Hell on Heels

The Devil Wears Prada

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, July 31, 2006

 

Perhaps you shouldn't mention this around the feminist thought police, but women often hate working for other women. While men compete for status by trying to include as many underlings as possible in their hierarchies, women gain prestige by excluding the maximum number from their cliques.
 
Running Vogue, the most celebrated fashion magazine, might be the ultimate in cliquishness, and Anna Wintour, who in 1996 became the industry's first million dollar per year editor, is famously frosty toward anyone beneath her in the pecking order.
 
English journalist Toby Young tells the story of a Vogue executive's teenage daughter interning at the office. Once, as the intimidating editor bore down upon the awestruck girl in a hallway, the stiletto heel of one of Wintour's Manolo Blahniks snapped, sending her sprawling at the intern's feet. The girl had been warned by her mother that "under no circumstances was she to speak to Ms. Wintour -- ever. Consequently, she gingerly stepped over Anna's prostrate form. As soon as she turned the corner, she sprinted to her mother's office… Had she done the right thing? Yes, her mother assured her. She'd done exactly the right thing."
 
Wintour has erected a persona for herself that "glories in self-created aristocratic solitude," like a character in a Camille Paglia-directed revival of The Importance of Being Earnest. Wintour resembles a dead-serious cross between Oscar Wilde's fashion-fixated duo, Gwendolen, whose motto is, "In matters of utmost importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing," and her Gorgon mother, Lady Bracknell, who proclaims, "Style largely depends on the way the chin is worn. They are worn very high, just at present."
 
Personally, I find Wintour's blunt snobbishness refreshing compared to the faux-egalitarianism of the high tech world. When interviewing for a job at chipmaker Intel in 1982, I was told that no employee got an office, not even vice-chairman Robert Noyce, the co-inventor of the silicon chip. Of course, I had to stand on my tiptoes and peek into his cubicle, which turned out to be 600 square feet, with Impressionist masterpieces hanging on the gray fabric dividing walls.
 
Lauren Weisberger, a recent Ivy League grad hoping to get a toehold in the writing business even if it meant she had to associate with frivolous fashionistas, took a job for a year as Wintour's junior personal assistant. Weisberger then wreaked her revenge on her demanding boss by publishing a bestselling roman à clef novel, The Devil Wears Prada, about an evil editrix who demeans her idealistic, talented (and, let us not forget, Ivy League-educated) assistant by making her fetch her dry-cleaning.
 
Fortunately, the comic movie adaptation, with Meryl Streep as "Miranda Priestly" of Runway magazine and Anne Hathaway (the starlet with the dark eyebrows from "The Princess Diaries") as the ingénue, is more enjoyable than the book, with both characters made more sympathetic. Hathaway's scenes away from the office, where she must choose between her sous-chef boyfriend (Adrian Grenier, apparently cast because his eyebrows are even more Brezhnev-like in their luxuriance) and a glamorous Jay McInerney-style novelist, are lackluster, but the film wakes up whenever Streep is on camera.
 
Whether or not being high priestess of the fashion arms race is a job worth doing at all -- former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland defined her role as giving "them what they never knew they needed" -- Streep's character clearly does her job well. She uses her prodigious recollection of every layout ever published to decide whether the hamster wheel of couture has spun far enough around that it's time, say, to "reinvent the drop waist dress" all over again.
 
At the Condé Nast building in Manhattan, nobody dares share an elevator with Wintour. You let her ride up in splendid isolation while you wait for the next elevator. The film allows you to understand why, as Streep makes her daily grand entrance to the office rattling off long lists of must-dos for her assistants to get hopping on. The social awkwardness of a communal elevator ride would distract her as she gathers her thoughts for the day's work.
 
Rather than rant like Cruella De Vil, Streep underplays, dropping lines like "Tales of your incompetence do not interest me" as softly as only the truly feared can. The downside to Streep's understated performance is that diminishing returns set in. Brilliant as it is in initial conception, Miranda's lack of dynamic range makes the second half of the film less exciting.
 
Rated PG-13 for some sensuality.

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