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