Reading Fashion




HEATHER COCKS AND JESSICA MORGAN are the creators of Go Fug Yourself, the celebrated and long-lasting fashion blog. Also the authors of the YA novels Spoiled and Messy, Cocks and Morgan this summer published their first novel for adults, The Royal We. Based loosely on the lives of Kate Middleton and Prince William, The Royal We tells the story of an American, Rebecca “Bex” Porter, who falls in love with the Nick, the fictional heir to the British throne. This summer, Cocks and Morgan sat down with LARB Humanities Editor Sarah Mesle to talk about: characters, context, Kim Kardashian, Princess Diana’s wedding dress, outfits to hate-watch, and the pleasure of summer reads. The following has been edited for clarity and length.

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SARAH MESLE: Two things that strike me about this book are, first, that it is completely pleasurable beachy reading, and, second, that it is extremely ambitious. It’s a long, elaborate, and carefully crafted novel. Tell me about what you set out to do here!

JESSICA MORGAN: In a sense, the length was dictated by the story we wanted to tell. But also, I love a really long, juicy beach book. The obvious model is Scruples, by the master, Judith Krantz. The great thing about Judith Krantz is that all of her heroines have jobs — jobs to which they are very committed and at which they are very good. In Till We Meet Again, her World War II novel, the main character is a pilot; in Scruples she owns a store. In both, the career is just as important as a romance. And the career portions are incredibly well researched! So as fantasy, wish-fulfillment narratives for women, her stories are very modern.

Another example is the No Angel trilogy by Penny Vincenzi. The Vincenzi books are an example of my favorite subgenre, which I call People Having Romantic Problems During Wars.

HEATHER COCKS: When we were starting to write this book and beginning to realize that it would be quite long, our editor brought up the Penny Vincenzi books as a model, and it was a “mind meld!” sort of moment. We realized we all understand the pleasure of a fat book with a wide sweep.

SM: So what was the germ of The Royal We. Did you decide, specifically, that you wanted to write about Kate?

HC: We were having a casual conversation with our agent, and we started talking about Will and Kate because it was about the time George was born. We started wondering about how Kate handles everything so well, because she seems so calm and collected, but surely those still waters run deep. Kate was “Waity Katie” right until she got engaged, and then suddenly everyone was like: welcome to our bosom. That must have been such a strange experience. And ever since then, she can’t have a feeling, she can’t have a blister, she can’t limp at a public event, you know, or wear the wrong neckline or hemline.

And let me say, having written this book? You always think a fairy tale would be fun, but I’m not sure it would be.

SM: The Royal We is definitely in dialogue with fairy tales, but it has other stories within the story too. Within your novel, there’s another book that’s a narrative of Nick and Bex’s relationship, The Bexicon, which is the fantasy, sanitized version of the story we’re reading. And then there are the British tabloids, which are yet another version of the story — the tawdrier version. But my favorite is probably the trashy television show Devour, which seems sort of a faux Vampire Diaries, that Bex and Nick watch while falling in love. How did you decide to make fandom, and trashy television in particular, into the thing that draws Bex and Nick together?

JM: It appealed to us to have the characters bond over something not at all regal. So much of the book is about the difference between your public face and your private face. It’s just really funny to us that the private face of Nick, the crown prince, is someone who actually votes on who should be the next Real Housewife.

HC: Jessica and I met while writing for Television Without Pity, which is the ultimate recap site for guilty pleasure TV. So obviously television is a connection for us, but I think not only for us. When I was in college, there was a lot of gathering in dorm rooms to watch Melrose Place. And, especially because so much of the book focuses on an extraordinary circumstance, we wanted the center of their romance to be something that many people would connect to. And it humanizes Nick! It’s the ultimate evidence that he’s not just a prince, he’s also a dude.

SM: That’s interesting: that part of being ordinary, and maybe even being human, comes from being a fan — from feeling like something is bigger and more exciting than you.

HC: It’s like how amazing it was when we learned that Kate Middleton was a big fan of Downton Abbey, and the actors were like, really?

JM: Wasn’t Prince Charles a big Spice Girls fan? Didn’t he have a thing for Ginger?

HC: Whenever I think about that, I think about Love Actually and the scene when Hugh Grant dances to the Pointer Sisters. I always imagine it’s Prince Charles dancing to the Spice Girls, and it makes me really happy! Because you know, sometime, something like that really happened! Maybe he sang Spice Girls over the phone to Camilla!

JM: But to your point: our sense was that both the other kinds of stories we represent in our novel — so, both the tabloids and The Bexicon — are exaggerated and tonally suspect, but Bex often finds herself admitting that there’s a grain of truth in what’s said about her. And that idea is part of what guided this book — averaging out the different ways the story can be told.

SM: Part of what’s difficult for Bex, and part of why, like Kate, she can’t go out in a track suit or with the wrong hemline, is that once she walks outside fashion bloggers like you are looking at her!

HC: Yep. She walks out the door, and she’s a commodity.

SM: So what was it like for you to write from the perspective of someone who is constantly being scrutinized by people like you? What was it like being the scrutinized rather than the scrutinizer?

HC: Jessica and I often realize that it’s hard not to put yourself in the shoes of the people you write about. On Go Fug Yourself, we try to keep focused on what are primarily branding choices. That’s what we see on Kate Middleton, and on the red carpet. People have decided how they want to present themselves to the public, and I find that fascinating. Every part of what goes into a public persona like that is very orchestrated!

That’s what we wanted to capture with Bex, as she learns how to sit down, stand up, get out of a cab, pluck her eyebrows. I enjoy imagining the many ways that orchestration can take place, whether it’s on Go Fug Yourself or in The Royal We. Every time I look at Kate Middleton, I think about the compromises that are being made between her tastes and a royal standard. When Kate Middleton wears a dress, it’s not just Kate, it’s the monarchy, it’s the royalty. And, you know, having sympathy for that doesn’t mean that I like her beige round-toe pumps any more!

JM: It’s important to remember that Kate Middleton is doing a job. When Rihanna goes out, her job is to be Rihanna; when Kate Middleton goes out, her job is to be the Duchess of Cambridge. Those jobs require very different costumes!

HC: Kate Middleton doesn’t have the freedom to be herself, in the way that many other celebrities do. Rihanna can be herself or she can construct a persona; she can manage a brand either way. But Kate Middleton never represents her own brand. The brand is always the Duchess of Cambridge.

SM: Do you two remember Diana and Charles’s wedding?

JM: Oh yeah!

SM: Nothing was ever as beautiful, as that dress was to me, at that time.

HC: Though when Fergie’s dress came along I was pretty much over Diana.

SM: REALLY??! Oh no, for me it was all about Diana. The puffed sleeves! So Anne of Green Gables!

JM: True!

HC: I was a big fan of Fergie’s! And I liked her hair better than Diana’s.

SM: I’m gonna agree with you on that one.

JM: The monarchy is a much less complicated story for Americans! We’re not paying for it, so it’s just these characters with different haircuts. We experience it as a story. And we wrote the story with Bex as an American partly so we could approach the monarchy as an American would, and not presume to speak for the British experience of their monarchy.

HC: When Queen Elizabeth dies, it’s going to be very complicated. Regardless of how people feel about the monarchy as a concept, I think that everybody loves her. She’s about to outlive — hopefully — Queen Victoria as the longest sitting monarch, and she’s the only sitting head of state who lived through World War II.

JM: I think she could live another 20 years! And I think that Kate and William would like that. As long as she’s alive, they can live their lives with some independence. Right now they can have jobs, and have a family, that’s not just being the monarchy.

HC: Yeah, my guess is that they’d want to prolong this part of their lives as long as possible. Though, I suppose you also want to be a hot queen! You know, priorities!

SM: I feel like we have no idea what she wants! You and I can look at her and think about how much better it would be to parent a little bit out of the public eye. But maybe Kate Middleton is more like Margaery Tyrell! Maybe she wants to be THE queen, not just a queen! Maybe she wants to be the Mother of Dragons!

HC: Kate Middleton sparks so much controversy on Go Fug Yourself, and it seems that, no matter what your opinion of her is, you’re not willing to change it. People talk about her like they talk about Star Wars, or Harry Potter. Everything she does becomes evidence to support their preexisting view of her.

JM: That’s part of what was interesting about writing this book, because, as you say, we have no real information about her. So as we were coming to our protagonist, we could create her out of whole cloth even though she’s based on a real character. And the central fact of our character’s life is that everyone in the world has opinions about her, even though they’ll never meet her. And how weird that must be! That everything you do is interpreted through a preconceived notion.

HC: Yes, and in a way that’s trickier because it’s so politicized.

JM: Right, it’s different than Beyoncé. For one thing, Beyoncé chose to be famous.

SM: Beyoncé is Margaery Tyrell!

JM: Right, and Nick, in our book, had no choice about anything at all. Celebrity is just an accident of DNA. It’s the opposite of another very polarizing figure on our site, Kim Kardashian.

HC: I think they’re sort of opposite sides of the coin: the person who never asks to be famous, and the person who asks for nothing but that. And maybe that’s why those are the two characters — Kate Middleton and Kim Kardashian — who are always the most clicked-on characters on our site.

SM: How fascinating that those are the two narratives that get people the most excited! The perfect blank slate of pristine elegance, and the tawdry, press-hungry, plasticized beauty.

HC: And again, whatever people think of Kim completely determines what her actions mean to them. If she has a blank face when she walks out of a hotel, the people who think she’s dumb read her face as evidence of dumbness; the people who think she’s suffering see it as mute appeal to how horrible it is to be under Kanye’s thumb. Maybe it’s just that that’s how she’s trained herself to respond to the flashbulbs. And whatever you think, nothing she does will change your mind.

JM: Like Kate, Kim doesn’t get a break. Ever.

SM: Let’s talk about branding and character. Public relations people brand, and celebrities brand, and authors create characters. And in your book, you are writing about a character who is being branded. And this strikes me as a sort of interesting layer! On Go Fug Yourself, part of what you do is read the character that is being created for you, as fashion bloggers, by PR firms; in this novel you’re creating a character. What relationship do you see between what you’re doing and what PR firms do?

HC: I think it’s very different.

JM: I have a lot of sympathy for PR work; I think it’s very hard. Trying to manage the public face of another human being is a very difficult job.

HC: In PR work, you’re taking something that exists and you’re trying to make it into something else, or polish it into something else, or make people believe it’s someone else. It’s about working with something that’s real. On the website, we’re not trying to sell anybody on anything, but we’re the call-and-response with PR. It’s like, directors make movies for critics; PR firms make characters for us. Who is Emma Stone being on the Spider-Man red carpet? How is Kristen Stewart going to handle her first red carpet appearance after her affair? And when we look at these pictures, as the Fug Girls, we’re reading the interaction between a real person and a story that’s being created for them.

That’s very different from the kind of work we did as authors, which was to create something entirely fictional. And obviously there are similarities to the real world, but it’s not that our goal is to encode the truth into fiction.

JM: Writing a book felt like using an entirely different muscle.

SM: When I started reading Go Fug Yourself, maybe 10 years ago, I had the sense that it was a little more character driven. One thing that I want to come back to, and to praise, was your coverage of Britney during her Kevin Federline moment. You did a lot of writing in Britney’s voice — I remember the “love Britneeeeeey!!!

JM: I enjoyed writing that a lot! One reason I don’t do it now is that Britney never leaves the house anymore.

SM: Truly that was a magical moment in celebrity culture!

JM: YES. Yes. Someone someday is going to write a history of that moment: when Paris went to jail, and when she drove the wrong way down the 101, and when Britney was having a breakdown and everyone was showing their vagina to everyone — that was crazy! That was the summer that D-listers lost their minds. The moment when I learned that Paris was going to jail was maybe the most LA-in-the-new-millennium moment ever. Heather texted me to let me know, and the text came in — check this out — on my bedazzled Motorola flip phone, while I was in Denim Doctors getting my True Religion jeans hemmed.

HC: Time capsule!

JM: SUCH a time capsule! I remember opening my phone and saying, “Oh my God, everybody! Paris is going to jail!” And everyone in Denim Doctor gasped in delight and horror.

HC: Unfortunately, now, celebrities rarely give you very much, in that way. Back in the day, if Britney posted a “Letter of Truth” on her website, that was a big deal! Now she’d just write a two-line tweet. Twitter makes it seem like you’ll give more of yourself, but in a way you’re really giving less.

SM: Do you feel fashion is less, too? Not less important, but less free? More controlled?

HC: Absolutely. There are so many ways to get access to images, now, and people are much more careful. Though you still occasionally see people who haven’t gotten a stylist yet, and whose taste hasn’t quite caught up to their celebrity.

JM: And God bless them! I wish no one had a stylist. As fashion bloggers, it’s really in our best interest when people let their freak flags fly. We always joke that our real goal is for all the celebrities to ignore us! Like: “Pay no attention to me! Be crazy!” Though, if the shoe were on the other foot, I’d definitely get a stylist. I don’t want to end up on the back of Us Weekly.

HC: Or at least, go down in a blaze of glory.

SM: Let’s come back to the call-and-response that you do with stylists; to how you see yourselves as critics. I’m wondering how what you think of yourselves doing compares to what I think of myself doing. I write about books and about television, and I think about myself both reading and watching those. I approach those things in different ways: sometimes I have a fan relationship to what I’m reading, where I just looooove it or just hate it and my response has very little to do with my critical acumen. Sometimes I have a critic’s relationship, where my job is to recommend or not. And then sometimes I have a literary critic’s relationship, which is different, where I’m not saying “this works or doesn’t work” so much as I’m trying to understand what a particular show or text can help us understand about a particular moment in art and in culture. Obviously those modes exist on a spectrum with each other, but they do feel different to me.

I’m curious if what I do connects to what you do? Is fashion something that, you think, needs to be read, and in different kinds of ways?

JM: For celebrities, what they wear on a red carpet is a statement about something, about how they want to be perceived. And as a fashion blogger, I do think that part of the job is to evaluate that statement. We ask: “What is this person trying to tell me, and do I think they’re communicating it successfully?”

SM: So, an outfit in that way is like a published thing. It’s not a draft; it’s put out to be read! So I guess that’s my question: does it feel like reading to you?

JM: It’s not reading to me, because I cannot live in someone’s outfit the way I can live in the world of a book. But maybe that’s me, personally; perhaps there are people who can live in fashion. Maybe Tim Gunn is living in the world of Oscar de la Renta’s 2012 spring line.

But for me, as a writer and as a person who loves to read, I can live in a book: I feel like I’m living with the characters, in their space, and clothing for me is not like that. When a major event is going on, you can, almost in an academic sense, get absorbed into what stories are being told. But it doesn’t feel literary to me.

SM: So, in a way you don’t have the immersive, uncritical fan relationship to fashion?

HC: Well I do think there’s some of that — I have that relationship with some celebrities, where I either love them in every role or I hate them in every role: that personal bias can make it hard to think about their fashion. Just like you can hate-watch a show, you can hate-watch an outfit. People love to hate-watch Kim Kardashian.

SM: She’s like the Franzen of fashion.

HC: Consider Julianne Moore during last year’s awards season: seeing her move from the Golden Globes through the Oscars was a story line. She was pretty assured to win it all, and it seemed like her wardrobe was staged to build over the course of these appearances — her clothes were very different from her usual fashion, which is often black, simple, verging on dowdy. This year she kept showing up in beautiful and glamorous but ultimately kind of safe outfits, and looking at that I kept thinking that she wanted her victory lap to be unimpeachable. She knows that the photos of her clutching her statuette are going to live forever.

JM: And who could blame her!

HC: Unfortunately I don’t think she got her happy ending because she went for custom Chanel for the Oscars, and when you do that you don’t get the input into the construction that you might have liked — I hated that dress. But nevertheless, when you see someone over the course of months try to put together a particular visual experience, you can put together a narrative, and you can consume that as a critic and you can also consume it as a fan.

Cannes is another situation where it’s not that a narrative unfolds over time, but rather several people shape a narrative at the same time, stepping outside of what’s normal for them.

JM: The Met Ball is like that too.

HC: Right. One thing we like to say is that every outfit has its context: maybe that context is Cannes, or maybe it’s Beyoncé’s body. And part of the analysis of fashion is thinking about how clothes interact with context. What we do is not so much think about whether we like an outfit, or whether we think a dress is cute, but think about the choice that’s made in putting an outfit on a particular person at a particular place.

SM: Are there any fashion stories or narratives that stand out in your mind as really well executed? Like, Lupita Nyong’o: she seems to have had a really exemplary award season.

JM: Actually, yeah! The year that she won the Oscar, her whole award season was impeccably fabulous. And then, as soon as she won, she started wearing all this crazy stuff, and I imagine her saying: Finally! Finally I get to try stuff out and see what happens. I think it was interesting that she was so controlled, so beautiful, and generated so much goodwill — I have a lot of fondness for her! — and she made herself a space where people will let her wear, now, basically whatever she wants.

HC: I think that’s part of why she has so much goodwill. People hadn’t really heard of her, and then she looked so beautiful at Toronto, the September before award season —

JM: Amazing Prada outfit! Amazing!

HC: — Yes, a beautiful dress! But then she came out in the Ralph Lauren cape and then —

JM: — Yes!

SM: I just need to say: watching these memories play over your faces is amazing. YOU LOVE HER.

HC: True! But that very carefully crafted slice of time made everyone love her so much, and she basically gave herself a lifelong credit, and now when she tries the crazy stuff everyone’s like, “Oh, it’s Lupita, she can sell me on anything.”

JM: I also think she has interesting taste and is a smart, interesting person. Someone on Go Fug Yourself, one of our readers, came up with a phrase for Cate Blanchett: that she has Carte Blanchett. And I was like: yes, that’s so genius, and it is true! There are some people, especially people whose looks convey a kind of intellectual presence, where people are willing to follow them down unconventional fashion paths to see where they go. And I don’t think that, for example, Blake Lively has that, though I think she’s very beautiful.

HC: It’s interesting to think, too, about Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop, which has such a singular place in celebrity culture.

JM: We wrote something about Gwyneth for New York Magazine years ago where we said that we never wanted her to change. She’s so entertaining! When she does a Goop about, you know, where to stay in Hong Kong, and she says, “I find the Four Seasons delightful!” and you’re like, “No shit the Hong Kong Four Seasons is delightful, Gwyneth!” She’s a great example of someone in charge of her own brand, and it’s crazy, but it’s not that it doesn’t work.

HC: You see a lot of that on Twitter: there are a lot of people who aren’t interesting in terms of their acting work but who build a following by being really funny on Twitter or Instagram. January Jones is a great example of someone who’s really funny on Instagram. And it’s so appealing: whether it’s authentic or not, it has the air of being an authentic experience, and that’s something that people really respond to, whether positively or negatively.

JM: Right, negativity also really works that way: like Sean Penn is a classic example. Our readers hate him.

HC: One of them just called him, I think, a “reprehensible old prune.” People hate him!

SM: Who else do people hate?

HC: Anne Hathaway.

JM: OH, Anne Hathaway!

HC: She swings back and forth, though, because there are very avid defenders who will sweep in and say, “I don’t know why everyone hates her, I think she’s great!” The dress she wore to the Met Ball was pretty great.

SM: I am currently very pro Anne Hathaway because I saw her standing in the merch line at a Patti Smith concert! Waiting in line!

JM: Like a person! People tend not to see that about her.

HC: It’s totally the problem of any politician or celebrity who has been told not to be who they are. It so rarely works.

JM: Everyone’s better once they care less.

HC: I’m glad I’m not a celebrity.

SM: Wait, you don’t think of yourselves as celebrities?

JM: Writing, if you do it right: it’s different. We get to wear whatever we want.

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Sarah Mesle is LARB’s Senior Humanities Editor.


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