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.