Harper’s Bazaar’s Bizarre Internet Issue

A couple of points about women’s magazines and their redesigns:

1. The mainstream women’s fashion magazine is probably the most formulaic genre in pop culture. You think Top 40 songs, disaster movies, and Nintendo games never change? They’re passing fads compared with the fashion magazine, whose editorial mix (fashion spreads, celebrity profiles, social-trend articles, personal-service pieces, short favorable reviews, and the occasional first-person essay by a famous person) has hardly varied in more than a hundred years.

2. When reviewers differentiate between one fashion magazine and another, or between a magazine as overseen by this editor or that editor, they’re responding to distinctions so fine as to be invisible to the untrained eye. Change, when it occurs, happens at the level of typeface and page layout; in choices between freelance writers and photographers you’ve never heard of either way; and in the elevation of one unwearable item over another. The important things are inalterable: overripe prose, dreamy photos, skinny models, and fashion tips that hardly try to mask their status as plugs for advertisers’ products.

That said, Culturebox has been enjoying the redesigned Harper’s Bazaar, introduced at the beginning of the year by new editor Kate Betts. Betts’ changes are properly cosmetic. She has replaced the fussy Harper’s Bazaar logo with a skinnier, sans-serif one; supplanted the magazine’s archly ‘50s-ish graphic design, identified with late editor Liz Tilberis, with a ‘70s look; and upped the magazine’s intellectual heft with cultural essays by novelists Brett Easton Ellis and A.M. Homes.

Betts’ boldest move to date is an issue about the intersection between fashion and the Internet. The result, which appears on newsstands Thursday, seems satisfyingly gushy on first skim, as if Harper’s Bazaar had briefly turned into a superfemme Word. Read the issue, though, and you discover that the most interesting thing about the encounter of technology and couture is that there isn’t one. As Betts points out in her letter from the editor, female Silicon Alley executives can’t work up much concern about how they dress, so there isn’t much in here about them. Fashionistas are still at the stage where they need reassurance about shopping online, so there isn’t much to say about them either. The centerpiece of the issue is a story that’s supposedly about gold diggers in Silicon Valley, but the truth is, the reporter never finds any. The most inadvertently hilarious thing in the issue is a fashion spread called “Geek Chic,” featuring models leaping in the air in hiking gear, sweatpants, designer bags, and stiletto heels-a look that makes the girls seem like the kind of bimbettes from New Jersey who’d demand a ride back to the airport after five minutes in Seattle.

Betts deserves a lot of credit for trying something that none of her counterparts appear to have even considered–even though every other kind of magazine in America did its Internet issue two years ago. It isn’t her fault that the Internet isn’t fashion-friendly (or at least not super-high-fashion friendly), that fashion isn’t Internet-friendly, or that the exercise underscores the very last thing she would ever want her readers to focus on: that women’s magazines, which are supposed to epitomize trendiness, never change at all.