This Thursday, I was watching an episode of the 10th season of the now ancient and seemingly irrelevant Lifetime show Project Runway: It was the one where fashion-challenged friends arrived for a humiliating makeover involving shiny fabrics. But watching it, I was reminded for the hundredth time that the show is one of last bastions of no-holds-barred criticism. That is: sharp, nasty, amusing criticism. The judges, designer Michael Kors and editor Nina Garcia, watch the designers—their hemlines, the zippers, the puckering of cloth, and the accessories—with fascistic precision. Few American magazine or newspaper critics today take their jobs that seriously.
Nina and Michael and whoever their doe-eyed guest may be are not living in a world of “likes,” “diggs,” or even pleasant exchanges. In this they are a rarity—the death of criticism has been bemoaned for years now, as review pages shrink and amateurs on IMDB, Amazon, and Yelp ascend the plinth professional critics once occupied.
And even the critics who still remain are less critical. As The New York Times’s Dwight Garner wrote this month, “critics who are actually critical,” are nearly extinct. Critics today are more likely to engage in mutual admiration. This is only worse if you are a person whose social power makes you in some way untouchable. (I won’t name names.)
On Project Runway, though, harsh judgment is still all-important. Kors, tanned to his usual Boehnerian perma-ochre, snaps that one designer’s clothes “are valium clothes”—that they just make you want to sleep. Sometimes he’s in a more general existentialist mode: “The sameness is so numbing,” he decries. And sometimes he makes a new critical category: the look is not downtown or uptown, he derides. Rather, “it looks midtown.” “Suddenly this urban sophisticate went to the mall,” he snarks, when he isn’t carefully assessing the unfortunate neckline of a dress. Garcia, the “nitpicking” queen of Marie Claire brand extension always sneers, both severe and watchful as a hawk. ”Let’s be honest: She’s obsessed with the shoulder!” she said recently of a contestant fixated on a militant silhouette.
Not coincidentally, another celebration of this austere critical sensibility was The September Issue, the documentary valentine to Vogue magazine. Anna Wintour and her minions didn’t hold back and didn’t worry about whether their critical assessments of fashion were too technical or offensive. They were all about elite and self-referential judgments. It makes sense that fashion, one of the last unapologetically snobby, expert-loving fields, permits its queens to be as harsh as they want to be, free to dispense value judgments at whim.
And after all, what is criticism at base but value judgment? In 1980, eternal art critic Clement Greenberg wrote in an essay in Partisan Review that criticism is “description, analysis, and interpretation” but “without value judgment these can become arid, or rather they stop being criticism.”
Many fashion reality shows have followed in Project Runway’s wake (The Fashion Show, 24-Hour Catwalk) but they’ve been much nicer—less critical—and have suffered for it. After last airing in 2011, it appears that The Fashion Show has not been renewed.
Of course, Kors isn’t Harold Rosenberg or Pauline Kael. Some Korsiana like “Rigatoni Mad Max” or “borderline Teletubby” or “sea vixen Barbie” just don’t cut it.
Despite the embarrassment of clicking over to Lifetime, where the rest of the programming has titles like Fatal Honeymoon or stars Jane “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” Seymour, I still watch the ever-aging Project Runway. For the criticism. Nina and Michael may be among the last of the cold-eyed (and well-paid) critics.