume designer, Sex and the City veteran Patricia Field. More remarkable than what the film gets wrong is how much it gets right.

For starters, there is Andy’s stylistic ineptitude at the film’s outset and her colleagues’ alarmed reaction to it. When we initially meet Andy, she is a young woman who proudly knows nothing about fashion but still struggles to look her frumpy best. Her first day on the job, she wears a white oxford blouse beneath an electric blue cable-knit sweater with a matching blue-and-gray argyle skirt. (“Do you have some prior commitment?” Emily, the vampy senior assistant, asks her. “Some hideous skirt convention you have to go to?”) Andy accessorizes with a tiny Elsa Peretti bean necklace from Tiffany & Co., a detail that, in its juvenile simplicity, is particularly apt. A quick shot of Andy’s chunky shoes further establishes Andy’s unsuitability for her new job at the barbarous Runway magazine; she is a square-toed girl in a pointy-toed world where the personalities are as spiky as the footwear. (In the opening montage, we see the feet of a young editor as she replaces her clogs with a pair of Dolce & Gabbana stilettos in nervous preparation for Miranda’s arrival—another fashion-magazine detail that the film nails.)

The Runway editors do not suffer these sartorial missteps gladly. Miranda, catching a glimpse of Andy’s clodhoppers, stares at them as though she hopes to melt them with her eyes. Later, after Andy spills corn chowder on her sweater, she is snapped at by Miranda’s henchman, Nigel (who, played by Stanley Tucci with a dandified air, is the film’s Andre Leon Talley figure): “I’m sure you have plenty more poly-blend where that came from.” Like Andy, I was a literary hopeful who spent my first two working years at fashion magazines. For an interview at Harper’s Bazaar, then run by the legendary Liz Tilberis, I wore a brown houndstooth suit with matching brown leather pumps. “You looked like you were interviewing to be a congressional page,” my then boss, now a dear friend, recently told me. And while no one ever treated me with the contempt that the characters in the film show Andy, I was gently made to realize that I was expected to look a certain way. “What kind of shoes are those?” my boss at Mirabella asked me as I stood at the copy machine in a pair of Prada platforms that had cost a full week’s pay. “You should wear them more often.” I quickly learned, as Andy does, that in the fashion world, the clothes can literally make the woman. Indeed, working at a fashion magazine and neglecting your attire is a bit like being a dentist and failing to brush your teeth.

As the importance of clothing dawns on Andy, she enlists Nigel to make her over. The overhaul consists mainly of “shopping” in Runway magazine’s enormous fashion closet, as though it were the seventh floor of Barneys. True, the size of the film’s closet defies realism, as Ruth La Ferla pointed out in the Times, and no editor would partake of its contents daily as though from her own closet. But the film is right that this repository of fabulous designer clothing plays a central role in the life of fashion editors. Many editors, particularly the more established ones, borrow dresses to wear to special events. For those living on often meager salaries, the closet represents a shortcut by which one can improve one’s life, however momentarily.

The beauty and accessories closets—the former housing stacks of cosmetics and creams; the latter a jumble of shoes, belts, sunglasses, and jewelry—function similarly. The editors who guard these chambers regularly exhume their contents (gadgets, socks, peppermint foot cream), piling them on a “giveaway table” so their underpaid colleagues can help themselves. In one realistic scene, Andy arrives at dinner bearing gifts for her boyfriend, Nate (Entourage’s Adrian Grenier), and their two friends. Her offerings include a Bang & Olufsen phone, Clinique makeup, and a never-used Marc Jacobs bag. (The loot is often that good; I still wear a Ferragamo belt abandoned by an accessories editor.) All this free stuff, it seems, makes the long hours seem shorter and the low salary more bearable.

Of course, much of the film’s authenticity derives from the book it is based on. Whatever it lacks in literary merit, Lauren Weisberger’s novel makes up for in insider detail. But given the film’s overall verisimilitude, why didn’t Patricia Field bother to get the details of editorial dress right? The Times article describes the aesthetic of women who work in fashion as “subdued” and “Boho-inflected, low-key, often self-consciously haphazard.” All true. The problem is, subdued, well-edited clothing doesn’t play well onscreen. The camera cannot sufficiently capture a sumptuous texture or a nuanced cut. The bright colors and conspicuous logos Field uses serve as visual shorthand for the glamour of a fashion editor’s life. To differentiate her characters from regular women dressed up for work, Field had to make their ensembles over-the-top. And if the clothes pander to an outsider’s expectation of what fashion should look like, it’s hardly surprising; fashion outsiders will no doubt be the film’s main viewers.

Yet, in the end, the fashion editors in the film are not that different from regular working women. The opening montage shows several editors performing the morning ritual of working women everywhere: peering into the closet and deciding what to wear. Unfortunately, the film offers a simplistic moral: People who care about clothing are either nasty (Miranda) or irredeemably superficial (her minions). The more Andy tends to her appearance, the less she tends to those around her. Goodness, the film would have us believe, is next to dowdiness. But any woman (or man, for that matter) who dresses for a job knows that this notion is ridiculous. Clothing possesses a talismanic quality, a transformative power: Put on a smart suit and a pair of stylish heels and you are instantly more commanding. Deals can be signed or broken, promotions gained or lost, all by the hem of a skirt. The film, at its best, captures the anxiety, and the magic, of dressing up.