The Well-heeled Clichés of Madison Avenue

Posted: September 30, 2018 in Teaching
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In “The Fashion Industry: Free to Be an Individual,” one of the sample student essays in The Norton Field Guide to Writing, Hannah Berry analyzes two magazine advertisements for shoes—one for Clarks and one for Sorel—which she claims “encourage us to break free from the standard beauty mold and be ourselves” (95). While Berry’s examination of the ads often demonstrates an impressive eye for detail, at times her descriptions fall short, and what she cites as “confident individuality” (95) departs from the clichés of advertising only in superficial ways.

Fig. 1 Clarks Ad (Clarks)

The ad for Clarks (fig. 1) features a young woman in profile playing what Berry refers to as “some kind of trumpet” (95). The vagueness of her description seems inexplicable considering the ease with which anyone with internet access can now conduct a quick image search for brass instruments, or anything else, to find a name in question. In addition to forgoing a quick search for the identity of the instrument, Berry does not explore why the ad’s designers may have chosen a marching euphonium rather than a smaller B-flat trumpet or cornet for the model to hold.

Posing the model with a larger horn—one longer than her torso—makes her look diminutive, as if she is a child playing a grown-up’s trumpet. The fringed ankle socks she wears, typically worn by little girls rather than women, further accentuate her childlike quality. Though her adult French twist hairstyle and suede high-heels might counter the girlish elements in the ad, instead the incongruity creates a curious mix that evokes band nerd less than latter-day Lolita—not a “unique personality [raised] onto a pedestal” (95), as Berry observes, but rather an unsettling male fantasy à la Humbert Humbert.

Fig. 2 Sorel Ad (Sorel)

In contrast to the childlike woman atop a pedestal, the model in the Sorel ad (fig. 2) appears to have no tolerance for the romantic notions of chivalric code. If she were asked to stand on a pedestal, she might shoot it instead. Rifle in hand, she sits in a gilt chair, with one foot propped on a crystal chandelier—one that she presumably shot down from the ceiling only moments earlier. (Witness the plaster dust in the air above the wreckage.) Ostensibly, the focal point of the ad is her footwear, a devil-red, fur-trimmed variation on the classic L. L. Bean Maine Hunting Shoe. But in fact those boots lead the viewers’ eyes to her bare legs, untouched by the plaster dust that powders the floor directly beneath them. Conveniently, she is not sullied by the destruction but appears instead clean and carefully posed, the skirt of her dress raised and pushed aside to reveal her upper thighs. Along with her thighs, the feathers on the shoulder of her dress indicate—whether intentionally or not—that she is prey as well as predator. The centrality of her legs in the ad serves not to highlight her individuality but rather to objectify her.

The legs of the woman in the Clarks ad figure prominently as well. Though she is modestly attired, her little black dress elongates and emphasizes her model-thin legs, and its A-line skirt echoes the bell shape of the horn—as if, perhaps, she is something else to be played.

Along with the impressive eye for detail that Berry’s analysis demonstrates, her essay is admirable for its structure; it gracefully moves from introduction, to thesis, to description and analysis of each ad. Those aspects alone warrant her essay’s inclusion in The Norton Field Guide to Writing. But it’s a valuable model for another reason as well. As Berry writes that the “purity” signified by the model’s white dress is “completely contradicted by the way she wears it” (97), she reveals the contradiction inherent in her own assessment. Rather than depicting the woman as an individual, the ad objectifies her in typical Madison Avenue fashion. And that discrepancy in Berry’s analysis offers students a possible starting point for their own textual analyses.

Works Cited

Berry, Hannah. “The Fashion Industry: Free to Be an Individual.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg, 2016, pp. 94-99.

Clarks. Advertisement. Lucky. Sept. 2011, p. 55.

Sorel. Advertisement. Lucky. Sept. 2011, p. 65.

Comments
  1. Arlene Neal says:

    Jane, this is a wonderful piece. I enjoyed reading it and will look at that essay with new eyes now!

  2. Amelia Likin says:

    Insightful analysis–ah to be clean and carefully posed! I appreciate what you are modeling here for your students: that you too are a writer and thinker–this doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

    • janemlucas says:

      Thanks, Amelia! There’s more I’d like to revise, but I gave myself the same posting deadline that I gave to my students. Writing along with them is always humbling.

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