Panther Responds ~ Fashion, Beauty, and a Wee Nerdsplosion

Beauty...no high heels. Hmmm

Recently, the Good Men Project published a piece by Tom Matlack, one of the founders of the fabulous Good Men Project, questioning if “women are addicted to beauty”, which initially seemed odd to me. He wasn’t talking about beauty so far as I could see, but rather, if women can be addicted to fashion. And that set me off thinking – why do we accept the fashion industries argument that fashion is at its base about beauty? Why do I disagree so much with that assumption? And does it lead us up any interesting paths if we detangle the two?

Matlack’s initial question is – who is the intended audience for ‘beauty’? Why do women get dressed up, in other words. And his reflections are quite interesting – in order to work his way towards an answer, he asked a bunch of women who worked in the fashion industry. On the surface such an approach makes sense – interviewing those who work in the fashion industry on why people seek to be fashionable. He concludes that this is a complicated question, and specifically that the pressure on women to be attractive and fashionable cannot be laid merely at the feet of male oppression. Matlack makes the really interesting point that when women do get dolled up in the pursuit of ‘beauty’, it is not aiming to satisfy the men in their life – in fact, Matlack feels a vast disconnection between how he ‘sees’ women, and the fashion they wear. He argues that the challenges and the restraints of the fashion industry are far more complicated than mere male oppression or patriarchyness; and that women have to take a bit of responsibility for perpetuating the fashion industry. No arguments here.

But what struck me was that this seems to be a totally different discussion that what he started with – that question of “beauty”. There is an assumption that  fashion has something to do with beauty, and it is easy to see why – this is a basic myth that the fashion industry relies on. And Matlack’s questions reveal something about this argument that fashion is the path to beauty – for example, he discusses beauty as the outcome of several actions such as high heels, shaving, eyebrow plucking etc. That is, those annoying actions we take to meet the standards of attractiveness of the day.

But I would like to suggest that as soon as we give in to the collapsing of ‘appearance’ and ‘beauty’, we are already caught up in a falsehood that won’t help us detangle the problem of the pressure on women to be attractive. For me, I can formulate a better understanding of my relation to the fashion industry if I can begin from the premise that fashion has very, very little connection to my understanding of beauty.  Attractiveness? Certainly. Sexiness? Sometimes. But beauty?

Fashion is an industry. Like many in the modern west, it depends on convincing us we ‘need’ something; new boots, the ‘it’ handbag, or ginormous eyelashes. (I tried false eyelashes one. I blinked and my glasses flew off my face. End of experiment) Because of its focus on women, and the kind of extremes it can encourage, it is an industry that feminism has focused on a lot, very legitimately. And books like The Feminine Mystique and Backlash were absolutely essential to any ability I now have to disconnect my own self-worth from magazine covers. But fashion is, in the end, an industry, and for that reason I suppose I find myself, most of the time, feeling that fashion is literally something I can pick up and put down when I want. Skinny jeans are in? I’ll try them on…and whip ‘em off quick smart because this Panther’s got thighs, baby! Oh look, wee little ankle boots! Mmmmm, perdy, yes please!

But fashion is not beauty, and beauty is not fashion. And high heels don’t make me beautiful. They make me feel fashionable, and sexy, and funky, but not beautiful.

(Wee pause so the Panther can pull on her philosopher hat)

If you will excuse the emergence of my literary nerd, this stanza from my favorite poet of all time, Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) is how I tend to think of beauty

“The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.”

Beauty is a spirit that underlies how Sassoon engages with the world; is comes into focus only in the depths of horror and death and it was what carried him through to survive WWI. Sassoon’s war poetry is some of the most moving and amazing and, yes, beautiful poetry I have ever read. It is beautiful because it is truthful, because it is lyrical, and crucially because I love poetry and Sassoon’s writing. Beauty, true beauty, is an animating spirit that fuels or underpins an experience in the world. Fashion can be an adornment, but I don’t really see how it can ever do more than skim the surface of real, true, beauty, because beauty resides in the heart of things.

The fashion industry relies on the belief that beauty is all appearance, that beauty is high heels and lipstick and earrings. And it means that when we describe someone as beautiful in the context of fashion, we often aren’t looking at all at the uniqueness within them, at the spirit that animates them but rather we are saying

“Look how well she conforms to the current standards”

In and of itself, it may not be a problem, but it seems to me that it is precisely that feedback that people get ‘addicted’ to; women and increasingly men who will wear the latest fashion no matter what. And that’s when the fun kind of fades out of fashion as far as I can see. When it becomes ‘I must have’ as opposed to ‘ohhh, shinny!! That looks like fun”.

So Matlck’s article is interesting and a necessary debate. But much as Ms Elouise argued a few weeks ago, language is a crucial component of any debate or argument; if we are going to have a serious discussion about the fashion industry and the constricting role it has on women and men, it seems to me we have to be clear what we are talking about. The fashion industry relies on appearance and one of its purposes, in fact, what it needs to do to continue its own existence, is to confuse notions of beauty and of appearance.

So lets disconnect them. Let’s talk about the fashion industry and how it contributes to the pressure women feel to adhere to social standards of attractiveness and proper dress of the day. And when we get into the realm of beauty, well, lets widen our scope. I’ve got my definition, and its a definition that suits the dorkish, bookish, somewhat beffudelled poetry reader that I am; what’s yours?

Image taken from authors own collection of crappy holiday snaps.

16 thoughts on “Panther Responds ~ Fashion, Beauty, and a Wee Nerdsplosion

    • Hmm, good question. I think perhaps I’m talking about that kind of beauty that we don’t actually see, but rather sense. That poetry for example – there’s nothing visually beautiful about it as far as I can tell. Those words, rearranged, would not seem beautiful to me; the beauty I am sensing there is not something I see visually. But I don’t quite know how best to express how I then do sense or perceive beauty, beyond knowing that it’s not a purely visual thing. Fashion, sexiness, hotness; all these things I ‘see’. Beauty seems different to me.

  1. Purely on the superficial face of it, being beautiful is most definitely not akin to being fashionable. Just look at Katherine Heigl: she’s got one of the most conventionally beautiful faces I’ve ever seen, but she can’t dress for shit! Whereas someone like Tilda Swinton, who isn’t conventionally attractive, pushes the boundaries of fashion because, perhaps, she doesn’t have the “burden” (as so many achingly beautiful people like to say) of being conventionally beautiful. You want to separate fashion from inner beauty? Take someone like Lady Gaga, who actually brings them both together so that they clash in a way. A lot of people (men, mostly) don’t think she’s beautiful because she challenges the barriers of gender norms and how we dress to live up to them, which has nothing to do with the way her face looks (which, I think, is quite nice to look at). However, she also fights for equality with her anti-bullying campaigns, the repealing of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and her “Born This Way” message, whilst making fantastic art, which makes her beautiful on the inside, as well as beautiful and fashionable on the outside. Anways, that’s my tangent for the day!

    • Thanks for the comment, Scarlett. I didn’t think of Lady Gaga, but I think you are right – she is almost the ultimate ‘fashion victim’ but kind of manages to take it far enough that she is very subversive about the connections between beauty, fashion, attractiveness and so on. And she just seems to have so much fun with it, doesn’t she?!?
      And I totally agree that she takes socially progressive stances in an artistic way, that’s a really cool way to think about it.

  2. Pingback: Lovely Links: 9/30/11

  3. I know what you mean (I think). But with a poem, there are still observable qualities. They’re not (wholly) visual in effect, but they’re still perceivable – hence the need for a medium. It might be rhythm, assonance, or some such thing. The beauty is appreciated aesthetically, by means of the senses. How might we appreciate beauty in a person – this animating spirit – if not through this kind of perception of physical qualities (at least at first)?

    I don’t think you’re wrong, I’m just not sure how this works.

    • I understand where you’re coming from Damon but I kinda agree with the Panther. When I find something, someone, beautiful. I can’t tell you what it is about them. Yes it’s their appearance to a certain degree, it must be, but two people wearing the same thing, the same makeup with the same hair and accessories may appear completely differently beautiful. What is it that makes us find our lover most beautiful? Even after many years and many extra kilos? I can’t keep my eyes off one of my lovers when she puts her glasses on. So is it the glasses which are making her beautiful or something else? Or is it just that it’s something different from usual? Or is it because then she looks a little more like me? The true beauty that the Panther is talking about, in my opinion, can’t be explained by the right facial structure or perfect skin. It probably even has as much to do with what’s inside the viewer as it does what’s inside the viewed.

  4. I believe that’s true (or it feels true, anyway), but not particularly helpful. For example, it doesn’t suggest the connection between viewer and viewed. Why her? Why can’t this ‘inside the viewer’ sieze upon any old thing? There are obviously qualities about the beloved that are perceived. Panther suggests this when she talks of the ‘animating spirit’ – something in the beloved, which we perceive. But how? How do I perceive something that has no physical manifestation? Inference? Association? And if it does have a physical manifestation, don’t we leave the door open for conventional kinds of beauty (e.g. a striking smile, a rhythmic walk), which intimate the character we love?

    Iris Murdoch gives one possible answer, with her discussions of goodness and beauty. Her answers don’t have Panther’s vitalism, but they do have echoes of MsElouise’s ‘inside the viewer’. Might be worth a read, if you’ve not already discovered her stuff.

    Oh yes, it’s a nerdsplosion…

    • Just as the question of why the Panther finds her poem beautiful has nothing to do with the actual words written but the way that together they conjure beautiful feelins within the viewer.
      For one person they may seem beautiful, for another just a jumble of words.
      But it is not the looking but the feeling which evokes beauty.

      A topic which could see regular nerdsplosians occuring until well after Christmas.

  5. “…is not the looking but the feeling which evokes beauty.”

    Sort of. Looking at what? The ‘what’ is the part you’re skipping around. Words and bodies are mediums through which we perceive some kinds of beauty. It matters how they’re arranged, or we’d arbitrarily attach to anything.

    • Yes but the what cannot be predetermined by fashion magazines or beauty product companies, in fact the what cannot be predetermined by anything.
      The initial argument is that saying fashion = beauty and beauty = fashion is an error.
      The extended argument is that it is often not even appearance alone which evokes beauty but a complex mix of sight, sound, smell and memory.
      The what is far too complex to attribute to one element of our experience.

  6. Wow nerdsplosion is right!!

    Having read both of your comments makes me wonder if maybe beauty is actually something that we ourselves feel, rather than something that exists in another person or thing – that I describe that poem as beautiful because it makes me have a particular emotional or philosophical reaction to it. Then we are moving away from the idea of actually ‘perceiving’ beauty as something that occurs outside us, and it becomes more about our reaction to that. That reaction, then, can be triggered by a lot of different things – including physical appearance, all our sensory perceptions, but also by memories and circumstance and really everything in between. Perceptions inform our experience of beauty, but do not define it.

    Or something like that. I’m pretty sleepy. I suppose it comes back to my assumption that what each person finds beautiful is, ultimately, totally subjective and can vary widely between everyone. It doesn’t exist outside of us so we can’t empirically define it.

  7. Thanks, Panther, that makes some sense. The next thing’d be tackling why subjective perceptions of are so often distributed according to class and status (e.g. Bourdieu’s book Distinction).

    As an aside, you might really dig Santayana’s The Sense of Beauty – a short book that sketches a theory of beauty not unlike yours:

    “beauty… is value positive, intrinsic, and objectified. Or, in less technical language, Beauty is pleasure regarded as the quality of a thing.”

    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/26842/26842-h/26842-h.htm

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