Robin Givhan on Culture: Channeling the Ideal of Modern Beauty

A nip here, a tuck there: Steven Klein's "Intelligent Design -- Remote Control," featured in the Milan photo exhibit "Extreme Beauty in Vogue."
A nip here, a tuck there: Steven Klein's "Intelligent Design -- Remote Control," featured in the Milan photo exhibit "Extreme Beauty in Vogue." (By Steven Klein)
By Robin Givhan
Sunday, March 8, 2009

The most valuable currency in the fashion industry is beauty. It's like a natural resource: exploited, manipulated, celebrated and often taken for granted until it's close to disappearing.

As a society, we wax fondly about "classic" beauty, pretending that what was lovely 50 years ago is just as glorious today and will be equally admired in the future. When we talk about classic good looks, we still use a Western standard. It's the beauty so often described in Shakespearean literature: ivory skin, rosebud lips, flaxen hair. But as our demographics continue to shift, the standard of beauty in the future is likely to be more Eva Longoria than Donna Reed.

The folks in charge of our popular culture make the rules about beauty. The people who direct the movies, publish the magazines and create the television characters that become our constant companions, absorb the shifts and upheavals in our lives and sell them back to us.

Beauty is the subject of a photo exhibit that opened at the end of fashion week in Milan. Images dating back to the 1930s have been pulled from the archives of American Vogue and housed in a grand palazzo. Each photograph is tucked into a stone cubby reminiscent of a small chapel where one would kneel to offer a prayer to a saint.

It's easy to see how our ideals of beauty have evolved. For example, in a 1974 Helmut Newton photograph, "Sexiest Woman in the World -- Charlotte Rampling," the actress poses naked like a modern odalisque. She is not voluptuous like the famous nude painted by Ingres. And she does not exude the physical strength of bodybuilder Linda Wood-Hoyte, whose muscular body strains against a Comme des Garcons dress in a 1997 photograph by Annie Leibovitz. Instead, Rampling looks thin. Her face is striking, but her body looks rather flabby. She is not the ideal of the modern woman -- the hyper-driven, "Grey's Anatomy," "Private Practice" overachiever who is prone to treating Pilates like a competitive sport.

The exhibition (open until May 10) was sponsored by the design team of Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, whose ideal of femininity is similar -- at least superficially -- to the kind of 1960s vision of womanhood epitomized by "Mad Men." The difference is muscles. The women of "Mad Men" are soft, not sculpted. Their fleshiness reflects their vulnerability and the way in which they are at the mercy of men. Dolce & Gabbana's women have hourglass figures -- they are not interested in androgyny -- but they also have muscle tone.

Similarly, the women of "Big Love" look like they've come from another time, not just because of their clothes and their relationships, but also because of their bodies. We have come to equate a sinewy figure as the contemporary ideal. Beauty is control, discipline and independence.

Other images in the exhibition highlight the way in which science has intervened to change the way we think of beauty. The most extreme photographs by Steven Klein reference cosmetic surgery. Robotic arms probe at a model lying on an operating table in "Intelligent Design -- Remote Control" from 2006. She's operating the remote, inflicting the wounds on herself. Many of the story lines on "Nip/Tuck," with their uncomfortable juxtaposition of beauty and gore, often play out like 1990s-era Newton photographs brought to life.

There are also photographs by Irving Penn that speak to the more modest ways in which technology -- through creams and gel, scrubs and masks -- has altered the aging process and changed our beauty standards.

On television, we have been reminded of the money and time beauty requires as we watched Gabrielle (Longoria) of "Desperate Housewives" lose her looks under the pressure of debt, motherhood and other soap operatic travails.

The exhibition serves as a guide to how we have gotten to this point on the beauty continuum -- for better and for worse. Today, women willingly spend hours in the gym lifting the kind of weight that their mother or grandmother would have considered practically vulgar because they believe beauty is enhanced by a sculpted physique and the strength that goes along with it. And television gives us the pretty cops and investigators on "Law and Order" and "CSI" who are always tough and never have bad hair days. "Cagney & Lacey" meets "Charlie's Angels." That's modern beauty.

But we have also come to a point where beauty is maintained by expensive and time-consuming rituals. Manicures and pedicures are no longer luxuries; they have become as de rigueur as brushing one's teeth. Along with eyebrow arching, teeth whitening, facials and massages, things that were once occasional treats have become necessities. Why? Beauty standards have been raised through retouched photographs, the constant recitation of celebrity grooming habits, the eternal rerunning of "Sex and the City" and the insatiable fascination with "Gossip Girl."

Popular culture has encouraged us all to look better. It's up to us to figure out when we finally look good enough.

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