THE NEW BRITANNIA OF ACCENTS
Byline: Marc Karimzadeh
NEW YORK — Gone are the days when front-row fashion chit-chat sounded like teatime at a grand Edwardian estate in the English countryside. Brits in charge of fashion glossies here are a more diverse group than ever and their screeching regional accents have now become as puzzling to American fashion spectators as the state of their teeth.
In the mid-nineties, British magazine editors dominated the front row with their bobs, bare legs and perfectly clipped Queen’s English. The latter became a sort of protective signal, warning any unassuming American who dared to trespass: “Don’t mess with my fashion decrees; after all, I grew up picking daisies wearing couture.”
Many publishing houses, on the surface, appeared to harbor an affinity for upper-crust British editors, believing their seemingly superior lineage and razor sharp accents were the perfect pedigree to edit an aspirational fashion magazine.
“If you’re just an ordinary American trying to make it in the glossy world, your humble social origins are immediately apparent,” said writer Toby Young, whose own failed attempt to conquer the New York magazine industry is chronicled in his book “How To Lose Friends and Alienate People,” the American version of which will be published by Da Capo Press in July. “If you’re British, no matter how humble your origin, [American] people automatically assume you must be hoity-toity. Because Americans can’t place the accent, they treat them automatically better than someone from New Jersey.”
A quick survey during the recent collections unveiled a new class of English editors adding to the old survivors. Unlike in past years, the English spoken in the front row today sounds more like a partial reunion of the original Spice Girls: Vogue’s Anna Wintour holds court as Posh Spice; Harper’s Bazaar redhead Glenda Bailey squeaks like Ginger; Marie Claire fashion director Lucy Sykes quips like Baby; and the Southern-bred Andre Leon Talley’s faux British accent can get, well, pretty Scary.
“When Anna Wintour, Tina Brown and Liz Tilberis came over, it was before regional accents became the norm in England,” said Simon Doonan, creative director at Barneys New York, who has lived in New York since the late Seventies. “Tina and Anna speak a certain type of English which you really don’t hear anymore. There is this whole reverse snobbery in England today. If people have a normal middle-class accent, such as Guy Ritchie, they obliterate it for regional working class accents.”
Jenny Barnett, deputy editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar and a Brit who came on the Glenda-boat, agreed: “[Accents] changed a lot in Britain recently. Regional accents have become quite cool in Britain and very popular media personalities are hugely successful who have regional accents. In some ways, it adds a certain kudos.”
While Vogue’s Wintour has perfected the classy, aloof English accent with a twang of Americana for authenticity — she is, after all, half American — Bazaar’s Bailey comes straight from the Ringo Starr school of underdog overachievement.
“Glenda has a fantastic North Country accent,” said Doonan. “It’s perfect and genuine, and completely evocative of a certain part of the north of the country, as is she. In the north of England, they have this thing called plain speaking, and Glenda is the queen of plain speaking.”
Bailey notoriously told the London Sunday Times at the time of her Bazaar appointment: “I may not have been born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I know how to turn a magazine into a gold mine.”
In today’s magazine business, does it really matter how you sound when circulation rules and target readers can range from a typical Muffie or Puffy to a suburban soccer mom pushing supermarket carts?
“A door doesn’t open just because you have a good English accent,” said Lucy Sykes, fashion director at Marie Claire. “It might be fun for five or 10 minutes, but once you work with someone and you get to know them, you have to be good at your job. Otherwise, it gets boring very quickly. You could be Turkish, French, Chinese, whatever.” (Of course, that didn’t prevent The New York Sunday Times Style section from turning Sykes and her sister Plum into media celebs in large part because they had posh British accents.)
Stephen Colvin, the British president of Dennis Publishing USA, parent company of Maxim and Stuff, noted: “There is actually a publishing rationale to the number of Brits. Newsstand circulation is king in England, so every editor in England has to perform every month. That makes them very good at being very reader driven. Anyway, the posh girl coming over only happens at senior level for practical reasons because you can’t get a visa otherwise.”
Young, meanwhile, noted: “When it comes to dealing with celebrities, upper-class British women have a natural advantage in that they themselves have been treated like celebrities all their lives. Lucy [Sykes] has a kind of theatrical presence, which is a huge advantage when dealing with prima donnas. They just assume she is one of them and treat her as an equal, rather than treat her as a jumped up housemaid.”
To that effect, some editors add a little British here and there for some instant fashion credibility.
“In movies and fashion, if people are camp in their sensibility, they often have a bit of an English accent,” said Doonan. “Mary Astor and Bette Davis had this clipped accent. It is completely forgivable if somebody is entertaining and fun.”
And few ever notice the difference between regional, finishing school and fake accents. “This is how much people don’t know where my accent is from,” quipped Sykes. “The other day, my taxi driver asked me if I was French.”
“Where people tend to fail is the middle class,” said Young. “It was apparent I was just another guy on the make, whereas with Glenda and her working class accent, and Lucy, with her plum cut-glass accent, it is not apparent to people that they are just other hustlers in the New York magazine business.”