How much does “pretty” matter?

By Caitlin Kelly

Cover of "Pretty Is"
Cover of Pretty Is

Loved this blog post, from dressaday, by brilliant Bay area writer and dictionary editor Erin McKean, about why women don’t have to be pretty — unless they choose to:

You Don’t Have to Be Pretty. You don’t owe prettiness toanyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”.

I’m not saying that you SHOULDN’T be pretty if you want to. (You don’t owe UN-prettiness to feminism, in other words.) Pretty is pleasant, and fun, and satisfying, and makes people smile, often even at you. But in the hierarchy of importance, pretty stands several rungs down from happy, is way below healthy, and if done as a penance, or an obligation, can be so far away from independent that you may have to squint really hard to see it in the haze.

And this essay from The Wall Street Journal by an Iranian writer, Marjan Kamali, about returning to her homeland, where every woman she meets urges her to pretty up:

The first thing we noticed as we strolled to a fancy shopping mall were the couples. Young women in bright tunics and scarves that slipped back to show their hair walked with guys in jeans and tight T-shirts. The women’s eyes were accentuated with eyeliner and shadow…Their nails were red and green and hot pink.

“I didn’t know they were allowed boyfriends here,” my daughter said. “I didn’t think they could do lipstick.”…

Later that evening, over a feast of jeweled rice and walnut and pomegranate stew at my aunt’s home, we caught up on family and politics. Suddenly my aunt said: “I can take you if you want.”

“Take me where?” I asked.

“To our best beauty salon.”

“I didn’t come here for a beauty salon.”

“As you wish,” she sniffed. “But what is this look that’s no look that you have?”

At another relative’s house, it was the housekeeper who pulled me aside. “Madam,” she whispered. “Those eyebrows. Please. You’re a mother of two. You need to be tweezed.”

My naked face stood out among a sea of lipsticked and glamorous Tehranis glowing under their hijabs. The surprise bordering on concern at my un-made-up ways was everywhere. “Why don’t you wear more makeup?” asked women whose cheeks were caked with foundation. “What do you have against lipstick?”

In Tehran, it turned out, the standards for fashion and appearance were extremely high. Women dieted and went to Pilates and yoga. Though by law they had to cover up outside their homes, many women rebelled, especially the young. They let their head scarves slip as far back as they could and wore tunics that, while not revealing any skin, were vivid and tight. And they obsessed about their faces, moisturizing and plucking and exfoliating.

And this, from Danish blog Rebelle Society, one I recently discovered:

Brace yourself, beautiful.

We’ve now entered the PhotoShop era, where a fanciful fiction of fairness leads to a fall down the rabbit hole of deception and discontent, all designed by an ad executive who will tell the world what your ass should look like in those $300.00 jeans.

It’s a dizzying effect of distortion and contortion of beautiful form without adding real function and it’s pretty damn ugly.

I’m also re-reading DV, one of my favorite books, by the late, legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, a famous jolie laide, whose style was defiantly and gloriously and confidently eccentric.

Women use their disapproval of one another’s appearance as a channel for aggression, according to this recent study. Facepalm.

While we’re heavily socialized not to appear mean, women can be sneakily vicious to those who fail to meet our standards of thin, stylish beauty.

Here’s Emily Graslie, who does videos of science from the Field Museum in Chicago, talking — with considerable and real frustration — about the haters who comment on her appearance, not her effing big brain and all the cool stuff she shares. Morons!

If you’ve got time to watch it, this new British documentary about six extraordinary women — ages 70s to 91, including an active choreographer and the oldest woman in the House of Lords — is lovely. Each is stylish in her own way, from the Baroness visiting her hair salon of 30 years to the defiantly confident Bridget, who visits Vogue to see if they’d like to hire her as a model.

They each have terrific elan and confidence, and none is Botoxed or rolling in bags of cash. The film is 47 minutes long, and worth every minute.

Pretty is as pretty does.

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The armor of glamour

Manolo Blahnik shoe (31 W 54th St - New York)
Manolo Blahnik shoe (31 W 54th St – New York) I wore Manolos on my wedding day, slingbacks like this. Divine! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you have a chance to see the new film about legendary Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland, The Eye Has To Travel, go!

You don’t have to care deeply about fashion or beauty to enjoy it, although for those of us who do, it’s a visual feast. Some of the people interviewed for this documentary include photographers Richard Avedon and David Bailey, 60’s model Veruschka, and designers Manolo Blahnik and Carolina Hererra.

Perhaps most fascinating are the brief glimpses of Vreeland-as-wife or mother. One of her two sons says, to camera, he wished almost anyone else had been his mother. Vreeland’s own mother called her ugly, so so much for maternal warmth!

Vreeland was what the French call jolie-laide, with broad, flat cheekbones, a high forehead and a personal style she honed to a very sharp edge.

She was very much self-invented, and her boldness came from a sort of social confidence that comes, to many women, from being well-married and well-employed. One interviewee recalls her sending roses to Alaska for a shoot. What Diana wanted, Diana usually got.

I spent four hours the other day sitting at Saks, at the mother ship on Fifth Avenue, to sell copies of my book “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, which gave me a front-row seat to some of the nation’s wealthiest and best-dressed shoppers. It was interesting to watch how carefully some women put themselves together.

I grew up around two women who cared deeply about their appearance, their figures, their clothing and hair and jewelry. For my mother and stepmother, being beautiful, thin and well-dressed was terribly important, and they disdained women who didn’t share their values. My mother modeled for the Vancouver Sun as a newlywed in her early 20s and my step-mother had studied dance seriously.

Neither woman ever attended college, so their wit, smarts and style were essential to their success.

I still remember many of their clothes and jewelry, and very much wanted to have their female self-confidence. But I left my mother’s care at 14 and my stepmother was not someone eager to share her secrets. So I had to figure out this how-to-be-pretty thing on my own.

I was also bullied for two years in high school, called Doglin by a gang of boys, which severely dinged any desire to draw attention to my physical appearance. I was smart, verbally adept and confident, and that was what (and did) would carry me through the University of Toronto, filled with whip-smart men and women, in the late 1970s, a time when second-wave feminism was in full flush and women were a lot more concerned with being smart and listened to than decorative and appreciated for their physical beauty. Thank God!

But I’ve become much more interested in glamour as I age. After 40, it’s unwise to be quite so careless about your appearance — at least if you wish to be taken seriously by your professional peers, employers and competitors.

This is, clearly, influenced by region and industry. The sort of no-make-up asexual look favored in parts of New England, or the T-shirt and jeans schlubbiness of Silicon Valley, just looks weird and unsophisticated in places like Montreal and Paris, where defined personal style is (yay!) both expected and relished.  I lived in both cities in my 20s and 30s, which changed forever my sense of style — great accessories rule!

Details do matter — a high-cut armhole and a properly hemmed trouser, a silk pocket square, a highly polished boot, freshly-trimmed hair all send a powerful message. I thrive on visual beauty and, (beyond the hopelessly selfish and vain and the dreary label-whores), simply really enjoy a man or woman who has taken the time and thought to present an attractive appearance.

When I lived in rural New Hampshire, a man once chastised me (!) for my emerald green ankle high boots for mud season because…they were not black. I moved to New York within a few months after that dreadfully boring bit of bossiness.

I love glamour, and if I were rich, would stock up on clothes by Dries van Noten, The Row, Etro and Donna Karan, my favored mix of simple minimalism and lush bohemianism. Still mourning a pair of ruby red knee-high suede boots I tossed 20 years ago.

Ladies and gentlemen, do you arm yourself with elegance?

If not, why not?

Heard An Idol Tonight At ICP — Legendary Photographer Deborah Turbeville

Diana Vreeland, the fashion icon.
D.V. whose feet D.T. photographed...Image via Wikipedia

I started out wanting to become a photographer. There were not many women doing it when I was a teen, but — to my profound delight — two of the legends from those days are still working and talking to the rest of us through the International Center of Photography, whose midtown Manhattan campus offers classes, workshops, degree programs and a lecture series by famous and less-famous photographers that kicked off this evening.

The first guest was Deborah Turbeville, whose photos really look like no one else’s, tough to do in an image-saturated world. With no photography training, she fell into the world of New York fashion as a model for the legendary sportswear designer Claire McCardell, went on to become an editor at Harper’s Bazaar and began shooting her own work. She created, and cherishes, photos filled with decay, ruin and imperfection — placing exquisite models and couture clothing in enormous old high-ceilinged rooms filled only with natural light or cracked mirrors.

She added lint and dust to her black and white prints, giving them the appearance of photos found in a flea-market tin or someone’s battered turn-of-the-century scrapbook.

The work is not, as it may sound, precious or pretentious or artificial, although it’s very much her creation and vision driving it all. Tonight she regaled the room of about 100 people, (a notably artsy crowd in which almost every single person wore black, gray or brown) with great stories behind some of the work — the Albertini twins and Monsieur Lemoine and the hunchback Jean who all kept trying to oversee her work while she was shooting a book at Versailles for, as she put it coyly “a very famous American woman”, whom I’m guessing was Jackie Onassis, for a while a Manhattan book editor.

“Monkeys were involved, parrots were involved. I’d go out into the street and pick people I thought would look right then dress them up,” she said. The Versailles images include women lying on the floor in huge dresses, a pile of dead autumn leaves a second skirt. “We just invented the whole book as we went along. I went around just snapping away.”

Filled with strong opinions, but funny and self-deprecating, she said she hates it– “I hate, hate, hate it!” — when someone comes to her studio, chooses an image and says: “This is the best one. There is no best one!”  She returns often to shoot in Russia and in weathered old Eastern European cities like Cracow and Budapest. “I love construction sites, things that are broken. It’s my vocabulary.”

Few women could so easily, and un-annoyingly, drop names like Mr. Liberman, (Conde Nast’s famed editorial director from 1962 to 1994) or have so avidly pursued an image — that she had to re-shoot — of the exquisite soft black leather pumps worn by the equally legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. (Her autobiography, D.V., is a great read, beginning with the words, “I loathe nostalgia.”)

Turbeville is still shooting actively, most often for all the iterations of Italian Vogue, she said, mostly because they leave her alone; she told several stories of deeply annoyed clients who’d hired her to showcase their products, only to find them hidden, shadowed or disguised, as she did on a shoot for Calvin Klein shoes.

A show of her work opens next week in Manhattan at the Staley-Wise Gallery. Here’s her new book, Past Imperfect.