A few days ago, I was reminded of Marcel Duchamp’s famous Belle haleine: Eau de voilette from 1921, a readymade artwork whose title translates to Beautiful Breath: Veil Water. The work is an emptied bottle of perfume within a luxurious box, whose title replaces the grooming denoted in Eau de toilette with the veiling implied in voilette. The replacement suggests a linkage between the two, an extent to which toilette and voilette are interchangeable quantities, an extent to which grooming and veiling are one in the same.
If we agree with Duchamp’s proposition, it’s possible to see fashion as a kind of veiling. We’ve mostly been receptive to this conclusion. Another important figure of fashion, photographer Bill Cunningham, agrees, expressing a similar point of view: “The reality is that fashion is the armor used to survive everyday life.” I’d say that most people would uphold this claim, if not practice it on a daily basis.
Where fashion meets photography, however, we get uncomfortable with fashion’s function as a veil. This has manifested itself most visibly in a reaction against certain trends in fashion advertising. The most notable of these has been the use of Photoshop to edit images of the body in images shown in magazines and elsewhere. Bloggers have reacted against Photoshop by searching vigorously for untouched photos. Images of Madonna, Lena Dunham, Beyoncé, and a host of models have been subjected to this scrutiny.
This act of revealing—of unveiling—is taken up as a feminist tool by Jezebel and similar publications. Revealing Photoshop processes, they contend, contributes another talking point in a long dialogue about the representation of women in fashion. This representation is often seen as prescriptive, telling people how they should look instead of accepting how they do look. It is often implied that the latter (let’s call it the “truth” of their appearance) is inherent in the photograph. It’s the idea that the photograph is pure, objective evidence of the object it captures.
But we know better. Photographs are far more selective, subjective objects. In “In Plato’s Cave,” Sontag argues that each click of the camera “is haunted by the tacit imperatives of taste and conscience.” Each image we see is a selection, often of a woman’s “best angle” or “good side.” This selection is a sort of veil in its own right, disclosing one possibility of our look and foreclosing many others. To my mind, the error of those who seek to investigate and reveal is in situating the “veil” on the side of Photoshop, when it originates from the act of representation in the first place.
But there are other questions. What does unveiling fashion photographs do to the people within them? We have often assumed that no one wants their image doctored. Revealing how Vogue or Ralph Lauren utilize modern photo-editing technologies is supposed to do justice by showing how an individual really looks. But we have not considered whether or not people have wanted the Photoshop veil removed. In current celebrity culture—and current visual culture, writ large—perfection is the modus operandi. Editors select for the “perfect” shot. This is directly related to the core purpose of the fashion image, which is neither to inspire nor provoke but, at the end of the day, to sell. Celebrities find their work participating in this commercialism. Given this, the veil of perfection is less about lying than it is about dressing the part for work. If respecting the various forms of labor women do is truly a keystone of contemporary feminism, we have certainly neglected to consider the ways in which Photoshop can be associated with this labor, as a tool instead of a hindrance.
Lena Dunham’s response to Jezebel’s bounty on her untouched Vogue shots reveals that the practice can be misguided. She tells French Slate: “I never felt bullied into anything; I felt really happy because they dressed me and styled me in a way that really reflects who I am…” Dunham’s reflection both articulates a desire to be seen a certain way, and her desire to see Vogue contribute to this project. Appearing on the cover of Vogue, as we saw in Kim Kardashian’s case, is a career moment. Assuming a certain look is a step in its realization.
Whether or not we agree with the values motivating or expressed by certain images is irrelevant once we’ve started disrespecting the choices the individual within them has made. The more we fail to do this, the more a supposedly benign revealing devolves into a potentially misogynistic exposé. I’d also be remiss to not suggest that revealing un-edited photos has more to do with own sadistic, near pornographic pleasure than anything else. Why else would we need to see unedited shots of a celebrity’s body? Our current practice is an unveiling that wrongly sees the surface—effected through clothes, makeup, an eau de voilette, or Photoshop—as an artifice worthy of destruction. But it sacrifices a necessary agency: and the choice to be seen as one wishes in public view must be protected.