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The Beheld
By Autumn Whitefield-Madrano
Examining questions surrounding personal appearance: What does it mean to be seen? What is the relationship between "beauty labor" and cultural visibility? And why do two lipstick shades combined always look better than one?
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Men’s Fashion, Eugenics, and Cultural Capital

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Members of the Men’s Dress Reform Party, 1937.

 

Here’s a party whose caucus I’d love to watch: The Men’s Dress Reform Party. While researching the history of men and makeup, I ran across a mention of this odd-duck British party in the 1930s whose sole purpose was to agitate for loosened clothing restrictions on men. They paraded about in shorts, open-collared shirts, and color-coordinated socks; if a member wore a tie, he might fasten it inches below his Adam’s apple.

The idea was that the dark, heavy clothes men were expected to wear were unhygienic (it was difficult to wash a suit before widely available dry cleaning—indeed, that’s part of why suits are traditionally dark, to mask dirt), and ugly to boot (we’ll get to that). Men’s clothing was a health hazard, they claimed, which fell into line with its parent organization, The New Health Society, a group devoted to educating people about nutrition, “intestinal stasis,” and “helio-hygiene.” (I visualize them as a predecessor to Gwyneth’s Goop team.) So they fought back, urging employers to let workers wear freer dress, organizing ersatz holidays in which men were to wear whatever they pleased, and throwing rallies at which members were instructed to “Come as you are and feel your best,” which for some meant togas, for others singlets and jeans, and for H.G. Wells, meant “ordinary evening dress.”

 

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Western Argus, Kalgoorlie, Australia, July 14, 1931

 

It seems odd at first that this would be an organized group instead of a looser assemblage, but its goals were political. They’d seen how women had begun to fling off repressive roles, a movement reflected in their clothes; why not do the same for masculinity? J.C. Flügel, an influential psychologist at the time and a proud MDRP member, claimed that the institutionalization of the suit had led to a “a remarkable repression of Narcissism among men,” which he saw as undesirable, as it left all the fun of self-ornamentation to women. Unleashing men’s sartorial fancy, he argued, would loosen their superego, the restrictive, repressive force in the human psyche—which would ultimately lead to greater freedom.

What’s interesting about the MDRP is its split between a vision that even today seems progressive (a lessened emphasis on traditional masculinity) and a cause that seems abhorrent. Part of the MDRP’s cause revolved around eugenics: If the “right” men were to showcase their appearance, they would be more attractive to the “right” women, and more “right” babies (that is, white babies born into the professional class) would be created. Eugenics was widely accepted in mainstream science and medicine then, but even contextualized, it’s clearly troublesome for all sorts of reasons, with fascism topping the list. Yet even within this odious framework, I appreciate their commitment to at least thinking through the evolutionary logistics. Evolution is often cited as a reason women wear makeup: It’s ornamentation that catches the eye of potential mates. It’s a perfectly fine theory until you question why it’s women, and not men, who wear makeup (for the most part), when both sexes have an evolutionary need to attract the other. So the MDRP’s eugenics mission was wrongheaded, but at least it bothered to beconsistent with its own internal logic and wasn’t just cherry-picking its theories to justify a sexist vision.

Eugenics is tied to class, not just race, and the MDRP has an interesting fabric here too. The party claimed to be for people of all classes, but the fact was that most of its members were middle- and upper-class, and that they weren’t advocating for more accessible clothes, but more fashionable ones. (In fact, clothes were about to become way more accessible, with the invention of fabrics that invited ready-to-wear clothes—which actually wound up accomplishing the MDRP’s goals, even though they had nothing to do with it.) But the MDRP’s biggest reinforcement of class is something that’s familiar today. The suit that the MDRP was fighting against was the very thing their grandfathers had fought for: a uniform of sorts that would theoretically allow for meritocracy to flourish, since it was more difficult to display wealth through the suit as opposed to the ruffles of the aristocracy. The ruffles were seen as oppressive; eventually, the suit that replaced it became seen as the same.

Today it would look like the MDRP’s vision has won out, at least in America (though remember, the MDRP was British) with leisurewear accepted in plenty of professional workplaces and shorts no longer seen as the province of little boys. But the suit remains, and it remains as a symbol of class. Most of the time I see a man in a suit, he’s either in the upper echelons of certain professional worlds (financiers, government officials), or he’s in a position of servitude (security, hospitality). By agitating for the loss of the suit, the Men’s Dress Reform Party wanted to revert to the days of male self-ornamentation as a display of cultural capital. The suit remains, albeit changed—and changed in a way that has shifted its meaning to be about a display of, not an eradication of, cultural capital. In that way, regardless of the MDRP’s place as a mere footnote in history, they were unexpectedly successful.

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The Mile-Long Club: The Luxury of Eyelashes

False eyelash patent, 1911.

False eyelash patent, 1911.



When I first heard about eyelash extensions, I threw it into the bin of Things I Would Never Do, along with Vajazzling and placenta facials. But when it came time to take my author photo—which will probably serve as the definitive photo of me, Internetwise, for quite possibly the rest of my life—laying on my back for an hour and a half to have my eyelashes individually extended seemed utterly reasonable. I wanted to look my best, but still wanted to look like me; emphasizing my eyes without wearing more dramatic makeup than I’d normally wear seemed like a good way to do that. It got me thinking about eyelashes—before getting eyelash extensions, I didn’t understand their importance. I don’t know how many studies I’ve read that say that the number-one must-wear cosmetic women cite as essential is mascara. There was something there, and there has been for centuries.

 

  1. Latisse isn’t the first eyelash-growth treatment out there. A partial list of treatments used throughout history to amp up eyelash growth: white wine, mint, lavender vinegar, glycerine, “fluid extract of jaborandi” (an herb that is now used to make prescription glaucoma medicine), red vaseline, a mixture of cornflower and chervil, quinine, almond oil, kohl (personally recommended by the prophet Mohammed), Spanish fly, and myrtle extract, most of which may be applied to the lashes with “a tiny camel’s-hair paint-brush.”
  2. Nor are false eyelashes themselves particularly new. In 1911, an Ottawa woman filed the first patent for false eyelashes, which don’t look all that different from any strip of false eyelashes you might buy at a drugstore. (Her invention was cited in a toupee patent 43 years later, as well as numerous fake eyelash patents, so she was onto something.) D.W. Griffith is often credited with creating them in 1916, but while he did order a wigmaker to improvise a set of them while filming Intolerance, he wasn’t the first. Either way, the patent was decidedly less dramatic than the process described in a British newspaper in 1899, in which the eyelid was rubbed with cocaine, then threaded through with the client’s own hair.
  3. People used to clip their eyelashes. The (erroneous) idea is from the same school of thought that sees parents shaving the heads of their daughters in an effort to make the hair grow back thicker and fuller. It doesn’t work that way, but magazines from the 1890s advise that lashes be “clipped with the scissors once in every five or six weeks, which is all the treatment they require to make them long and curved” (Current Literature: A Magazine of Contemporary Record, 1896). Not that people needed the advice, for “every mother knows that she has only to clip her baby’s eyelashes while it sleeps, and continue the process during its childhood, to render them as long and luxuriant as Circassian’s” (Ballou’s Monthly Magazine, 1872). Other sources recommend eyelash trims, but for hygienic reasons; apparently 120 years ago people were getting all sorts of things wrapped up in their eyelashes. (Incidentally, this actually does happen with eyelash extensions. My lashes have been collecting detritus for weeks.)
  4. We’ve been darkening our eyelashes for a while. You already know about ancient Egyptians and kohl, I’m guessing. Women in parts of Asia used elderberry juice to tint their lashes, as well as ashes from cork or incense. In Europe, India ink, gum arabic, and rosewater was recommended for a black hue; light-haired women were steered toward a mixture of red wine, salt, iron sulphate, a mass of oak chemically distorted by a wash, and French brandy. Basically, anything dark would do—frankincense, resin, plain old soot if you were desperate, mixed with something to make it stick. Once petroleum jelly came along, women started using it to give the appearance of thicker, glossier lashes, but the first commercial mascaras didn’t come about until the 1860s, with Maybelline mascara—a mixture of coal and petroleum jelly, and the first mascara in the States—being developed in 1913.
  5. Like every other aspect of beauty, the quest for luxuriant tells a deeper story. Because human history has such a rich history of attempting to lengthen and darken the lashes, it’s tempting to say that eyelashes are one of those things that has been valued for their beauty regardless of time or place. That’s not quite true, though: In medieval and early Renaissance Europe, lashes were considered unimportant, even ugly—they detracted from the forehead, that most beautiful of features (or so said the mores of the time). Women removed their lashes and brows to give the forehead its full due. 

    Still, luxe lashes aren’t a new invention of the beauty industry—women and men have indeed been thickening and darkening theirs since antiquity. But one period in particular stands out here. Many of the odd potions I’ve listed above—chervil for growth, red wine for color—were concocted in late 19th century Europe. Two other crazes were sweeping Europe at the same time: Orientalism, and physiognomy. Europeans became fascinated with the East, “othering” Asian society and rendering cultural practices impossibly exotic, the people full of mystery and secrets. The beauty rites of the East (including the “near East,” or the Caucauses, hence the mention of the eyelash trimming of the Carcassians) were a perfect example of this “mystery.” It intersected perfectly with physiognomy, the pseudoscience of reading people’s personalities through their faces. The “best-developed” fringe belonged to “the aesthetic and artistic classes”; long lashes could indicate shyness and timidity, or secretiveness, indicating that “their owner is too shy or too timid to be perfectly frank and outspoken.” Short lashes were for blunt, rude folks. They’re also “effective agents in love-making and coquetry,” which circles back to Orientalism. Women of the East were (and still are) seen as having an exotic sexuality; borrowing their eyelash hygiene was a way women of the West could borrow that appeal.

    Eyelashes were particularly well-suited to physiognomy’s claims. Regardless of whether long lashes actually indicate a demure or coquettish demeanor, the fact is that if someone is peering at you through a thick fringe, you feel a sense of secretiveness: There’s a barrier there, one that separates eyes, those famous truth-tellers, from others who might discern how much truth is actually being told.

 

All this is to say: I don’t regret getting eyelash extensions, even as the process of getting them made me feel incredibly high-maintenance. Which is appropriate: They are high-maintenance, quite literally, in that they do require maintenance. You can’t use oil-based makeup remover; you can’t let water stream down your face; you can’t sleep on your side (my solution here was to just sleep with my head on the pillow but my face off of it). No rubbing, no tugging, and you have to separate them every day with a mascara-less mascara wand, or else they’ll get all tangled up. (Finding a down feather wound between my false eyelashes from my pillow is probably my lifetime height of Luxury Problems—indeed, perhaps my lifetime height of luxury.)

I can’t say I’ll shell out for them again; I think of myself as far too practical to do so for any reason other than having a public photo taken. But I have an easy justification in case I do decide to re-up: Eyelash extensions, in some ways, are practical. I found myself not “needing” eye makeup on most days, only wearing it to punch things up a bit. Normally I wear eyeliner and mascara every day, largely because it makes me look more like I look in my mind’s eye. But it’s not like my mind’s eye sees myself wearing eyeliner; it sees me with my eyes more emphasized, more prominent in my facial composition than they actually are. Eyelash extensions did that. (It’s also difficult to apply eyeliner when you’re working around these 9-millimeter spider legs.) Even with the maintenance, it actually saved me time in the morning, this “natural” emphasis made possible by a completely fake creation. It didn’t save me money—eyelash extensions run a little more than $100 and last around a month—but for a short-term proposition it was worth it, and if I had more disposable income I might consider getting them more regularly. Barring that, I’ll just rub my eyelids with cocaine, thread a needle with my own hair, and hope for the best.

 

 

 

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On Beauty Tips and Morality


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You’ve undoubtedly heard the Audrey Hepburn mini-essay she composed when asked for her beauty tips. It begins, “For attractive lips, speak words of kindness,” and goes on in that vein (“For beautiful hair, let a child run his or her fingers through it once a day”), culminating with “The beauty of a woman grows with the passing years. You can read the whole thing here, along with a right honorable debunking of the idea that Audrey Hepburn penned it. (She didn’t, nor did she ever claim to, but she did recite it often; in fact, it was penned by a Borscht Belt comic.)

Certainly the idea that beauty is goodness isn’t a new one; for much of history, we’ve equated beauty with moral goodness, the idea being that what is beautiful is good, and vice versa. But still, I was surprised to run across what basically functions as a precursor to “Hepburn’s” quote, in a collection of household recipes and life tips from 1869:

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(If that’s too small, here’s a link to the original.)

The book this is from, fancifully titled “Enquire Within Upon Everything,” was a sort of 1860s lifehacking guide, instructing readers on everything from vegetable pickling, making wax leaf impressions, and stain removal to card games and social dance moves (if you want to improve your valse à deux, look no further). It dispenses morsels of moral wisdom throughout, but still this bit on “The Young Lady’s Toilette” seems a hair random. In short, it’s a more poetic version of the “speak words of kindness” bit. To wit: “Truth—Fine Lip-Salve: Use daily for our lips this precious dye, They’ll redden, and breathe sweet melody.” This bit of verse is surrounded by recipes that constitute “real” beauty tips—recipes for hair dye and facial milks—making it read, to this modern viewer, a bit flip, like, “Yeah, yeah, be good and all, but then do the real nitty-gritty.”

I’m not going to get into the “what is beautiful is good” thing here, at least not right now—philosophers have been trying to determine its truth for centuries and we still flip-flop all over the place on it—but it is interesting to me to have a bit of evidence that we have a long history of trying to inject morality into what’s otherwise a pretty straightforward collection of beauty advice. Victorian-era morality reinforced this, of course, but we’re still eager to ameliorate the equation of beauty and vanity with that of beauty and goodness. But we’re not particularly eager to replace the former equation with the latter. Cynically speaking, there’s profit to be made from keeping vanity at the fore; if beauty is only goodness, what happens to Maybelline?

But less cynically speaking, if we did allow ourselves to believe that what is beautiful is good, we’d be cutting off a source of entertainment—which is what so much of beauty culture is, particularly when its adherents manage to rob it of wrist-smacking. Beauty-as-goodness might seem like it’s a relief of the beauty imperative, but what’s more wrist-smacking than the idea that you’d be prettier if only you were a better human?

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