05/01/2012 10:23 am ET Updated Jul 01, 2012

That's So Last Century

When the the New York Times Sunday Styles section debuted on May 3, 1992, fashion wasn't as fashionable as it is today. Style and design had not yet infiltrated every aspect of bourgeois life. Back in the late 20th century, fashion wasn't the global lingua franca, but Sunday Styles helped usher in a new era.

New York, the fashion capital, was a different city twenty years ago, a place where residents ordered their morning coffee "regular" or "dark and sweet" at delis and street carts because the first Starbucks would not open in Manhattan until 1994. If you wanted to shop at Barneys New York, you schlepped to Seventh Avenue and 17th Street, because Pressman family did not open the Madison Avenue flagship until 1993. If you wanted avant garde fashion from Japan and Belgium, you headed uptown to a Charivari, where the Weiser family introduced Yohji Yamamoto, Ann Demeulemeester and Dries van Noten to New York at its stores on the Upper West Side. If you had a foot fetish, you could go to Susan Bennis Warren Edwards on West 57th Street, which sold the most expensive shoes in the city and shuttered its doors in 1997, the same year Charivari filed for bankruptcy after four decades of audacious retailing.

For cheap chic, there was Canal Jeans on lower Broadway; the building is now, tellingly, a Bloomingdale's. You couldn't shop at Old Navy, which opened its first branch in the city in 1995, or H&M, which arrived in New York in 2000. Many now familiar brands were years away from conception: American Apparel (1997), Juicy Couture (1997), Seven for All Mankind (2000).

Fashion was basically an insider's game in 1992, and the players were the small band of editors, writers, buyers, stylists, socialites and photographers who attended the runway shows. To stay on top of the latest news and gossip, you had to subscribe to Women's Wear Daily or you were out of the loop. Styles soon became a must-read, too, but it had a rocky start. The first cover story, "The Arm Fetish," startled many readers by declaring that a "sculptured body is now the foundation of fashion." The article was mercilessly lampooned by the Village Voice with a parody about "The Penis."

There were no tents and no corporate sponsors for the spring and fall collections. Most New York designers held runway presentations in their garment district showrooms with guests being herded into freight elevators alongside the ubiquitous bike messengers. A few of the Young Turks, like Todd Oldham and Isaac Mizrahi, showed downtown in obscure locations. The society dressmakers like Bill Blass, Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta held their shows in ballrooms at the Plaza or Pierre hotels. Fashion Week had not been organized. It was not yet a proper noun.

Neither was the "red carpet." It may be hard to fathom, but there was no formal television coverage of what celebrities were wearing to awards shows until 1995, when E! Entertainment hired Joan Rivers to ask the stars "Who are you wearing?" as they arrived at the Academy Awards. ABC did not have its own pre-Oscar show (besides the one-hour Barbara Walters special) until 1999.

The New York Times critic Caryn James panned ABC's initial 30-minute red-carpet program. She thought it was an embarrassing ordeal for Geena Davis, the Academy Award winning actress, who was the host. "What possessed her to take this inane job, in which she stood on a set inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion looking at a huge monitor that showed the red carpet arrivals outside?" wrote Ms. James. "Reading robotically from a teleprompter, she said, 'It's so much fun to catch our first glimpse of the stars as they arrive.' Oh sure."

But the rules of the fashion game were being rewritten by InStyle magazine, which Time Inc. launched in 1994 (with Barbra Streisand on the cover.) InStyle used paparazzi photos to critique and salute celebrities for how they dressed. The coverage not only promoted designer labels (and wooed potential advertisers) but also encouraged the lending of frocks to celebrities, transforming Seventh Avenue into a branch of the entertainment industry.

Hal Rubenstein, the onetime men's fashion editor of the New York Times Magazine, was the mastermind behind InStyle's approach to reporting on fashion. In 2011, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) recognized his role by honoring Mr. Rubenstein with the prestigious Founders Award, acknowledging that he'd altered the concept of fashion as much as legendary publicist and CFDA founder Eleanor Lambert.

"He was one of the first to shape the way the world thinks about celebrity," said actress Jessica Alba, who presented him with the award at Lincoln Center last year. "He showed women everywhere how to incorporate red-carpet glamour into their everyday lives."

InStyle pushed the ladies who lunch in their Adolfo suits out of the front row. (Don't remember Adolfo? His Chanel-like knit suits were the uniform for society ladies in the 1970s and 1980s; he closed his East 57th Street salon in 1993.) When the slip dress became the hot look in 1994, the socialites had to surrender their role as fashion arbiters. "I can't wear a slip dress," the best-dressed socialite Blaine Trump told the Times in 1995. "It doesn't work with this body."

Mrs. Trump and her couture-wearing friends on the Upper East Side charity circuit, such as Nan Kempner and Pat Buckley, had been the undisputed stars of Women's Wear Daily and W magazine. Indeed, Mrs. Buckley, an old-line Republican with a keen sense of noblesse oblige, had been the chairman of the Metropolitan Museum's annual Costume Institute gala from 1978 to 1995, running it on a shoe-string like a fancy PTA fundraiser. "Cutting corners is the hardest work of all. I get as much glitz as cheaply as I can," Mrs. Buckley told New York magazine. When Vogue editor Anna Wintour took over in 1995, the gala became big business, and she got Chanel and Versace to be the corporate sponsors.

Ms. Wintour had not consolidated her power yet. She had a rival in the late and beloved Elizabeth Tilberis, who'd come from British Vogue to run Harper's Bazaar. Ms. Tilberis was the chair of the Costume Institute gala in 1996, and she got the world's biggest celebrity at the time, Princess Diana, to add dazzle to the party.

When Ms. Wintour took control again in 1997, she sanctioned fashion's new co-dependence with the movie and music industries. While the guests at the ball included models like Linda Evangelista and power-brokers like Washington Post owner Katharine Graham, they were eclipsed by global celebrities like Elton John, Cher, Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna.

It was a turning point for fashion and the clubby New York fashion scene as commercialism eclipsed chic. "This party further underlined that the long-waning era when socialites alone, be they nouvelle or old-money, provided enough of a draw for an evening is definitely over." wrote Times reporter Constance C.R. White in her review of the 1997 Costume Institute gala. "

The following year, a sassy, fictional sex columnist became the improbable emblem of New York fashion, when Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) arrived in an HBO series called Sex and the City. The TV program redefined the notion of how much time, effort and money a young woman on her way up in Manhattan could devote to clothes and beauty.

Carrie Bradshaw turned getting dressed into an extreme sport, making it hip to max out on your credit card in the name of fashion. Ms. Parker was an unlikely style icon. A serious stage actress who'd appeared in plays by A.R. Gurney and Wendy Wasserstein, she was becoming as well known for her red carpet appearances (and later hair-color commercials.)

Until then, fashion was infrequently mentioned on television. Twenty years ago, there were only three shows devoted to the subject: Style with Elsa Klenschon CNN, a 30 minute program on Saturdays that showed clips from the runways with the earnestness of a PBS special; MTV's House of Style hosted by Cindy Crawford; and Canadian Jeanie Bekker's FT-Fashion Television program on VH1 (which led to the live telecast of the VH1 Fashion and Music Awards from the Lexington Avenue armory in 1995.)

Even Charlie Rose, the highbrow PBS host, started interviewing designers such as Donna Karan, Gianni Versace and Giorgio Armani, which prompted the late Times fashion critic Amy M. Spindler to observe that designers were becoming cultural czars: "Now, talk show hosts have adopted them as the latest pop sociologists, providers of Cliffs Notes to the changing role of women, society's general mood of austerity or decadence, and the tempestuous mind-set of the young."

Ironically, some segments of the fashion world were resistant to change, because change had not yet become the sine qua non of fashion. In the fall of 1992, Marc Jacobs famously created an uproar with his "grunge collection" for Perry Ellis. Although it provoked a tsunami of publicity (and inspired a cover article in the Styles section called "Grunge: A Success Story"), the collection did not appeal to department store buyers, and Mr. Jacobs was fired a few weeks later. He would, of course, rebound, creating his own label, getting hired by Louis Vuitton, becoming one of the most influential and famous designers on the planet.

The fashion landscape is not entirely changed from twenty years ago. Bergdorf's, Bloomingdale's and Saks Fifth Avenue remain cornerstones of city chic. The Seventh Avenue royals from 1992 are still easily identified by their first names - -Calvin, Donna, Oscar, Ralph -- and so are Anna and Bill, the reigning magazine editor and street photographer.

Bill Cunningham's first "On the Street" column for the Styles section was titled "Hemlines of the Oracles," and there were photographs of Ms. Wintour and other editors (Martha Baker of New York magazine, Jane Tsiang of Elle and Ms. Tilberis of Harper's Bazaar), but Ms. Wintour was the star of the page. Back then, the big news was always about skirt length. However, Ms. Wintour was not playing along, signaling that she was upending orthodoxy. And so was Mr. Cunningham who followed her around with his camera and a tape measure.

In his first report for Styles, he wrote:

Vogue's editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, wore her spring suit skirts on both sides of the knee -- though always with high heels. Monday's hem was 26 inches from the ground; Tuesday's hem dropped to 19 inches above the ground; Wednesday's hem moved back up to 21 inches, while Thursday's and Friday's hems were at Monday's length -- 26 inches from the street.

Mr. Cunningham concluded that the variation "speaks clearly for freedom and multiple choice." His words were prescient. Twenty years later, fashion is not only more egalitarian and unpredictable, but also inescapable and unrelenting. Now, Ms. Wintour is co-opting the red carpet and Vogue will live stream (on,, and a celebrity-studded two-hour program as the guests arrive at the Metropolitan on May 7 for the annual Costume Institute gala. Her coup d'etat is complete, and the memories of a cozy and personally-connected fashion community seem rather quaint.