These days, beauty comes ready as a hashtag. The reasons to be beautiful remain as clear and present as the accompanying politics. This desire, with its partnering promise of happiness, reveals our need to turn our self-dissatisfaction towards our own self-manufactured images. The glamour of a happier, healthier world sustains us. Resetting the conversation for millions of people we may never meet is the new wasp-waist, a trend we hope becomes eternal. Courtney Love was right in her own late-90’s, love letter to Malibu sort of way, when she sings what beauty politics are up against: with miles and miles of perfect skin, of course you’d want to fit right in. But beauty, much like any luxury, only remains a luxury because it’s scarce.
Beauty politics––a mixture of aesthetics, industry, morality, and morale––remain necessary to discuss because they traverse issues regarding employability, visibility, and the need to feel satisfied within our own skins. One of the most important rallying cries of the new beauty politic emphasizes the idea that “everyone can be beautiful.” If images can be mass produced, why can’t the ideal of beauty?
The representation of difference in our media offers everyone the chance to see themselves; if everyone sees themselves, then everyone can see another. When the real becomes ideal, the ideal becomes reflective of the real. Whatever that might mean.
When not centered around their production practices, criticisms of the fashion industry have always centered around its lack of diversity. The models have always been too white, too thin, too blonde––hardly representative of the average customer, or even remotely relatable to many of the individuals who flip through the pages of a fashion magazine, or browse in a store.
Enter NOWNESS.com. Primarily a video site, NOWNESS is fashion for fiends, not for families. With their “#DEFINEBEAUTY” series, the fashion site attempts to bring their high-art sensibility to an already densely populated conversation. Fostering artistic collaboration between industry insiders and creatives, NOWNESS has a particular brand of fashion cachet: being “in” and “of the moment” without seeming cliche.
Being significantly “artier” than your average Cosmopolitan or Marie Claire, NOWNESS is not in the business of catering to all the real girls. Fantasy has always been the great conceit of fashion; it has also been used to differentiate between mere “clothing”, which is to say, “the masses”, and “art”–– what we think of when we think of “high fashion”. The distinction reveals the disconnect between worlds that all converge in beauty’s miasma. Yet, it is not as simple as demarcating a line between “art” and “commerce”, “reality” vs. “fantasy”.
NOWNESS has the ability to reach individuals who tend to care more about fashion imagery as “art” rather than as a “reality.” To the type of person who frequents NOWNESS, beauty is anything but. It’s Leigh Bowery wearing a lampshade, Bjork bedazzled in pearls––the aspiration comes from thinking beyond the everyday, not in seeing it. Or, at least, warping the everyday into something recognizably unrecognizable.
This is the type of place where Grace Jones would feel right at home, where Daphne Guinness can get undressed at Barney’s, then get all dressed up again.
So when #DEFINEBEAUTY was unveiled, the hopes were high. For its most zealous devotees, fashion has always been for the freaks.
The result of #DEFINEBEAUTY was more old guard than avant garde. The same slim, white bodies, the same scopophilic leer of the camera. Imagine how underwhelming it was for the first film to be a gratuitous shot of the same small, asymptotic curves, with only high production values and a gloss of surrealism to save it from profound tedium. The only difference between the first film (“Les Fleurs”) and what we’ve already seen before on the covers of GQ and Esquire? An enthusiastic “nod” to body hair. How? By showcasing a perfectly trimmed topiary of pubes expanding furiously into a flash of bright, white light, engulfing the anonymous nude girl body that once possessed them. Like brambles concealing the sleeping-dead Beauty, or a Venus fly trap around dinner time.
It was something, all right. And no, Rachel Zoe, I did not die. Unless you count of boredom.
“Creme Caramel” wasn’t much better. Nor was “Beauty is a Form of Genius”. Despite the references back to Orlan, as well as that classic idea that in art, the female body is as much a canvas as it is the subject and object of the work––it was yet another fashion fail. What made artists like Orlan and Nina Arsenault so subversive, as well as the notion of a distinctive, feminine, creative genius––all but disappeared in a fade of lilac-pastel light. This seems like a classic case of letting the conversations that came before do all the heavy lifting. The accompanying text, rife with good intentions and all the right references made it seem like all was on the mark. Yet, what got lost in translation between intent, visuals, and action?
Sheen, sentiment, and the hashtag shot ‘round the world do nothing for films if films piggyback on the strongest hyperboles. What’s topical, divisively political, or “#revolutionary” is useless to an artist if you can’t make a successful translation that speaks.
Yet, these were only a few shorts, and #DEFINEBEAUTY is a series. There is always room for improvement, there will be better entries. Yet, until Jonas Akerlund’s take on the albino male model, Shaun Ross, the improvement was yet to be seen.
In his usual high-contrast, methed-out style, Akerlund went back to fashion world’s saving beauty trope: the basics of the beautiful freak. It’s the trump card that renders any and all criticism of the industry’s body politic momentarily mute. That it is here, and only here in the fashion world, that the strange can find acceptance. That fashion is more about fascination than it is about the right waist-to-hip-ratio. That the “ugliness” spotted by the world at large can become a calling card. Keep in mind, that this “ugliness” has been spotted. Keep in mind that this ugliness been cultivated. And keep in mind that in fashion, it is always about the right waist-to-hip-ratio. It’s not so much a lie, but a glaring omission of certain facts.
The inclusion of Ross works the way #DEFINEBEAUTY should have originally worked. His story is the kind of balls-out-gonzo-accept-my-flaws piece that we find laudable material for new beauty definitions. It’s that kind of punk insouciance, middle finger to the establishment that we all long for. Here’s a digitized angel, as terrifying as he is beautiful. Tearing through the half-baked realizations of “Creme Caramel”, as well as the equally dull meditation on “thigh gaps”, Ross’ mentions of “acceptance”, “fear”, “ostracism”, and “self-love” overshadow the other films so much so that they become the specks that barely comprise Akerlund’s buzzing, apocalyptic white-noise. Ross stands out amongst the sun-washed mannequins and naked girls, who feel more like parts than fully realized poetry. Why did it take so long for NOWNESS to finally catch onto the desire for beauty’s alternative? And why does it get to be real-boy Ross, while the women once again are collapsed into doll parts and collateral damage? Certainly, beauty politics are as essential to men as they are women––men of colour especially. But for many women, their effects are felt much more knife sharp. Why doesn’t NOWNESS show that?
#DEFINEBEAUTY also demonstrates the pitfalls of making a fashion film. While great fashion certainly can be filmic, fashion films themselves can be a tough sell. Especially when they lack a point. Without the cohesion of advertisement or brand, fashion films must be thematically strong, otherwise they run adrift. For every “when Meisel meets Miu Miu”, we have at least a dozen shorts that miss the point. And it takes much more than gussied-up glamour and the right soundtrack to turn ad into art.
A good fashion film is a lot like a good poem. It’s a distillation of an ephemeral moment that makes said moment infinitely re-presentable. Good fashion films scry correctly for the zeitgeist––and given how easy the map of beauty politics is to read these days, being a clairvoyant of the now should have been a cinch for the storied NOWNESS brand.
While beauty’s appearance in the world feels like something of a rarity, we rely on it to tell us something of the truth. Whether that truth is social power, sexual power, or simply the joy of being a rare bird, the truth that beauty builds is specific to each beholder.
In all the excitement to create a hashtag worthy title, NOWNESS forgot to define what “define” comes to mean to so many people on the internet: the attempt to write themselves in. Given NOWNESS’ reputation, the expectation was that the series would be more Leigh Bowery than leggy blonde. Not that there’s anything wrong with leggy blondes, but I was expecting club kids and a bucket of blood. I wanted the kind of beauty is neither safe, nor plaintive, nor easily undone. The kind of beauty that confronts ugliness, or is ugliness, and challenges us all to find the rare truth of our own peculiar specificity. The kind of beauty that I seek in the land of beauty politics isn’t so much the need to see myself reflected back at me, but rather to see the world’s physicality heightened to strange, new depths. In short, I kind of want Star Trek. To rework that idea of bodies and skins as canvas to reveal the true fascination of shape, colour, lines, ideals, and abstracts––something much more than chic or sex could ever hope to be. Hell, even the kind of beauty that laughs at itself would be a welcome vision. Instead, NOWNESS gave something that deferentially kertows to that which rhymes with the words “tale haze.” If fashion is all about the “now”, why did these presentations feel so antiquated in their approach?
Despite all the skin, #DEFINEBEAUTY lacks body, mind, and heart. Perhaps I’m not smart enough to get it. Perhaps I need to more clearly define my expectations for the new beauty order. If there’s no plot, no smarts, and the visuals aren’t enough to dazzle someone into blind adoration, what’s the point? But, with the world already exposing me to real people who make it their job to look a little-less-real on a daily basis, these films fall away. In comparison to the wizened fingers that rock multiple rings, grandmothers in biker jackets and voluminous silk gaucho pants; tweens in bug-eyed sunglasses, and the piles of rope braided hair that suspend gravity with only a few deftly placed bobby pins, beauty already seems defined. Just go outside.