Missing in the overwhelming coverage of the life and career of Joan Rivers was the vital influence she had on style and fashion. Even when such attention was indicated, in relating her stints as red carpet commentator and “Fashion Police” host, the focus was on those venues as vehicles for wit and abrasiveness, as though fashion were a “MacGuffin” – a largely irrelevant pretext.
Among the recent professional endeavors of the peripatetic octogenarian was a cable series, “Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” (For viewers, it was obvious the question mark was a rhetorical device.) One of the central conflicts arose from competing styles – the laid-back “California girl” versus the sophisticated perfectionist mother. One of the difficulties of life for perfectionists is their expectation of gratitude from the beneficiaries of their interventions. Shabby-chic Melissa, who prized “comfort” above all else and, despite being middle-aged, still dressed in the college student uniform of jeans and tee shirts, took offense at Joan’s generosity in the form of donating Melissa’s furniture to charity and redecorating her home. Melissa’s unhappiness with her now impeccably elegant home forced Joan to purchase the donated furniture back from the charity and restore the status quo. Joan’s basement digs in Melissa’s home were not up to Joan’s standards and another episode had Joan gifting Melissa with a new, palatial home that would be more in keeping with Joan’s preferred lifestyle and suitable for the three generations now living together. Melissa nixed that as well.
Although reality shows should never be confused with documentaries, and you can never be sure that what you’re seeing on screen hasn’t been manufactured for the cameras, it is inarguable that Joan had felt her daughter was in need of a style makeover and that Joan was the person to accomplish the task. Luckily, Joan found targets more receptive and, due to her bully pulpit (accent on the “bully”) as host of “The Fashion Police,” more easily intimidated, than her daughter.
Joan’s formative years paralleled the Golden Age of Hollywood. Studios were in the business of selling “make believe,” and a prime component of the fantasy was the mesmerizing beauty and glamour projected on the screen by the stars of that era. Blessed by nature and burnished by a cadre of make-up artists, hairdressers, and costume designers, the images of women such as Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr, and Ava Gardner, among others, made an indelible impression upon Joan: this is what a movie star looks like.
Given the opportunity to interview stars entering high-profile industry events for E! network television coverage, Joan brought her biting wit, complemented by her fashion knowledge and taste, to the red carpet. Rather than be the object of her ridicule, stars surrendered to the more exacting standards of yesterday. Sufficiently bejeweled, begowned, perfectly coiffed and made up, they could be confident they would not be selected by Joan as the night’s Worst Dressed in her post-event commentary. But even that achievement did not satisfy perfectionist Joan in her effort to cow celebrities into submission.
Bogart might have believed that an actor’s obligation to the public began and ended with a good performance, but studio executives did not. Stars were contractually bound to maintain their image at all times. A screen goddess was a screen goddess on or off the set. Joan built upon her success in getting celebrities to up their game for awards nights by tackling how they appeared in their everyday lives. When they looked like (in my grandmother’s words) “a shlumperdika,” Joan would unleash her swift sword of ridicule. Far riskier, however, was to violate Joan’s standards with too prominent a display of one’s physical attributes. Those offenders became entrants in the “Fashion Police” slut-shaming game – “Starlet or Streetwalker.” With the face blocked, Joan and her panel would guess whether the scantily clad female in the photograph was a member of the world’s oldest profession or a celebrity who warranted a modern-day pummeling in the town square.
Before Joan worked her transformative magic in Hollywood, she practiced on a far larger canvas: the less rarefied American woman who watched the home shopping network, QVC. In an autobiography, “Bouncing Back: I’ve Survived Everything … and I Mean Everything…and You Can Too!” (1997), Joan admitted to being receptive to the opportunity of selling a line of jewelry because she’d been approached when her career was at a low point. The fledgling network had hopes that the best-dressed list appearing, workaholic, perfectionist Joan would show up for work and not the insult comic Joan. Their confidence was rewarded. Through a twenty-four year association, Joan found a receptive and loyal audience who followed her lead on matters of taste and style. QVC found a workhorse, best-selling brand, and increasing prestige as Joan’s career trajectory reversed course.
As Joan had no prior background in the manufacture or sale of jewelry, she extrapolated the advice given to beginning authors: “write what you know.” Joan’s line started with “what she knew” – copies of stunning pieces she’d received as gifts and replicas of items created by legendary jewelers, particularly Carl Fabergé. Joan’s perfectionism was a great benefit to the QVC purchaser. She would bring her original jewelry piece, set it side by side with her reproduction, and dare you to tell the difference. She would bring her coffee table book on Fabergé and line up her reproduction with the photograph of the original. Identical! Each purchase would be accompanied by a card with Joan’s credo: “…Only the highest quality materials have been used, applying artistry and techniques usually reserved for ultra-fine jewelry, because I strongly believe women deserve chic, beautiful – affordable – fashion jewelry.”
That wasn’t just a sales pitch. I was never disappointed when my package arrived and I could feast my eyes on the spectacular pin, bracelet, necklace or watch I’d ordered. It was irrelevant to me that my cubicle drone lifestyle did not lend itself to the wearing of fancy jewelry. But for the guiochet enameled butterfly or crystal encrusted bumblebee, my work attire was otherwise indistinguishable from that favored in Mao’s cultural-revolution-era China.
Eventually, Joan expanded her brand to include accessories and clothing. Again, her template was what she knew – her own wardrobe. I drew the line on clothing based on what she wore for her stage performances. I couldn’t accept unquestioningly her advice that sequins were now for the daytime. It would have been enough of a hard sell for me to wear that stuff in the evening (especially since my “nightlife” rarely constituted anything other than watching television). I did fall in love, however, with her jackets, based on the ones she owned, and wore to great advantage, designed by Chanel, Prada, Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, and St. John. (The opportunity to be able to wear these “ladies who lunch” ensembles is a motivation in my renewing annual membership in an organization whose event invitations require “business attire.”) For me, as well as for the rest of her devoted QVC audience, she did not have to humiliate, she only had to inspire.
Crisis for many provokes a jolt of adrenaline and, when the crisis is over, we deflate as a balloon. Because of her career ups and downs, Joan seemingly perceived herself in a permanent crisis to remain relevant and in-demand in a youth-obsessed culture. Her epic efforts to escape what most of us accept as inevitable put her on a collision course with the natural order. If she was unwilling to “deflate ” on her own, deflating was done for her. “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse.” Joan accomplished two of the three, but I wish her failure to meet the second standard was even more attenuated. I could use a good laugh, have room in my closet, and could be persuaded that sequins are for daytime.