Legends of the Fall: Flipping Through 2350 Pages of Glossy Goodness

If we accept the proposition that fashion magazines are important, surely the September issues are the most important—not merely the largest and most lucrative, but also the editions that exercise the most influence on consumers during the holiday season, which, of course, is the basis for two subsequent fiscal quarters. In fact, when you think about it, the future of the world itself depends on the decisions made in the offices of Hearst, Condé Nast and Time Inc. It’s a big deal!

Like the editorial assistant who abandons her Hamptons-season diet in the face of Fashion Week canapes, Vogue, W, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Instyle bloated to nearly double their August widths this month. In aggregate, their editorial content doesn’t forecast any specifics about what we’ll be wearing come Christmastime (unless you count the news that colors, metallics, black, prints, lace, dots and animal prints are in), but, as always, they’re worth a flip. Here, the best and worst of the fall fashion mags.

Best Cover: W. All of the titles examined in this study went with the dull, focus group-approved actresses. (Whither the Jessica Chastains? The Lea Seydouxes? The Emily Brownings?) At least W had the decency to style Kristen Stewart beyond recognition.

Most Ad Pages: Vogue. The Book that Anna Built (or, well, Diana Vreeland) sold a whopping 584 pages of ads this year. But it feels like half of them were for Missoni’s collection for Target—a campaign that, synergistically, stars Margherita Missoni, model heiress to the fashion fortune.

Most Valuable Intern: Elle. Fashion editor Anne Slowey’s unnamed intern, who moonlighted as a dominatrix. “She appeared the model of propriety, so when she began regaling us with tales of cat-o’-nine-tails whippings, we were all, well, shocked and more than a little intrigued,” Ms. Slowey wrote. The intern was particularly helpful with regard to how to wear Louis Vuitton’s S.&M.-inspired fall collection.

Best Movie Review: Elle. Fashion editor on Joe Zee on Footloose (the original): “I was intrigued—well, horrified—by the plot line. Yes, it was sad that a group of hard-partying local kids (spoiler alert) had lost their lives in a drunken-driving accident before Kevin Bacon’s spiky haired Ren moved to town. But I was more appalled by the subsequent local ban on music and dancing. For years, every time my mind would wander to that fictional no dancing decree, I’d shiver.”

Best Celebrity Interview Question: In Style. Submitted by Ioli F. from Ulaanbatar, Mongolia: “Beyoncé, what are some of the daily papers or websites you read?” “I read The New York Times because I live in New York—usually online because I’m always traveling. I like Pitchfork and Pandora, as far as music sites, and I go to my favorite fashion designers’ sites as well. Another favorite is Life+Times [Jay-Z’s site] and I keep up with my fans on my own site, Beyonce.com.”

Watch out, Deborah Solomon.

Best Logroll: Vogue profiles Emmanuelle Alt, editor of French Vogue. Former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld, meanwhile has a matte, six-page gatefold ad trumpeting her new gig at Barney’s. “Carine’s World,” it says.

Best Sound of Music Reference: Vogue. “How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?” Hamish Bowles wonders of covergirl and bride Kate Moss.

Most Intellectually Insecure: Elle. How to describe the life and work of Dries van Noten? Daphne Merkin alludes to Henry James, Anton Chekhov and Marcel Proust in one short profile. It’s all lost on us. This magazine is the extent of our reading.

Creepiest Description of a 13-Year-Old: Vogue, on “It Girl” Elle Fanning. “Who can resist the unspoiled charm of this nymphlike California girl?” wonders Lynn Yaeger. Definitely not Marc Jacobs, who has tapped her to model for him. Perhaps he’s grown tired of her sister Dakota, now an ancient 17. She appears later in the issue, in an ad for Mr. Jacobs’s fragrance “Oh, Lola!” with a bored expression on her face and an oversize bottle of perfume between her thighs.

Most Brilliant Flash of Self-Awareness: Harper’s Bazaar. Cover girl and Glee star Lea Michele reveals she drinks Skinny Girl margaritas at home. “Love it,” she says. “Bethenny Frankel is smarter than all of us.” In June, housemogul Bethenny Frankel had her own cover: Forbes.

Most Racially Problematic: Vogue, by a mile. See: All-American blonde Karlie Kloss in a black bob and upward-tapering eye make-up for her photo shoot in a Chinese garment factory. (In her editor’s letter, Anna Wintour says Ms. Kloss would make a fine diplomat one day.) Or a party report from Dasha Zhukova’s birthday safari in Namibia, which included a costume night at which Olympia Scarrey, Eugenie Niarchos and others dressed up tribal face paint, sarongs, headdresses, and “bits of bone and horn.” “Camilla Al Fayed couldn’t make the trip but sent us off with a surprise—bags filled to the rim with handmade African-inspired costumes for every girl.” And then there’s Jeffrey Steingarten’s Mexican food diary, illustrated by a chihuahua in a sombrero and a Louis Vuitton collar.

Unwieldiest Byline: Vogue. Meet new correspondent Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis.

Most Nipples: W. The only magazine willing to play ball in this category, W’s fashion editorials featured a whopping nine areolae, one of which was pierced.

Timeliest Trend-Spotter: Elle. Cyrus Vance may have dismissed the case against “hurried sexual encounter”-haver Dominique Strauss-Kahn, but Elle still says “Yes!” to housekeeper-inspired fashion. “From white collars and perversely quaint headpieces to fitted black lace, tidying up has never been hotter.” Tell that to Nafissatou Diallo.

Most Tenuous Reference to the 10th Anniversary of Sept. 11: Harper’s Bazaar. “Everyone remembers where they were on September 11, 2001,” writes Glenda Bailey. But does anyone remember where Glenda Bailey was? She was closing her first issue of Harper’s Bazaar. Allow her to use the occasion to list some of the magazine’s greatest hits throughout the first post-9/11 decade …

Best Hollywood-style Black Fairy Godmother: Elle. Gwyneth Paltrow on rehearsing for the Grammys: “Beyoncé’s like, ‘O.K. The singing is great. But you’re not having any fun,’” Ms. Paltrow says. “She’s like, ‘Remember when we’re at Jay’s concert and Panjabi MC comes on and you do your crazy Indian dance? Do that. Be you!’ I was like, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ She’s like, ‘Yes, you fucking do!’”

Best Discussion of Middle Eastern Politics: Elle. “My face is revolting! I cried out from the examining table. … It’s the Arab Spring of my complexion!”

Rollingest in Their Grave: Harper’s Bazaar. Georgia May Jagger portrays style icon Margaret Thatcher, as imagined by photographer Terry Richardson, in a fashion editorial ripped straight from our ickiest sex nightmares.

Least Boring Way of Announcing That “Color” Is In: InStyle. “Roy G. Biv in the house!”

Most Interview-y Interviews: Harper’s Bazaar. Nan Talese writes “The Jackie [Onassis]I Knew,” and Kenneth Jay Lane writes on “[His] Friend the Duchess of Windsor.” Lady Gaga interviews Debbie HarryPharrell Williams interviews Jeff Koons, who shoots a fashion editorial. Karl Lagerfeld shoots Stefano Pilati, naked. Gell O’Brien “catches up with his old friend” Jean Paul Goude. With friends like these, who needs freelancers?

Feature Least Likely to Reach Its Target Audience: InStyle. The grocery store of fashion magazines offers Emmy nominees a careful analysis of what works and what doesn’t, stylewise, on the red carpet. “Luckily for our favorite stars, we studiously observed the options, ovations, and ‘Oh, dears’ of past Emmy events and devised a strategy so that at the end of the evening, regardless of who grips a statue, every woman can start the new season as a winner.” We wonder if Teri Hatcher’s stylist has sent flowers yet.

Best Use of New Media: W. “Status updates from more and more of my Facebook friends, meanwhile, flaunted their crystal-clear colons,” writes Christine Lennon. “But can a well-thought-out juice binge make a noticeable difference in our health?” Even better, the piece concludes with a resounding “No,” at last sending “juice cleanses” to the fad diet graveyard.

Most Loyal to Concept of Tiger Moms: Vogue. New Girl writer Liz Meriwether and star Zooey Deschanel explain their quirkiness by declaring, “We needed tiger moms!”  I.M.F. managing director Christine Lagarde, on the other hand says, “No, I wasn’t a tiger mother. I wouldn’t have had time.”

Best Save: W. Several magazines noted the perennial trend of historical references. W made this rather obvious idea interesting by doing a fashion editorial spanning the decades, and aging the pretty young actress and model Amber Valetta’s face accordingly. By the time she’s 80 years old, the prosthetic wrinkles and faux sunspots are more impressive than the clothes.

Oldest Model: Harper’s Bazaar. Jane Fonda, 73. Although with Helen Mirren, 67, in InStyle and Stephanie Seymour, 43, in Elle, perhaps ageism is going out of style at fashion magazines (or fashion magazine readerships are aging up).

Most Tragic Misuse of Writing Talent: W. Never mind L’Affaire Seinfeld. Lynne Hirschberg was once a force to be reckoned with in the bare-knuckled world of celebrity profilers. But since leaving the Times Magazine, she’s been relegated to squibs, extended caps and all-too-brief Q.&A.’s. Her sitdown with Kristen Stewart fails to get to the bottom of the actress’s baffling angst, but we bet she could pull it off if she had a couple thousand more words.

Biggest Cover Promise: Harper’s Bazaar. 973 New Looks! That’s 1.9 looks per page. InStyle, Vogue and Elle covers promised 638 and 758 and 556 pages of new looks, respectively, which was at least honest, and W promised nothing, but in a you-know-you-can’t-afford-it-if-there’s-no-price-tag kind of way.

Best Investigation of Consequences of Fall Trend: W. Caroline Weber once test-drove dominatrix gear on a dare, and wound up attracting a very specific kind of suitor. “I definitely wasn’t prepared for him, after we had finished eating, to violently sweep all the glasses and dishes onto the hardwood floor, hurl himself down amid the broken shards, unzip his fly, and entreat me to ‘punish’ him by trampling on his ‘weiner.’” Proceed with caution, fashionistas.

The Big Winner! Fashion’s big winner was neither a designer nor a model, but a not-especially-stylish television program called Glee. Glee star Lea Michele snagged the Harper’s Bazaar cover, and the series got a shout out cover line on Elle (“She’s Smart, Hilarious, and the Girl Can Sing: GWYNETH Fills Us With Glee!”). Plus, the entire cast was shot for Vogue’s Fashion Night Out-hyping section.

kstoeffel@observer.com