What beauty is not…

23 Feb

… is what I want to examine here, in a sort of counterpoint to our superstar’s interrogations concerning the new Burberry girl.

DISCLAIMER: Don’t get me wrong on one thing, I hold Manolo in my highest esteem, he’s thoughtful and delicate, and the views I argue against here are merely a suggested hyperbolic direction of some of his remarks, certainly not something I think he would claim. With some luck, he will give us is own point of view himself.

That being said, the following post is mainly a response to Manolo‘s assertion that:

(t)he rules of feminine beauty cannot be changed, no matter how much we may wish that they could be. They are as immutable and as fixed as the stars in the heavens: youth, fecundity, symmetry, and the pleasing hip-to-waist ratio.

Oh boy, I beg to differ.

On the last point, this hip to waist ratio (h/w), here’s my take (I reproduce it from a comment I left on Manolo’s post). Bottom line: careful with those figures!

I fear there maybe a little too much enthusiasm here over the signifiance of this ratio. Most of the usual ratios of the human face, for instance, are really stable, but we are extremely sensitive to small changes in them, so we feel our faces are vastly different.

A good example of a similar phenomenon is provided by your discussion with the delightfully articulated Caia. No one on our catwalks displays the kind of h/w ratio expected from the corseted ladies (and it’s absolutely NOT a matter of same ratio against different values): moderns expect a higher ratio. The numerical difference is small, but means everything in the world (look at Dita @Gaultier’s).
And, as everyone knows and is noted in the wikipedia entry you linked, even greater differences in responses to h/w ratio are found when one goes cross-cultural.

h/w. Yeah, right.

I find it important to remind everyone to exert caution when using figures in a conceptual debate. Proper handling is generally extremely delicate, and not even all scientists do it the way it should be done. To be a geek or to have one handy may prove very valuable.

Anyway, that’s not the point.

The point is Kant. Or at least a small fraction of his thought. Let me insist upon the Kantian distinction between the beautiful and the agreeable. Both are objects of an aesthetic judgment, i.e. a judgment that bears on perceptual data (or more precisely on our representations thereof). The latter has two principal characteristics: (a) it reflects the interests of the subject (in a broad sense); (b) therefore, since our interests may vary, there’s no reason to think that my judgment of what is agreeable is of any value for someone else. The former is a complicated story, and I’m not sure at all that I want to follow Kant’s own definition. But one can retain as a contentious but extremely important possibility that the beautiful should in principle be independent of our interests, and as such a matter of expertise or education in some form, and our judgments concerning beauty may therefore pretend to an universal value (being not dependent upon contingent historical determination of the subject. Oops. Never mind, I just had a fit.)

The criteria proposed by Manolo may seem of universal value, and he takes them to be, but I disagree. In so far as they are a reflection of our biological needs, they are bound to vary with them. You’ll find regularities but abstract ones: it’s not the same thing to look healthy in a big modern city (tall semi-anorexic veg with a tan) and to look healthy north of the Arctic Circle (small chubby with a taste for whale fat). And in any case, these criteria will just get you a definition of desirability. And you will excuse the slight feminism of the remark, but we would prefer not to judge matters of beauty with our dicks (or absence thereof) here. I’ll post later about Winnsome great remark that there may be something akin to pain in the experience of beauty, but it is a very welcome reminder that there is more about beauty that the merry boner. I’m not even sure it has anything to do with boners in the first place. This is the whole concept of this post.

Beautiful. Hot? You tell me.

Take an example. With the girls back in our first college days, we were all fascinated by Beckett’s face. Did we find him beautiful because we found him desirable? Maybe, but certainly not in a straightforward, biologically meaningful way. Now I’d like to dismiss with a disdainful hand-wave the objection of the acquired taste.

(I’ve always wanted to dismiss something with a disdainful hand-wave. Did you notice that you don’t get very often to do that in real life if you’re not Anna Wintour?)

Who said beauty is a natural/innate taste? Certainly not Van Gogh. Nor John Cage. Nor Beethoven. Neither did Levy-Strauss or any serious anthropologist. So yeah. You get to see beauty because of the education you received, and human body gets no special rule. You need education to get to see any beauty in the world, even to see that the taste of a 1998 Saint-Emilion is more interesting than the taste of a Diet Coke. After a couple of LPs and some musical sophistication, you begin to discern what’s the matter with this face:

Grand Wazoo

A strong but subtle mix of derision, arrogance and intelligence. And lots of hair.

(That’s Frank Zappa, btw).

There is, in my view, just one correct cognitive path to judge of the beauty of something, be that thing a concerto, a still life or a human being. It may involve a set of possibly universal standards if you wish, but they certainly require some historical and maybe personal interpretation. The specific forms in which beauty may be recognized are not the same now than they were a century ago (and after Schoenberg, we do not hear in Beethoven what his fellows heard then). But as I advertised in the title, I’m not concerned with a definition of beauty, I just want to distinguish it from desirability, which may be good, but is fundamentally different.

And there I get to the great idea of the rising star in vagina-looking clothes: the Man-Repeller herself. The brilliance of this idea, to look at fashion from a man repelling point of view, come precisely from the way it relates both to the philosophical concerns above and some well documented empirical data: that there is a whole class of outfits that will get the girls all like ‘aaah’ and ‘oooh’, and all the gents like WTF?!

Man says: nightmarish stepmom. Girl says: trendy. (Source: MR)

Many factors may come into play in this, but it’s quite clear for me that a great deal of the wtf-reactions to sartorial creativity is a consequence of the fact that (a) sometimes this creativity is not dedicated to enhance the desirability of the wearer and (b) lots of people have a really hard time to understand how one may do something complicated fashion-wise without trying to cause arousal.

Mary Katrantzou says: f*ck h/w.

Fashion is art is also a way to say: fashion is not reducible to an elaborate mating parade. You may use it that way, or everybody uses it that way (I certainly do), but it doesn’t mean it’s what it is ultimately.


(a) No, I don’t think that the laws of feminine beauty are any more eternally written in the stars that the laws of musical beauty. Even if they were, we cannot read them, and experimentation is what we need to get to know them by empirical progress.

Gathering interesting data. Ann-Sofie Back says: f*ck h/w.

(b) Maybe as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but certainly not in his pants.

4 Responses to “What beauty is not…”

  1. Madame Suggia February 24, 2011 at 10:05 pm #


    I would say that, whilst the esteemed Manolo has indeed a fairly valid point with regards to the whole hip/waist ratio conundrum, he’s actually looking at it from a totally old-school and particularly male perspective.

    Bear with me. And no, this isn’t a male-hating or homophobic comment, and yes, I know that there will always be exceptions to the rule.

    Given that until fairly recently in human history, female voices went largely unheard, a lot of what we now perceive as ‘truth’ is more likely to be ‘general male-favored society opinion’. (That’s why it’s called HIS-story, not HER-story or even better, OUR-story). Which means that the generally accepted notions of female-and to a lesser extent, male-beauty are usually viewed, weighed and discussed through a prism of man-centric values.

    So the whole hip-to-waist ratio thing is based (as so many things in this world are) on sexual attraction, more specifically the innate human desire for males to find a fecund female with which to mate. Bigger differential between the hips & waist, more likely to be a fertile female capable of bearing many children.

    BUT here’s the thing…as we hurtle into the 21st century, with women having a bigger say in how their lives are run, this very interesting thing has come up, namely, that modern(Western?)women rarely dress specifically to attract a mate. Not unless we are a) hookers or b) a real Housewife of Wherever (which pretty much amounts to the same thing, at least hookers tend to be honest about it, but I digress). No no, we tend to dress to impress other women (and any man who thinks otherwise is a) straight and b) kidding himself).

    And the h/w ratio seems to exhibit itself in a few distinct ways in the fashion world, all totally different, all accepted as an expression of ‘ideal beauty’.

    1) Gay male designers who have an almost ‘cartoon-like’ idea of the female physique-see the Jessica Rabbit-ready styles from Galliano, McQueen, Dolce & Gabbana and Gaultier for perfect examples.

    2) Gay male designers who design for their personal sexual ideal, so, slim hipped, flat chested androgynous figures, see Marc Jacobs, Georgio Armani, Calvin Klein…for the natural progression to this, see Andrej Pejic and Leah T for Givenchy, basically slim young boys in (high fashion) drag…which I guess is a progression of sorts, at least we all now know what we’ve suspected for years, which is that lots of clothing designers would really rather dress their boyfriends than their girlfriends.

    3) Straight male & female designers who produce ‘wearable’ clothing (and, BTW, a sh**load of cash too)…Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Paul Smith…these designers tend to adhere to the h/w ratio ideal (not always, but most of the time), whilst their work may never set the world on fire artistically, they do very well financially.

    4) Straight, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, pan-sexual or celibate designers who view clothing as conceptual and/or provocative art…see Marni, Comme Des Garcons, Ann Deemeulmeester-looser shapes, no overtly ‘sexualized’ styles…yay for Man Repelling! even designers like Vivienne Westwood, whilst using very seductive shapes, manage to subvert the classic sexy-sexy-dress message.

    So depending on your ‘thing’, I’d say yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder…shaped by one’s own sexual identity and history, by one’s experiences in the world as well as personal aesthetics.

    Which is a long and winding way of saying, great post Ms Wharton, Manolo is indeed superfantastic but on this, I must yield to your good self, apologies for rambling, and now I’m off for a nap after a particularly gross Chinese lunch. Too much MSG, bleaggghhhh.

    • Miss Eliza Wharton February 25, 2011 at 12:58 am #

      But I still will hold my ground: we must leave some space for an appreciation of sartorial creation in principle independent of the sexual response we give to the individual wearing the clothes.
      The Man Repelling idea assumes a non-gay girl of course, and may easily be generalized, but (a part of) the idea is that it is easier to see fashion that way when you’re not sexually interested in the wearer of an outfit.

  2. Manolo the Shoeblogger February 25, 2011 at 1:48 am #

    The Manolo must object that the human body is indeed the recipient of the exemption from the Kantian distinctions.

    The standards of human beauty, both male and female, are hardcoded into the system. One may seek to deny this, but sadly, in most cases, such attempts savor of the special pleading.

    But, to go further into the subject, the Manolo is afraid that his darling friend has confuddled apples and orangutans.

    To cite the Venus of Willendorf as being the pre-historic standard of beauty is to step upon the most slipperiest of ice. The Manolo would simply note that the people who made this artifact are not here to speak for themselves, to tell us what they really thought of this big bellied woman. Was she votive? or was she joke-ive? We moderns can only make the barely-educated guesses, nothing more.

    And indeed, except for the Venus of Willendorf the Manolo cannot think of the single other ancient example that does not exhibit the favorable hip-to-waist ratio. (Greek, Roman, Chinese, Indian, West African, Tibetan, Mezoamerican, and Incan statuary are all remarkably regular in how they present the ideal female figure.)

    And among the moderns, only the statuary of Botero, which is the sort of joke taken to the extreme, stands out in violation.

    But the Manolo will admit that notions of beauty in clothing differs widely from those of feminine beauty, and that at the highest level the ability to appreciate fashion is as artificial and dependent upon education as the ability to appreciate superior wine and the modern art.

    It is very much the acquired skill.

    This is one reason why high fashion models are not chosen for their beauty. Quite often they are not beautiful at wall.

    The most perceptive Madame Suggia has expounded upon some of the psycho-sexual reasons why the 6-foot-tall, 14-year-old Ukrainians are to be preferred. To this, the Manolo will just add that the runway models are best viewed as the sort of ambulatory coat hangers.

    Modern clothing drapes best on the tall skinny girls. Lovely lady lumps would only a) cause the clothing to fall incorrectly, and b) distract the viewer from the clothing itself.

    The Manolo has much, much more to say, especially on the matter of masculine attractiveness vs. masculine beauty, and how the two should not be confused, but he will perhaps write more later, or do the post at his own blog.

    • Miss Eliza Wharton February 25, 2011 at 9:36 pm #

      Ah, the Venus was just a jesting illustration…

      My point is that h/w is NOT a constant, and deeming small variations as irrelevant is an unwarranted assumption, since for lots of the metric parameters of the human body, we are extremely sensitive to small variations.

      And in any case, I claim that the fourth conception in Mme Suggia excellent typology is the only one fully compatible with the ‘fashion as art’ attitude I advocate.
      But that’s us, philosophers: we get judgmental all the times. We’re even (not) being paid for it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: