In pursuit of imperfect beauty
Words Navaz Batliwalla
When I was growing up, make up was all about expression. A matte red mouth and ivory nails to emulate Madonna; white panstick and black eye crayon for Siouxsie Sioux; or a black cherry gob for Grace Jones. Contour, brow gel, clicky highlighter pens and all that perfectionist jazz? They didn’t exist. If you piled on so much slap you resembled a drag queen, it was likely because you were actively aping your idol, Boy George. Welcome to my glorious, postpunk, 1980s youth: a reaction to the cookie-cutter blandness that came before it.
The 1990s rolled around, bringing acid house and, with it, a sweated-off eight-hour-danceathon anti-beauty look. It’s a truism that the look we come of age embracing is the one that ends up defining us. And 1990s me was all about Helmut Lang’s no-make up make up, propelled by a new wave of minimalist New York make up artists. Oh, how many Allure magazine how-tos we pored over to get that up-all-night, tired yet post-euphoric glow. Where would we have been without our MAC Strobe Cream and just-bitten-lip combo of Blistex and Clinique Black Honey?
In those days, we were in thrall to downtown New Yorkers. The New York of our favourite ethereal grunge models: Kirsten Owen, Stella Tennant and Chrystèle Saint Louis Augustin. The Vogue-ified Manhattan of nail bars, ironed hair and Bergdorf blondes was far from cool. But supermodel off duty in a Margiela deconstructed trench and Hysteric Glamour tee? Yes, this was achievable to a 20-year-old fashion rookie. Just add a suggestion of under-eye shadow and, yes, always an unlit fag drooping from a fingertip.
Fast-forward into the next millennium, and our muse is similar in aesthetic, but a different nationality. Instead of nubile New Yorkers, we fetishise the barefaced French, the Swedes and the Dutch. In particular, the middle-aged Parisiennes, with their untweezed brows, don’t-care hair and jolie-laide glamour. Contour? Anti-ageing? Clean eating? Bof! Good luck selling those to a Roitfeld or a de Maigret. Although – why lie? – she is partly an illusion. She may not have her colourist on speed dial, but she’s certainly no stranger to the fauteuil of super-facialist Joëlle Ciocco.
What is it about fashion’s provocateurs that finds them uniformly rejecting the idea of perfection? Is it as simple as contesting what’s popular? Because, somewhere along the way, beauty became all too contrived. Too many influencers and celebrities endorsing the same vacant-eyed vanilla look. The Botox, filler and anti-ageing upkeep was frankly unsustainable, not to mention plain old freaky. Plus, what is the role of fashion if not to challenge ubiquity?
Instead, we’ve seen a skincare boom. We can thank our Korean cousins for passing on their love of seven-step cleansing and multi-masking. Facial oils, wake-up balms, overnight serums and all manner of other rich colourless unguents are an industry sector in themselves, and more desirable than a Vetements bum bag. It’s that hidden, so-called effortless approach, the equivalent of throwing on “this old thing” that we all know secretly requires time, effort and not inconsiderable cash.
But still we collude! Lovely skin allows for barely- there make up as championed by the “real girls, real skin” brigade. Not just the twentysomething Glossier girls, but fortysomethings who mimic the cinematic, pensive-eyed beauty of an unretouched Peter Lindbergh photo. If Snapchat-friendly contour and Facetune are equivalent to the Hollywood blockbuster, then tired shadows and romantic red-rimmed eyes are the art-house indie.
That look also suggests an elegiac vulnerability that you can only show when you’re not really in pain at all. Call it one of life’s little paradoxes. And the industry helps us collude, of course, with the pro-ageing message conveniently creating yet another revenue stream for beauty brands to exploit. Because if you’re going for the real pores ’n’ all unmade-up look, you’d better hope your skin – and teeth and hair – are in expensively tip-top shape.
Valley of the dolls
Words Autumn Whitefield-Madrano
Roxxxy is $7,000 and quite pretty if you squint. Eyes wide open, the sexbot more closely resembles a bachelor-party blow-up doll than what her parent company, True Companion, promises by dint of its name. But with advances in robotics (such as recently developed “skin” mimicking the tiny hairs all over the human body) giving androids the ability to interpret sensations as subtle as the gentlest caress on the nape of the neck, we’re not all that far from the companionship of sexbots, as depicted on the TV series Westworld. In the show, humans pay $40,000 a day to hang out in a re-imagined Wild West populated by humanoid robots there to do real humans’ bidding. Westworld hosts gunfights, desert sojourns and a whorehouse – though the entire conceit of the place is that the whole place is a whorehouse of sorts.
It makes sense that the perfection of Westworld androids follows accepted beauty standards – creamy skin and flowing hair on the women, impeccably styled five o’clock shadows on the men. “Where we’re going, she’s a two,” one character says of a stun-ningly beautiful (real) woman as he’s introducing his friend to the playground. It’s tempting to stop here and make a feminist argument about the dangers of what this might mean for flesh and blood women, who could eventually be seen as runners-up to sexbots, given that beauty still dominates how we determine value in women.
Yet it’s the next potential step in sexbot development, once the goal of mere beauty has been achieved, that should give us pause. If the goal is to make sexbots as human as possible, it’s not hard to imagine that engineers might design in the daintiest of flaws to bring them that much closer to passing the Turing test. Consider a sexbot with two rows of pearly white teeth, then consider yaeba, a dental procedure popular in Japan during which the canine teeth are capped to transform an otherwise perfect smile into a snaggletoothed one. Or recall that it wasn’t Cindy Crawford’s beauty that made her famous; it was her mole.
Engineering imperfections into sexbots brings me not to the future but to – stay with me here – a handicrafts store in Central Pennsylvania. If you visit one of these outlets selling quilts sewn by local Amish women, the shopkeeper might tell you that each quilt has a flaw, intentionally designed by its creator. The Amish believe that only God is perfect, and the quilt’s flaw reflects the quilter’s piety.
It’s a charming concept, though, like so many other bits of endearing folklore, it isn’t quite true. The appeal of intentional glitches is strong, however counterintuitive they may seem. Tourists buy into the myth because it reinforces their idea of the Amish as simple, humble folk, even as cynical types might wonder whether a calculated “flaw” shows humility or its opposite. Either way, once the legend caught on, savvy quilters began designing flaws into their quilts, knowing that tourists would be likelier to purchase a quilt that had a story behind it. Engineering imperfections became a part of their labour, the result of an invented idea that imperfections meant authenticity.
A flaw makes the perfect imperfect. But it’s the buyer’s dollars that ultimately determine the value of imperfections. It’s one thing to commodify perfection. Commodification of flaws – one of the qualities that supposedly makes us human – is another.
Ground rules for glamour
Words Maggie Kim
Coming across a supermodel in the wilds of mid-1990s Manhattan was like encountering an extraterrestrial – possibly a relation of Superman’s, definitely a close kin to Wonder Woman. Linda, Christy, Naomi, Cindy and Claudia were otherworldly: taller, lither and even more incredible off the page. Kate, the Lilliputian latecomer, had mutant cheekbones and a build more avian than human. They all glowed with some internal light source – genetic anomalies who were awe-inspiring, rather than aspirational.
Twenty years later, Kim Kardashian arrives at a Paris fashion party, and paparazzi bulbs dazzle, nearly obscuring the tiny woman at their nexus. There is not a single camera, professional or otherwise, trained elsewhere, not even on her husband or her model younger sister. But once the pixels are captured, the lights dim. IRL, Kim’s outlandish curves are surprisingly normal; her famous backside doesn’t assault the eyes with its pneumatics. She’s petite and pretty, wearing excessive, expert makeup.
Aspiration suggests attainability, giving us the reason why Kim Kardashian is this decade’s lodestar of glamour. But glamour has always been a construct – and never have there been so many ways to manufacture it. Scottish etymology associates glamour with magic and shapeshifting; there is a connotation of malevolence or, at least, a certain degree of dishonesty suggested by illusion. Glamour is post-truth with a side of Photoshop.
The glamour girls of Instagram are easy to spot. Beauty bloggers or #fitspo models, they’ve perfected contouring and boxer braids, statement brows and cappuccino lips. Endless selfies attest to their mastery of makeup and camera angles. Sloe-eyed pouts, contortionist-style back arching, did-they-or-didn’t-they décolletage… Kim’s sleight of hand (and of face and bum) to achieve social media fame isn’t confidential, just time-consuming. This is glamour as ubiquity, accessible to anyone who has the right cosmetics and a smartphone.
In a way these women are as alien as their striking supermodel predecessors, owing to their very uniformity. Whereas the “Big Six” models were hailed for their individuality (within the strictures of high fashion), today’s beauty queens are cookie-cutter fembots. Not created on an actual assembly line, yet virtually indistinguishable whether they’re from Dubai or the Czech Republic, a Kardashian or a Hadid. #NotKim but close enough.
Perhaps the ultimate expression of the American Dream is that glamour now requires little more than a forgiving filter, the appropriate make up palette and some Spanx. (Plus the ambition to broadcast one’s near-nakedness on a daily, if not hourly, basis.) Barriers to entry such as bone structure, body type and height matter less, just as reality television made talent superfluous when it comes to fame. Populism has arrived and, with it, the absence of any critical thought beyond a “double tap for a like”.
While democracy has its virtues, its populist underside traffics in illusory promises. One only needs to look at the recent US presidential election for proof. Appealing to the masses necessitates a diffusion of ideals and an exaggeration of decadence. Eyelashes thick as (and sometimes made of) fur, breasts round as unripe cantaloupes, lips stung by an entire hive. The creature who lied the loudest became POTUS. The most famous woman in the world was born of a sex tape. When all things are within reach to all people, when self-promotion overlaps with self-delusion, what is anything worth?
Debating whether Kim and her iterations are truly beautiful is besides the point. Being disappointed by their real-world presence seems a given. What matters is how they look to millions of people on a handheld screen. This is the emperor’s new face. This is the new glamour.
All in good taste
Words Ana Kinsella
Vulgarity is in the eye of the beholder. This was the message of The Vulgar, a fashion exhibition at the Barbican that finished earlier this year. Here, Prada dresses, lingerie from Agent Provocateur, and crowns by Stephen Jones were annotated with texts by the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on vulgarity’s possible definitions. Money, class, sex, information: they all dovetail within the moral panic around the vulgar.
Phillips proposed that vulgarity arises from “too many people having too much access to any common wealth” and it was at this point that my mind turned to the beauty cabinet. In the make up bags of friends, I now see the kinds of tools that were once the preserve of the professional make up artist. Palettes with 100 shades, expert contouring sticks, brow powders, dozens and dozens of brushes. Beauty’s tools have become democratic, though looking through Instagram will reveal that, ironically, the result is a flattening effect. With HD brows and specialist contouring, everyone can look the same.
And yet, vulgarity must always exist in opposition to some restraint or so-called good taste. One requires the presence of the other in order to define itself. Make up that announces itself and the effort that has gone into it is omnipresent now, and it’s hardly a moral issue. It’s unlikely that anybody’s daughter will get hurt because she applied too much primer. The products in question can be bought cheaply on the high street yet, in Western society, there’s no clear correlation between contouring and income or social class. Money, class, information ruled out. What’s left to make today’s beauty vulgar is sex and its capacity to shock, its visible machinations.
During the past five years, certain kinds of cosmetic surgery have become more accessible than ever. Many of us were not surprised when Kylie Jenner, whose eponymous beauty line sells out its Lip Kits with each new colour, admitted she’d had lip injections at 17. Many have used Jenner as inspiration for their own lip fillers or, if not, then to start overlining their lips more blatantly than before. The vulgarity in beauty today lies in the shamelessness of its intention: beauty as sex appeal. The sexuality of beauty’s processes is clear in the glossy cheekbones, fluttering fluffy eyelashes, inflated lips.
In a 2004 essay for The Daily Telegraph, the author Adam Nicolson wrote, “What is vulgarity but beauty that doesn’t give a fig for restraint?” Today’s dominant beauty trends may be hypervisible, sexualised and unrestrained, but there exists an opposition among some women – particularly, I find, those who work in fashion in metropolitan centres, who eschew heavy-handed makeup for something barely there, or even not there at all.
And this is how trends often work, in beauty as in fashion, too: movement as reaction. Will the dominance of the matte lip and the glossy cheek mean that whatever comes next will be more refined, less vulgar? It’s unclear. Maybe we would be wise to ask ourselves what is so good about so-called good taste, anyway. During a time when motives in the public sphere are often hidden, and transparency hard to find, there might be something admirable in making your intent clear, face-on.