In the Mode

Mode magazine is calling it quits, which is kind of a shame. For those of you who live outside the U.S., or are men, or shut-ins, or whatever, Mode was the first mainstream fashion magazine to feature fuller-figured “plus-sized” models–though sometimes it seemed the only thing “plus” about the size numbers was that they were “integers greater than zero.” In general, though, Mode was created to promote an alternative to the kinds of beauty standards put forth by more traditional fashion magazines, and it was great.

Or it was sort of great. Or it was a great idea. I’m afraid to say I always had mixed feelings about Mode. I know I was supposed to be thrilled it even existed, and in a way I was, but I didn’t really like it. As much as I hate to say it, Mode was a little… well, lame.

Or it wasn’t Mode itself that was lame; it was the ads. Or it was the fashion industry. Somehow the whole gestalt of Mode didn’t quite work: on one page you’d see Kate Dillon in couture showing her milky cleavage; on the next there’d be an ad for some crappy knee-length tunic from Fashion Bug Plus. One of the inadvertently interesting things about Mode is that the clash between its pictorial content and its ads revealed the shitty realities of the clothing business–all the assumptions about age and class and aesthetics that make clothes in women’s sizes so depressingly ugly. Which is not to say the magazine didn’t try like hell to change those assumptions; if any progress has been made (and I think there has), Mode probably had something to do with it.

The weird thing about Mode was that it managed to become such an important magazine without having much to offer in the way of magazine. I know a lot of people were willing to overlook the magazine’s skimpy content because the models looked so much more “real,” but I guess I never quite agreed. Intellectually, I can understand the disgust that lots of people feel towards the “unrealistic images” of very thin women in Cosmoor Vogue. Personally, though, I never felt it. Maybe it’s a result of having never been thin in my life, but I never thought those models were supposed to represent me. I never felt I should “aspire” to look like Amber Valletta, and the idea that I ever would seems pretty fucking insulting.

On the other hand, when I read crap like Mademoiselle, I know I’m being encouraged to see myself in the articles–all the quizzes and the slumber-party chatter and the inane advice about relationships and careers and sex and “ways to drive your man wild.” Maybe Mode could have used some of that crap. When you skim all those dippy feature articles in other women’s magazines, you get a sense of the kind of persona they’re trying to sell you. When you read Mademoiselle, you’re the slighty naughty twentysomething party girl trying to make it in the big corporate world. With Marie Claire or the old incarnation of Glamour, you can be kind of shallow, but at least you vote and have most of your shit together. With Cosmopolitan, you can pretend to be a scheming uber-vixen in spike heels. With all these magazines, the persona never quite fits, but that’s kind of the point: you try it on for awhile for kicks.

I could never really do that with Mode, though. Most of their content seemed to consist of technical beauty tips and the sort of generic little feature articles usually found in airline magazines. At best, they’d have a feature story on some fuller-figured celebrity, which was nice and all that, but then again the point was always the same–Look! She’s beautiful! That woman is plus-sized and beautiful!

Maybe the whole problem with Mode was also the same thing that made it so different and radical: whenever you picked Mode, you were trying on the notion of being beautiful. You read Mode; you were beautiful. Every month, the Letters to the Editor were almost always the same–letters from women who were so very grateful to be beautiful at last. Or else letters from men who were practically wanking off at their keyboards because the women they saw in Mode were so beautiful, and they just wanted to let us know that the women in the world who look like the women in Mode are beautiful, too. And then sometimes Mode itself would take it on themselves to remind us that men think we are beautiful, because, actually, we are very beautiful.

I could go on with pointing out the limits of this kind of thinking, and make jabs at their “Ask Emme The Full-Figured Supermodel” advice column (which they ditched a couple of years ago anyway) but instead I’ll just make an analogy: Mode was like that one person who comes up to you at a party when you first get there and you’re all shy and you don’t know if you’ll fit in yet. And that person says, “Oh my God, that skirt is so cute–you look so good in it,” and you say, “Wow, thanks!” and the person says, “Really, it looks so good on you,” and you’re like, “yeah,” and you smile, and the person smiles back, and you sip your drink and smile at the person again, who nods, and then you don’t know what to say because you realize this person has nothing else to say to you. And then you look around, and you think, well, what now?

Don’t think there isn’t a part of me that wonders if I expect too much. I guess I should be glad that Carre Otis thinks being a Mode cover girl is better than being slapped around by Mickey Rourke.

And don’t think I don’t realize how powerful Mode really was. Whenever I hear people praise the magazine (which is often), they’ll always say something about how amazing it was just to see the kind of body types in Mode’s pictorials–and how it made them see the models in the other magazines differently. “You don’t realize how skinny those chicks in Elle are until you look at the women in Mode,” they say. Mode made the most difference when it functioned like a test pattern–images designed to help us adjust our eyes, that showed us what normal looks like.

Well, now we know what it looks like; now we know it’s beautiful. And now it’s time for something else to happen.