Category Archives: Fashion

In Praise of Unguents

Great word, unguents.


Peter Thoeny (

I have been thinking about how make-up and beauty products are not purely visual – we are not only concerned with how they make us look. Two things reminded me of this: the Mink 3D printer that will apparently print makeup; and my discovery that sweet almond oil is the best body moisturiser ever, and my subsequent disappointment at this discovery.

Disappointment? Yes. It turns out that all my very dry skin needs is a bottle of pure sweet almond oil, something easily affordable from a health food shop. I have been searching for this holy grail for 15 years. Why would I be disappointed?

I enjoyed the search, of course. Because there is nothing like browsing a shelf of lotions and potions, selecting one and then trying it out at home. That first experimental sniff at the product’s perfume, and a little dab on the back of the hand… slathering it on post-shower and enjoying the halo of a brand-new scent… assessing how soft the skin is a few hours later. Now that I have found the perfect moisturiser I will never need to experience all that again. And the almond oil isn’t even scented, goddamn it (I know, that’s a good thing for perfume-wearers. I know).

This tells me something interesting about my engagement with the capitalist monster that is the beauty industry. It is not that we are simply convinced of all the things that are wrong with the way we look, and then sold products that will ‘fix’ these faults. That is part of it, but actually we are not purely visual creatures, and we are not only buying beauty products to feed our obsession with looking better. It is also that we cannot resist the unguents.

Beauty products create a space of sensual luxury in our lives, little moments in which we can forget about the washing machine that’s broken again, and what we can make for dinner when there’s nothing in the fridge. In that moment of trying out a new body butter we are reminded of our bodies, and how to enjoy them. A raspberry scent that takes you back to childhood summers; smoothing cream over your skin to remind yourself of less innocent pleasures – we need that. And my almond oil, although it is nice, works so very well that it sort of becomes functional. Just another essential.

robot woman

PVBroadz (

Which brings me to Grace Choi’s ‘disruptive technology’, the Mink printer, touted as the invention that will challenge the whole beauty industry. Although many are questioning whether it will actually do what it says (see Mali Pennington at Wild Beauty), my first thought was that I wouldn’t want one anyway.

Choi’s argument for the Mink printer is that makeup is all about colour. We buy makeup to get the latest colours, in order to look good and be fashionable. Therefore, if you can print an eyeshadow, blusher or lipstick in any colour using your Mink printer, you will never need – or want – to spend £30 on an eyeshadow again.

I think Choi is missing something. The unguents. When I choose a lipstick, it is not only colour I’m looking for – the lipstick also has to be moisturising, long-lasting and preferably with SPF, and has to feel good on my lips. I enjoy trying out all the different lipsticks at the fragrant, glowing beauty counters, my head clear of other thoughts until I find the lipstick that looks and feels right on me. Unless Choi also offers a wide range of bases – uncoloured lipsticks or eyeshadow blocks in every conceivable formulation – she is not disrupting the beauty industry or replacing what it offers. If her standard eyeshadow powder makes my eyes itch or the colour creases after an hour, then I won’t be interested.

We often forget that beauty is not only visual: something can be beautiful to each of our senses, or (even better) to several at once, and we often forget that makeup and beauty products offer this broader beauty too. At least, we might forget, but our bodies don’t.

Hand me the body butter.

Lexicon of Beauty: the pen is mightier than the mascara

beauty pendant
Pendant by RiverwalkDesigns (


Etymology always makes me happy. It’s some of the best useless information around, and I’m stocked with trivia about the origins and histories of words. And then sometimes it turns out to be useful after all: here are some delightful facts about the words beauty, pretty, gorgeous and glamour, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary.

I thought about this while reading the medieval uses of the word beauty, as you do, and I noticed the word burde in this quote from 1375 by William of Palerne:

“A worschipful lady, þat burde was of beuaute briȝtest in erþe.”

(“A worshipful lady, that woman was, in her beauty, brightest on earth”. My translation, i.e. an educated guess)

The word burde for woman caught my eye because in British slang young women are often referred to as birds, although this has reduced in recent years thanks to the latest rise of feminist activity. Could it be that this mildly offensive bit of slang dates back to the Middle Ages? And could this, just maybe, be the origin of the American slang use of chick?

A hot chick. Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci 1489-90 (

So then I looked up pretty, and was surprised by the primary definition:

1. a. Originally: cunning, crafty. Subsequently: clever, skilful, able.
b. Cleverly or elegantly made or done; ingenious, artful, well-conceived.

It’s only the second definition with which we are now more familiar:

2. a. Of a person, esp. a woman or child: attractive and pleasing in appearance; good-looking, esp. in a delicate or diminutive way.

I also found that the derogatory use of “pretty little” – as in “don’t worry your pretty little head about it” – has been in use since the Middle Ages too:

c. In collocation with little. Freq. depreciative.

1450  (c1410) >Hist. Holy Grail xxvii. 228 (MED), The Ademawnt..hath no More strengthe Aȝens the Eyr..Thanne A lytel praty fownteyne Aȝens Al the grete See.

I think this means, “The adamant has no more strength against the air than a little pretty fountain against all the great sea”. Gotta love that Middle English.

But that’s a digression. The definition of pretty as something artfully made becomes even more interesting when you look up gorgeous:

Etymology: Old French gorgias; elegantly or finely dressed, fashionable, gay. Adorned with rich or brilliant colours; sumptuously gay or splendid; showy, magnificent: of persons (with reference to dress).

So both pretty and gorgeous – two of our most used words to describe an attractive person – originally referred to something artificially, cunningly, elegantly made. Could this be the origin of our centuries-old fear that human beauty is a cunning deception, or is it just a reflection of that fear? The conflict between artificial and natural beauty, wherever you decide to draw the line between them, has been responsible for condemning women as whores and elevating them as deities, and this still happens today. Just as wearing makeup was once the prostitute’s mark, people still say that someone looks slutty if they are wearing too much makeup (which is how much exactly??).

I find it a little disturbing that some of the central issues we have with beauty (especially feminine beauty) are actually inscribed in the very words we use to describe it. There’s no getting away from these tensions. But it is useful to recognise that sexism and misogyny (to name just two problems) are deeply embedded in our language, and if we want to sort them out we will have to go right back to the beginning. See you there.


Cleopatra was a Redhead: A History of Hair

Thanks to a conversation with fellow blogger Vivienne of Bluestocking Blue (on this post), I have been doing some research. Vivienne asked about the beauty politics of hair: what is it about long hair that makes it central to our ideas of beauty, and what roles do gender and economics play in this? Good question.


Artwork by Jamie Fales (

To start with, we could ask the Bible. I admit that I’m reluctant to do so, but I Corinthians says this:

“I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man praying or prophesying with anything down over his head dishonours his head, 5 but every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered dishonours her head – it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a woman will not be covered, then let her be shorn! But since it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. 7 For indeed a man ought not to cover his head, being the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.”

So there’s that. Interestingly, the Quran does not say that women should cover their heads, only that they should dress modestly (7:26) and covers their chests (24:31). The Muslim veil was adopted from Christianity. In both religions we see the idea that a woman’s hair is her crowning glory, and that it is related to her sexuality and should therefore be covered. It’s astonishing how squeamish we still are – two thousand years later – about female hair, and how it is policed from head to toe.

So hair is related to sex. But what about money?

Vivienne raised the possibility that long hair is prized as beautiful partly because it is a status symbol: long hair is impractical, so having it implies that you are rich enough not to do physical work. Could this also be why is has been gendered feminine, since women have historically been kept in the house?

My first thought is that while there must be truth in this, it’s also true that women have always worked physically – just not all of them. Women of the forgotten working classes worked physically inside the house and outside, and just tied their hair up. It may not have been practical, but long hair was too tightly bound up with the idea of femininity to be given up: cropping a woman’s hair was a used as a punishment (albeit under the veil of practicality) in prisons and asylums, and also charity schools if Charlotte Brontë is to be believed in Jane Eyre.

Long hair was, however, very much a status symbol when it came to the trend for long powdered wigs (a.k.a. the peruke) in the mid-1600s. Wigs had not been fashionable, but at this time a syphilis epidemic swept Europe (those naughty Europeans!) and an awful lot of people were losing their hair to the disease. When the young French King Louis XIV started wearing a wig to cover his thinning hair, shortly followed by his cousin Charles II, King of England, wigs became a bit of a craze. They got bigger and more elaborate, and could cost more than the annual salary of most workers. And this, Vivienne, is where the term ‘bigwig’ came from. But the peruke was killed off along with the aristocrats in the French Revolution of 1789: the final blow in England came when Prime Minister William Pitt introduced a tax on hair powder in 1795. Trés amusant.

louis xiv

Louis XIV (

The relation of hair, sex and economics only got more complex as the centuries wore on, and hair colour became far more important than it deserved to be. Victorian novelists such as George Eliot and Charles Dickens used hair to symbolise their characters’ qualities: blonde hair was given to a “sweet, gentle and submissive” woman (Galia Ofek, p.103), while “dark hair signified fallen or dangerous female sexuality”. The golden hair of a virtuous woman is placed centre stage in Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poem ‘Goblin Market’ (read it here), a surreal and sensual fairy tale in which sisters Laura and Lizzie are tempted with fruit by strange “goblin men”. For fruit read sex, obviously (the poem was later published in Playboy, that well-known bastion of poetry). Laura buys some fruit with a lock of her golden hair, but it doesn’t go well – only Lizzie’s strong virginal resistance can save her sister. Both blonde, the sexual and economic power of their golden curls is ambivalent: it can damn them or save them. I’m reminded of Rapunzel.

goblin market

Artwork by Arthur Rackham (

However, in the 1860s sensation fiction – melodramatic, gothic tales of murder and sexual deviance (I know, brilliant. Start with Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White) – challenged this norm by introducing the character of the “fair-haired demon” (Margaret Oliphant, quoted in Ofek p.103). She may look like the sweetest golden-haired angel, but this character is a ruthless manipulator with no morals at all. The public loved her.

Writing in Victorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre (2006), Galia Ofek analyses the association of blonde hair with “gold and sexuality” (p.106) further, arguing that it connects to the “Woman Question” which was in constant public discussion at the time. In 1857 two important legal battles were being fought: the Divorce Act was passed, which made divorce quicker and easier; and the Petition for Married Woman’s Property Bill took place. This petition was part of the process by which married women were eventually given the right, quite simply, to own anything. Before that, once a woman married everything she owned became her husband’s property, as did she. Married women had the same legal status as children, criminals and the insane. Once this began to change, women became more threatening to the social status quo as their economic and legal power increased.

Since a woman’s beauty was one of her only marketable assets, her seductive golden hair really could be the gateway to wealth and power, through marriage. And once her legal rights as a married woman allowed her to wield wealth and power herself, it suddenly felt more dangerous for a man to be tempted by that hair.

Then there were the redheads, like Cleopatra. Cleopatra? Yes, according to historian Joann Fletcher in Cleopatra the Great (2011). The evidence is not conclusive, but one particular portrait in the Herculaneum seems to show Cleopatra, identified by her royal diadem, with red hair. There were fair-haired Greeks in her family line, and red hair does show up in that part of the world, so it is possible. Maybe this explains her fiery and seductive disposition – oh wait, another cliché. Aren’t we humans simple-minded?


Rita Hayworth (

Although the association of blonde hair with virtue, dark hair with vice, and red hair with sex was constantly questioned throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, classic Hollywood was happy to make use of the old images. Mary Pickford and Doris Day were the blonde sweethearts, while Theda Bara and Hedy Lamarr turned things dark and Rita Hayworth tossed her flaming tresses. Then again, Mae West, Jean Harlow and later Marilyn Monroe shook things up as peroxide vamps – and just like the “fair-haired demon” of Victorian sensation fiction, the public liked it.

But Hollywood doesn’t stand still, and hair has a new starring role nowadays, in How to Win an Oscar. Just ask Anne Hathaway, and Natalie Portman (OK, she didn’t win an Oscar for V for Vendetta but it’s much more memorable than her winning role in Black Swan). A woman shaving her head is still seen as an incredible sacrifice of her crowning glory (oh hello, Bible). Hathaway and Portman are celebrated for shaving their heads because they managed the astonishing achievement of still being beautiful even without hair. Non-beautiful lady skinheads do not receive such adulation, unless I am much mistaken.

anne hathaway


Now, there is something notable about this whole history of hair – which of course is not exhaustive, but these points are the ones my library and internet research led me towards. Where’s the black hair? Sure, we’ve had dark hair and that had a bad enough rep, but we’re still missing a lot. The politics of the afro, hair relaxing and braids are weighty issues that are still in play – stories crop up about kids with cornrows being kicked out of school, and black models told that they won’t get work if they don’t have their hair relaxed. The best thing for me to do is direct you to bell hooks, and her famous 1988 essay “Straightening Our Hair” (scroll down a bit for the essay). There are also responses to hooks from Hannah Pool and Glenor Roberts in The Guardian, just for a start.

We each navigate our own personal hair politics all the time – should I go blonde, dare to get a fringe? – but the politics of hair are interwoven throughout social, sexual and economic history. Hair matters, far more than I’ve been able to describe here. How much do you think it should really matter – and have I missed any important hair stories?

It’s all about the money in Glamour: A History by Stephen Gundle

I’m not sure what I expected when I checked Glamour: A History by Stephen Gundle (Oxford University Press, 2008) out of the library. Hollywood, the magazine and beauty industries, fashion history – yes, but money? Well, yes. We know nothing sells like glamour. But I didn’t expect money to be the driving force throughout glamour’s whole history.



Because that’s exactly it: nothing sells like glamour. And this is the key to the argument Gundle develops throughout the book, in which he traces the glamour of the Napoleonic courtesans through to the Hollywood stars and all the way to Paris Hilton (I’m sure he was disappointed to end with her too).

I guess it’s not that surprising, since women (who are most often associated with glamour) have been bought and sold in one way or another for centuries, as the examples above make clear. However, glamour itself – which is not quite beauty, not exactly sex, and not really status either – doesn’t appear to be directly linked to money.

And that’s because it isn’t – at least, it doesn’t have to be, but that’s what happens to glamour in a capitalist society. As Autumn Whitefield-Madrano at The Beheld wrote of Virginia Postrel’s book on glamour, “Something glamorous must give form to an otherwise formless longing or desire”. And what happens when formless desires are shaped into glamorous images in a capitalist society? Yeah. We buy stuff.

So eventually glamour becomes pretty much synonymous with advertising, as we see all around us now. But how did this happen? Professor Gundle will explain.


Caroline Otero, one of the most famous courtesans of late 19th-century Paris (

After the American Revolution (1765-1783) and the French Revolution (1789), the structure of society changed in Europe and the US. The aristocracy declined, the middle classes emerged and grew richer, and industrialization gave birth to commodity culture. More people had more money (though still unequally) and there was more stuff for them to buy. Selling became an art form.

And that’s where glamour came in. Sounds obvious when put like that, doesn’t it? But when it comes to courtesans like La Belle Otero, for example, it was not as simple as using glamour to sell sex. Gundle explains that what made the top courtesans so desirable was not the promise of sex, but something broader: they were a lifestyle brand (that’s your heritage, Gwyneth) and association with them gave the customer an image of reckless wealth, style and luxury. That sounds familiar… Oh, hi Lindsay Lohan and Closer magazine.

This formula, product + glamour + aspiration = $$$ was used and intensified throughout the 20th century, selling everything from Hollywood films to vacuum cleaners – not to mention clothes and magazines. Gundle spends a lot of time analysing the history of these two, charting the rise of the fashion designer (as I discussed recently) from being purely a clothes-maker to the rich elite to, erm, a clothes-maker to the rich elite who also sells ready-to-wear clothes and perfume to those who can’t really afford it but wish they could. The magazines, of course, feed off this in celebrating the glamorous designer (Gundle picks Gianni Versace as the best example) and their celebrity friends, all of whom conveniently sponsor said magazines.

Nowadays, glamour is most often embodied in lifestyle aspiration which, Gundle says, is at the heart of celebrity culture. As role models in the shallowest sense, our desire to live like the celebrities shifts product like nothing else. In the Hollywood star system a young actor would be contracted to one studio for a set fee and number of films, and then moulded ruthlessly into the image selected for them. This image was then sold as an aspiration, which helped sell all manner of products designed to help the public achieve their dreams.

Greta Garbo "Torrent" 1925

Young Greta Garbo (


And after the studio got hold of her (

Gundle writes that when Greta Garbo – then Greta Gustaffson – arrived in Hollywood in 1925, she “looked like what she was, an unsophisticated girl from the backwaters of Sweden. Her front teeth were crooked, her hair was frizzy, and there was a hint of a double chin” (p. 173). Initially she didn’t photograph well, but then MGM cinematographer Henrik Sartov put her face in a particular pool of light, and the magic of Garbo was revealed. Of course, this magic then had to be plucked, preened and painted, but there it was. The studio built an image for Garbo of the mysterious, erotic European, and the building part is key: glamour is so enticing because it is something constructed, and therefore easier to achieve than beauty.

One is made, not born, glamorous. The constructed nature of glamour is clear in the word itself, which comes from an old Scots word meaning something close to trickery, and was introduced into modern English by novelist Walter Scott in 1805: it meant, to quote Gundle, “a magical power capable of making ordinary people, dwellings, and places seem like magnificent versions of themselves” (p. 7).

Which, to come back to the present, is precisely what Glamour magazine sells us. I’m not sure I needed more cynicism regarding popular culture and all its glamorous images, but that’s what Gundle’s book has given me – albeit a much better informed and impressive cynicism. It is a shame though, that glamour is all about the money, because it is also about aspiration – someone ordinary becoming a “magnificent version of themselves”, and this could be put to much better uses. If we glamorised something other than wealth and buying stuff we could really improve things, although I think it will take more than TV doctors in lipstick to get there.



If the experts at Glamour, Grazia, Cosmo et al. are right, then us ladies are only ready to leave the house and inflict ourselves upon the world when the following ‘body parts’ are correctly assembled:

  • Locks or alternatively mane (if you’re feeling fierce)
  • Pins
  • Talons
  • Tootsies
  • Peepers
  • Pout

As I understand it, the construction of these parts is meant to result in Angelina Jolie. However, the image I am left with is the lovechild of Rapunzel and a lion, with needles for legs, flashing hawk-like talons. Aspiration is not what I feel.

While it must be difficult for magazine writers to avoid repetition when endlessly discussing how to perfect eyes, lips, nails, legs and hair, the constant use of words like pins is not only a patronising attempt to create a linguistic community (despite the fact that none of their readers ever use those words), it also does some disturbing work in objectifying women’s bodies.

Pins are sharp objects, talons and manes belong to animals, and peepers sound like something a stalker might use. What all these terms have in common is a lack of humanity and a forced sense of frivolity, not to mention a complete failure to resonate with the way women think and talk about their bodies.

That’s not to say magazine language has no influence, however. A lot of attention is paid to the visual side of objectification, with important discussions around the way images of women’s bodies are cropped, dismembered and photoshopped into idealised body parts. But the language of beauty is just as alienating, working to make our bodies seem like haphazard collections of objects that don’t belong to us.

It’s strange that this formula continues to dominate women’s magazines even in an era when women writing blogs, journalism, novels and tweets are showing that we neither read nor write that way. Our lips are made for talking, not pouting, and if the magazines could realise this they might finally be able to speak to us.

Laminated Faces


Over at the Guardian, Emma Brockes has usefully given voice to how sick everyone is with retouching, and its over-use – in this case, Mario Testino’s cover shot of Kate Winslet for Vogue. Brockes’ use of the term ‘laminated’ is particularly appropriate, as the 38-year-old Winslet is Photoshopped far into the realm of plastic.

This may be the only kind of publicity the Vogue cover will get from mainstream platforms like the Guardian, and it is becoming the norm. Three cheers! It’s just a shame that women’s (and men’s) magazines don’t seem to be listening, caught in a cycle where perfection is required by the industry and increasingly rejected by the public.

However, as so much noise is being made on the subject, I have faith that eventually the magazines might get the message. And stick it above the editor’s desk. Laminated.

Nude Goes Native

The world just got very slightly better:


Jezebel have brought to my attention Christian Louboutin’s new range of nude shoes, which come in five different shades of ‘nude’ rather than the traditional ‘white-person nude’ shade that has dominated fashion… forever. Hurrah. This is the latest in an emerging trend of more inclusive fashion – foundation now comes in more than one non-white shade (though the split is still woefully unequal) and I swear the women’s magazines here in the UK (and their advertisers) have begun to use more non-white models. As in, more than one per issue.

My ‘hurrah’ didn’t quite get an exclamation mark because I am reluctant to whole-heartedly endorse shoes that cost £390.

Or shoes that don’t actually have diversity as their rationale, but instead are intended to elongate the wearer’s stumpy and inadequate legs by blending invisibly into them, according to the Daily Mail (I may have paraphrased).

The shades also have names like ‘Fair Blush’ and ‘Rich Chestnut’, which may not be surprising but continues to be offensive. These saccharine euphemisms always raise the question of why black people have to be ‘chocolate’ etc., either by their own definition or someone else’s, in order to embrace blackness as a good thing. Are we really still having to justify that black can be beautiful?

Finally, when I searched for ‘nude’ on Christian Louboutin’s website, I had to scroll through like, a million ‘white-person nude’ shoes before I found the three lonely brown ones.

Might have to replace that ‘hurrah’ with a small, wry smile.

Meet the Most Beautiful Man in the World

Because we need something funny once in a while…


… Or not so revolutionary?


There has been a lot of discussion about Rick Owen’s step-dancing runway show at Paris Fashion Week, and I particularly like Threadbared‘s take on it, even though they disagree with my last post (which was essentially a long-winded ‘Hurrah!’).

Threadbared were not so impressed with Owen’s show for a number of reasons, and expanded their argument to include the Diversity Coalition (founded by black models Naomi Campbell, Bethann Hardison and Chanel Iman) and their open letter to the fashion industry. Their piece is well worth reading in full, but here are some of the main points they raised:

  • Headline-grabbing shows like Owens’ still present black people as a spectacle
  • The ‘fierce’ and ‘curvy’ step dance team ain’t breaking any stereotypes
  • All the credit for the show goes to the white designer, not the dancers
  • The power relations and hierarchies of race therefore remain unchanged
  • Within these structures, race is still categorised in ridiculous ways, so that the Diversity Coalition fail to consider Asian models as black, although they aren’t white either. Threadbared call out the idea of Asian models as ‘honorary whites’ when they get pretty much the same number of castings as black models.

This is all true. Particularly the power structure in which a white designer gets credit for his ‘diversity’ when he uses black people as an exotic spectacle. But I’m not sure that takes all value away from Owens’ show. It might not be real diversity, but it does get people talking about it, and where that should eventually end up is with runways sprinkled evenly with models of various colours, and we can go back to talking about their weight (!).

What I really wonder is whether there is an alternative way of achieving this than shock tactics. OK, legislation would be a good start, but for that we need lots of people making noise about it… Which they have started doing.

Threadbared are absolutely right. It’s not good enough. Yet.

Black as the new black? Revolutionary!

Now this is more like it! At Paris Fashion Week designer Rick Owens actually did something interesting, and replaced the usual skinny white models on his runway with a team of step dancers.


Callie Beusman at Jezebel asks whether this is really a subversion of fashion’s norms, or is just another attempt at garnering publicity with shock tactics. But the fact that casting a whole fashion show with normal-sized black women is actually shocking in itself makes the point about diversity in fashion. It shouldn’t be shocking at all.

I’m all for this – who cares if it’s about publicity? It’s exactly the kind of publicity that is needed to get the question of race and beauty into the spotlight. And the clothes look so much cooler. I could almost be interested in fashion if it carries on this way.