by Maureen Callahan
2014 • 288 pages • Touchstone
Defining the nineties as a contained cultural unit is something that has long frustrated me. For me, specifically, it’s a very unique decade. I encountered every decade prior as an already shaped narrative and the aughts marked the first time I was conscious of the larger pop culture we’re all swimming in. But the nineties? I was a very sheltered small child at the time. That’s not my fault, obviously, but it has thwarted my attempts to knit a coherent narrative out of the disparate cultural artifacts of the nineties. There’s something willfully futile about such an exercise—how can you truly boil down ten years to a pat assessment?—but I need somewhere to start.
Champagne Supernovas posits that that somewhere to start is, in fact, fashion. The cover copy argues that the fifties were defined by rock and roll, the sixties by the Beat poets, and the eighties by punk rock and modern art. But the maximalism of the eighties, embodied by the first true supermodels, made no room for the recession’s fascination with emotional and physical trauma that eventually blossomed into what author and journalist Maureen Callahan characterizes as wound culture:
[McQueen] was at the vanguard of wound culture, the exploration of physical and psychological trauma that would come to dominate much of the fashion, film, art, photography, and music of the ‘90s. It was aborning in Kurt Cobain’s scabrous howl, in the seductive malevolence of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, the containment of maggots feasting on a cow carcass in Damien Hirst’s A Thousand Years. Just as the late eighteenth century’s Romantic movement was, in many ways, a reaction to the industrial revolution, this new fin de siècle disarticulation of beauty, our collective sway toward the narcotic and necrotic, was an expression of millennial anger and dread, the fear that sex could equal death and that technology might soon subsume humanity. (51)
This completely blew open the nineties for me. Callahan, as she continues, even goes so far to explain how the ultimate backlash against heroin chic (then President Clinton even issued a statement after fashion photographer Davide Sorrenti’s fatal overdose) and the appropriation of grunge (Marc Jacobs’ divisive Grunge collection, that saw him both fired and the subject of grunge royalty Cobain and Love’s ire) led to the noisy demise of both and the rise of the fake future aesthetic that ended up extending a little way into the aughts. (Captain Cinema and I refer to these overlaps as half-decades, which may be a more manageable cultural temporal unit.)
But while Callahan obviously needs to keep an eye on the bigger picture, she’s more interested in exploring this strange zeitgeist through the triple narratives of her chosen subjects: Kate Moss, who embodied heroin chic, Alexander McQueen and his willfully violent fashion, and Marc Jacobs’ personal struggles contrasted against his public success. Smartly, she alternates between her three subjects, devoting a chapter to each before cycling back to Moss. This can lead to a little temporal backtracking, but also allows her to contrast and compare these three journeys with more impact without having McQueen’s famously vicious personality or his looming suicide drown out either Moss or Jacobs.
Despite my natural inclination towards McQueen, I was most fascinated by Moss’s story. It’s intertwined with the story of the late Corinne Day, a fashion photographer whose fascination with depilated glamour (off-duty models in dirty hotel rooms were a favorite subject of hers) led to her discovery of Moss. Without Day, the rise of grunge and heroin chic would have been very different. (I think it certainly would have happened, given the cultural malaise at the time, but it would have been different. Hey, look, I feel like I can talk about the nineties as a thing! Mission accomplished!) This fascination led to the alienation of a lot of her friends, who didn’t care for Day’s willingness to exploit emotional trauma for a shot. This culminated in the 2000 photo book Diary, which estranged her from her best friend, Tara St. Hill. Day passed away in 2010, but she changed fashion forever. A biography about her would be amazing. You can see some of her work here.
No photographs are included in the final book, which is a bit of a shame: fashion is, obviously, a visual medium. A visual companion—perhaps for the paperback?—would be perfect. Reading this without Internet access at home was an exercise in frustration, since I wanted to look up or at least see a representative example from the photographs and the collections Callahan was discussing. Hopefully, this will be successful enough to warrant the work that would require.
This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.