Friday, June 3, 2011

My Generation

The last post I wrote was not exactly the post I intended to write.

I started out thinking about Lucia's post on how standards of beauty have changed over time, and ended up going back several millennia farther than I intended. The Venus of Willendorf and Rubens' models weren't exactly style icons for me, but then neither were the women Lucia mentioned as influences on my generation -- Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. They were closer to my mother's age than mine, and I think they were style models for her generation. But I agree with Lucia's broader point: From roughly World War II to the mid-sixties, the images of beauty available to women were a lot broader in terms of body size (as well as type of features -- from girl next door to ethnic and a little exotic) than they are today.

My boomer generation had its equivalents of Audrey and Marilyn, although, like everything else in the sixties, they took the original to extremes. Where Audrey Hepburn was willowy and graceful, Twiggy was emaciated, and given to poses that were deliberately gawky. Her hair was cut shorter than any but the geekiest of boys would have worn in the late sixties. She was in her late teens, but she looked more like a 12-year-old boy in makeup. Audrey Hepburn had the kind of beauty a naturally thin woman could aspire to. I don't think Twiggy could have inspired anyone but a budding drag queen.

My generation's Marilyn was Raquel Welch. Years ago, Gloria Steinem wrote a book about Marilyn Monroe which begins with an anecdote about walking out of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes because she felt humiliated by the childish persona. Men loved Marilyn Monroe; many women felt demeaned by her. I understood that reaction very well, because I felt the same way about Raquel Welch. She didn't have Marilyn Monroe's absurd, stereotypical helplessness, but she didn't have her vulnerability and sweetness either. She was Barbie. Honestly, her body even looked like it was made out of plastic.

Maybe it was the very absurdity of the images we were offered that made people my age, in a way, turn against fashion entirely -- at least fashion as something that was sold to you. If there was anyone I wanted to look like when I was sixteen, it certainly wasn't Twiggy or Raquel Welch. The more obvious model was someone like Janis Joplin, who was cool not only because of the passion of her voice, and her inability to fit into any model of feminine beauty, no matter how loose, even if she had wanted to, but because there was no way you could go into a store and buy a Janis Joplin "look." It came about by finding bits and pieces of things here and there that were interesting, and tossing them together, and sometimes you'd end up looking like you'd been through a hurricane and other times you'd look strangely -- always strangely -- beautiful.

You couldn't buy it, and it included everybody -- because nobody aspired to look like Janis, they just aspired to look, like Janis, like they didn't care.

Fashion and beauty, as an industry, have always been designed to exclude. No matter how broad the standards, they have to exclude someone, or else the included won't feel special. It's the nature of any business: Once people's basic needs have been met, the only way you can sell them things is to make them dissatisfied with themselves and their lives, to make them believe that they're not good enough without the product you have to sell. Fortunes are made on making people feel bad about themselves, and then offering a solution. And fortunes are made on making people feel part of the chosen few.

This morning, I was skimming a book of Lucia's: Key Moments In Fashion. The first chapter is about an Englishman, Frederick Worth, who originated French haute couture in the court of Napoleon III. Before Worth, dressmaking was almost entirely a women's trade, and as such it was extremely poorly paid. Worth charged enormous amounts for his dresses, not just because he could get away with it, but deliberately in order to raise the "value" of his work. The higher the price, the more people had a sense that it was worth a lot. Only a select few could afford a Worth dress, and when a woman put one on, she clothed herself in proof that she was one of the chosen, one of the absurdly rich. She wasn't buying a dress, or even beauty. She was buying the ability to exclude others.

Counterculture "fashion" reflected a simple, human attraction to pretty colors and shapes. You couldn't market it. Until the fashion industry decided to steal it, make it for pretty people, call it "peasant chic" or "hippie chic" and sell it. And then it was worth something, because you could make money off it, and because not everyone could have it.

The trick is finding a way to meet people's need for beauty without playing on people's desire to exclude. It's happened before. It can happen again. Maybe it already is happening.

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