You are what
When reading a restaurant review - good or bad - one would expect to find out about the taste of the food under discussion primarily, but often, the writer also intends to guide the reader’s attention to all that contributes to the atmosphere of that very moment, when the food hits their tongue. The paintings on the walls, the vase of lilies on each table, the smell and hiss of the garlic frying from within the kitchen, and the feel of the cold, heavy, stainless steel cutlery. The experience is documented with full acknowledgement of how all the senses – sight, smell, sound, touch and taste - are responding to the situation in question. Even if going to the restaurant reviewed never crossed your mind, this excruciating attention to detail is what makes food reviews so enjoyable to read and equally impossible to put down. You can almost smell the buttery cloves of garlic and hear them fizzling away against the heat of the oiled pan.
Contemporary fashion show reviews on the other hand, often lack this sense of vivaciousness, frequently appearing mundane, repetitive and certainly far from indulgent. Quite the opposite to restaurant reviews, the focus seems removed from what the writer is actually experiencing, and instead draws from whatever “concept” has been conjured up within the shows press release. Show reviews today talk of the 4th dimension and apocalyptic devastation - a not so gentle reminder of the uncertain future ahead - but seem to forget the most important thing, the clothes of course, and fundamentally how those clothes make you feel.
Before the theatre: Prunier’s Snack Bar by “Eric” (Carl Erickson, 1891-1958,) Vogue Magazine, late 1930’s (from Food in Vogue: Six Decades of Cooking and Entertaining)
In both the fashion and the food industry, one of the most important, all-defining and sometimes soul-destroying things is the power of “the review.” For centuries, the response of the writer and coverage from the press, has often been what makes or breaks aspiring restaurateurs and fashion designers. In more recent years however, the voice of the fashion journalist in particular has been drowned out by the commerciality of the industry. Those abiding to advertisers and falling victim to gifting, have left little to no room for honest, authentic and objective fashion journalism within mainstream media. The gaping hole between the brilliance of food writing and the banality of fashion writing has only but grown larger. Perhaps if fashion show reviews were addressed with the same amount of wit, detail and sensory description as restaurant reviews, they would resonate with and therefore entertain the fashion reader in the same captivating manner.
“the mouth is the laboratory and the nose is the chimney.”
The genius of a lot of writing on food comes from the idea that when eating, your dominant sense of sight, is not the only sense sending signals to your brains receptors, all four of the other basic senses are of equal importance to the overall experience. As outlined by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), in his book, The Physiology of Taste, first published in 1825, “taste is greatly helped by the other senses, but mostly the sense of smell.” A chapter within Brilliat-Savarin’s book is entirely dedicated to the Influence of Smell on Taste, in which he suggests, “the mouth is the laboratory and the nose is the chimney.” Therefore one can assume when food is consumed our brains process it in the same way as when we smell a certain aroma. As explained by Marianne Martin, President of The British Society of Perfumers, “when describing taste, there is sour and bitter or there is sweet, these are all sensations we feel in the mouth. But the rest of the scent goes to the back of the mouth and up to the same place that smell goes.”
During our discussion Martin spoke predominantly about the sense of smell, suggesting that, “our response to scent is purely physiological, when we smell something the signal travels directly to our emotional brain, unlike sight, which signals go directly to our logical brain instead,” she continued,
"vision goes through the test of reason, it is processed logically before it is processed emotionally."
This means that when smelling fragrance and therefore when eating, our brain reacts to the sensory experience in an emotional way before rationality and logic come into play.
The difference is, with most of today’s fashion critiques, the only sense considered is sight, and what is blatantly there in front of the writer. Unless you are lucky enough to go backstage, it is not often one would get the opportunity to touch, smell, listen to and most certainly not taste a designers collection. Writers will describe the collection they are seeing and respond to it logically, focusing solely on its physical description, how the shoulders fall, what the colour palette is and which accessories the designer chose to use. These simple, monotonous accounts leave little to no room for experimentation when considering sensory description and colour within a piece, making them significantly dissimilar to writings on food.
"The focus seems removed from what the writer is actually experiencing, and instead draws from whatever “concept” has been conjured up within the shows press release."
Photograph by James Mortimer, Vogue Magazine, July 1970
Right: Elizabeth Kendall’s kitchen in Kensington by
Tod Draz, Vogue Magazine, 1965
One of the great writers, on food as well as fashion, that managed to make both subjects as stimulating and thrilling as one another, was the late A.A. Gill. He captured fashion as if it was tangible, writing about clothes as if they were food. His ability to personify both the plate in front of him, and the garments on the runway, is what made his writing not only acutely brilliant but also enormously funny.
For Vanity Fair in May 2009, Gill spoke of, “the silent, servile, pursed-mouth of a girl’s buttonhole,” and noted that,
“the collections blew kisses,” and the “couture laughed extravagantly.”
In the same way, for arguably his most acclaimed restaurant review of all time, also in Vanity Fair from August 2003, Gill wrote, “the bowls and dishes dribble and limp to the table with a yawing lassitude. A vain empty ennui,” famously stabbing a knife into the heart of New York City’s “Asian-fusion” restaurant, 66. In his writing the parallels are clear; the inanimate objects – whether it is food or clothes - have been given a personality and life of their own.
Again, for Vanity Fair but in July 2008, Gill wrote, “there’s fancy dress and armour, clothes that say. “come here” or “stand back,” that whisper, “trust me” or “respect me,” that shout, “fear me.”” He ensures that the clothes in question are far from material; he makes them feel as alive as you or I, a great skill cultivated through his attention to the senses and unconventional choice of verbs.
Discovering the secret ingredient to great fashion and food writing
By Augustine Hammond
Erté designs for “George White’s Scandals,” New York, 1926
His use of innate sensory description was also what made his writing stand out throughout his career at the Sunday Times. In an article published on July 8th 2001, titled Table Talk, he speaks of his supper as if it’s a piece of music, describing it as, “atonal, minimal jazz food,” continuing, “the combinations of flavours and textures are off beat and seem to jar.” This sensory overload when describing something as seemingly simple as a meal is what made A.A. Gill a brilliant writer.
Food’s influence on fashion, and fashion’s influence on food - two rarely seen together topics - might not be the most painstakingly obvious of links within today’s society; however, the notion that a there is some kind of relationship between the two entities is undeniable. After all, deciding what to wear and what to eat are the two decisions we all as humans have to make every single day, decisions that we make so often they almost become instinctive. From both food and fashion there is an indisputable scope for pleasure and enjoyment, buying an expensive dress gives you the same rush as eating a mouth-watering plate of food. Despite being similar in regards to human enjoyment and necessity, there seems to be a lapse when considering how each subject is appraised in writing. Perhaps one can conclude that what most mainstream fashion criticism lacks, is the writers’ ability to fully immerse themselves in what they are experiencing, not only viewing clothes at face value, but also acknowledging the emotion that they evoke, something that writers on food successfully serve to their reader on a silver platter without hesitation.