Everyone's a critic. Or so the saying goes. But what really makes a critic, in terms of qualifications and experience, and interpretative methods? I write about fashion. And sometimes I write about food, too. But I am not a critic of either—at least not in the formal, titular sense. I have my opinions and tastes, but I don't have nearly enough contextual experience or the critical background of someone as well-regarded as Cathy Horyn or Suzy Menkes. Those women earned their dues, and it's almost insulting to them and their colleagues, their publications, and their trade to think that anyone scanning through photos of shows on Style.com could enroll oneself in those ranks.
Another reason I don't have what it takes to be a fashion reviewer? The almost mythical endurance required to attend—literally—hundreds of fashion shows each season, with the obligation to metronomically deliver thoughtful and intelligent analysis on a swift and regular basis. This has all been on my mind for quite a while, most especially after the Autum/Winter 2013 shows, when the fashion week "lightweight" that I am, spun-out sometime around the London collections. Even from my couch, reading the reviews and trying to keep up with the Style.com slideshows got too exhausting. But it was a recent article in T Magazine by Suzy Menkes on the resurgence of modesty that really put the skillset of her craft on full display. She writes:
The return of purity in fashion does not have to be about covering up ... It is more about bringing a new sensibility to a wardrobe: graceful court shoes and medium-heeled boots taking over from club-sandwich-style soles. (Those platform shoes were, of course, popularized in the 16th century and worn by Venetian prostitutes to elevate themselves above the crowd.) Sexuality has often been part of dressing the female and the male. (Think of courtiers’ doublets and skintight hose, or the strategically placed Scottish sporran.) But rarely has there been much reasoning behind the rules. Legend has it, for example, that prudish Victorians were so shocked by exposure that they would drape the bare wooden legs of their pianos.
And she goes on to discuss the current collections:
A lot of designers have swapped daring for decency: there is Guillaume Henry at Carven in Paris, whose mix-and-match separates suggest a youthful simplicity. The entire aesthetic of American designers of Asian descent tends toward politeness and gentility. That could be a coincidence, but Derek Lam and Phillip Lim are just two examples of designers from whom a pared-down simplicity is key.
Similarly, the influx of Belgian and Japanese designers who came to show in Paris in the early 1990s seemed to temper the traditional seductiveness and frivolity of Parisian designs. As the big-name French houses continue to take on designers of other nationalities, fashion gets the streamlined look of Phoebe Philo at Céline and the architectural attitude of Raf Simons at Dior.
The scope of Menkes' references shows what a firm grasp she has on fashion design, both present and past, the latter of which, as we all know (without necessarily having the knowledge of), informs the present. Subjective taste may play a role in a critic's reviews, same with any other form of critique, but it's not the overriding element. That's why some of the best fashion critics aren't necessarily the best-dressed. A fashion blogger or even an editor at a glossy magazine may have incredible style and a finger perennially on the pulse when it comes to all things current, but that doesn't mean she can draw parallels to the historical relevance or past iterations of geometric prints, for example.
If the popular exhibitions put on by the Met's Costume Institute each year are any indication, fashion is an art form. It reflects the zeitgeist of its time and the world inhabited by its creators and wearers, and it deserves the same kind of critical review and analysis as any other creative field. That doesn't mean we can't question or disagree with a reviewer's assessment. Everyones entitled to—and should have—an opinion, after all. But that doesn't make a critic.