The Case for Nicole Kidman's 'Vanity Fair' Cover
Social media commenters are upset but there's an undercurrent of ageism to the whole thing.
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The image has set strong opinions ablaze across social media because OMG she’s 54 and OMG skimpy and OMG abs. Yes, Nicole Kidman is a woman with legs and a torso and she is on the cover of a legacy magazine looking like a “Baby One More Time” extra lost in the metaverse. No matter what one thinks of the appropriateness of the outfit given her age and stature as an actress — a conversation we would probably not have about a man on a magazine cover — she would look impossibly beautiful no matter what she’s wearing. Sure, they could have added the coat Miu Miu showed on the runway with this look, or better yet, one of those Anthropologie-colored The Undoing coats. But then, would the internet care as much?
The shoot was styled by Katie Grand, one of the most respected and celebrated image makers in the industry. The former editor-in-chief of Love magazine, she made instant impact with her first cover for spring/summer 2009 featuring Beth Ditto, at a time when bodies like Ditto’s were otherwise practically absent from fashion.
She started an annual Love Advent Calendar video series, featuring the year’s buzziest models / most beautiful people doing sexy / silly things like exercising with a hot dog (Chrissy Teigen) or exercising with a cigarette dangling out of a balmy mouth (Bella Hadid). She is also a close collaborator of Marc Jacobs, having served as creative director on womenswear, menswear, and beauty campaigns. She knows how to make memorable pictures.
So if you’re tasked with styling one of the world’s most famous actresses and therefore one of the most photographed people of our time for the cover of a legacy magazine’s 28th annual “Hollywood Issue,” what do you do? There’s nothing original about the 28th version of a certain magazine issue. Editorially, there’s no reason for Vanity Fair to do this franchise anymore because in the age of the internet no one needs an authority to tell them which actors and actresses to care about. Pop cultural awareness is, to the type of person Vanity Fair probably targets, as banal as waking up in 2022 and throwing on a blouse and a pair of sweatpants. I’m guessing the concept persists because advertisers like to sponsor it, which is almost never a gateway to intrigue.
Meanwhile, the spring 2022 Miu Miu collection was, in fashion circles, pretty interesting. It combined aughts nostalgia in the age of a freed Britney with workwear, some pretty great tailored coats, and some charming evening dresses. And for every unwearable trouser waistband-as-top, there were many wearable items. The collection embodied the juxtaposition that designer Miuccia Prada is known for: it was youthful yet mature, fun yet serious, modern yet familiar. The fashion world’s love for it was completely logical. If any show’s looks were practically guaranteed fantastic editorial placement, it was this one’s.
It’s worth noting that Kidman is not helpless in this situation. A mega-celebrity like her is not going to walk onto a set for a magazine cover shoot and have no input into what she wears. Plus, Kidman’s cultural impact in 2022 is greater than that of Vanity Fair, giving her the clear upper hand. (In fact, one of the common laments you hear from veteran fashion people about celebrities replacing models in fashion shoots is that celebrities arrive on set with a coterie of handlers and protectors who help give voice to the star’s opinion on the shoot, whereas models didn’t offer opinions. These people usually do not point out that this is because models have historically not had enough power to do so.)
I would guess that Kidman was happy to wear this outfit, and that if she had felt uncomfortable or upset about it, she would have appeared on the cover wearing something else. That said, outlets have seized on the social media critiques about how the outfit is “terrible” and how Kidman is unfortunately “presented as a skimpily dressed school girl.”
At issue here are notions not just of womanhood, but also of age. Kidman has earned her acclaim and experience over time, and many people would say that she gets better at her craft over time. For women — as refreshing as her staying power may feel in the era of disposable content, in which TikToks can skyrocket a teenager to fleeting mainstream fame — this distinction is not guaranteed. Many people also think that 72-year-old Anna Wintour’s age and experience work very much against her in her job as Vogue editor-in-chief and Condé Nast chief content officer (she oversees Vanity Fair and surely signed off on this cover).
Fashion, despite notable recent improvement in diversity when it comes to casting, still struggles with what to do with women over the age of around 40. Sure, they sometimes appear on runways and in campaigns. Naomi Campbell, at 51, just appeared on the cover of British Vogue holding her baby. It was a memorable photo that didn’t seem to struggle with its subject (yes, the photographer was the legendary Steven Meisel, and yes, Campbell is one of the best, most beautiful models of all time). But the article itself had a funny line that I can’t get out of my head:
But in this case, a detailed description of Naomi’s physical appearance is somewhat redundant, thanks to Steven Meisel. Naomi, otherworldly, actually does look like that. Impossibly flawless skin, sensational hair, honed-beyond-belief body. A goddess. Still. At 51.
“A goddess. Still. At 51.” I’m sure they didn’t intend for it to come off like this, but the subtext to me is, Yeah, even though she’s pretty old she still looks amazing. Thank god because most women have really gone south at this age and nothing is worse than a gone-south woman.
We live in a culture with prescribed looks for young people. This is why when 25-year-old Hailey Bieber was revealed as the face of the Miu Miu campaign for the spring 2022 collection, the internet’s vibe was basically, Cool, yeah, makes sense.
We do not live in a culture with prescribed looks for middle-aged women because the fashion industry doesn’t seem to care enough to give them a prescription. That prescription could be skimpy schoolgirl outfits, it could be swishy Chico’s pants, it could be neon Balenciaga “It” bags. We can’t put our finger on it because it doesn’t exist. This is partly why the And Just Like That fashion was worth talking about — we were seeing middle-aged women with statement style being treated on the show as normal.
Vanity Fair succeeded in creating a memorable image. Is it clickbait? Sure. Does Nicole Kidman deserve “better”? Well, what would be “better”? The same sort of evening gowns women have always worn on the cover of this issue? So people can call the editorial team unimaginative, boring, and stale? There were surely “safe” clothing choices for this shoot. In a no-win situation, where Kidman must be youthfully glamorous though we all know she’s 54, I don’t blame everyone involved here for deciding to be memorable.
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