Posted by Irresponsibility
Naomi Wolf’s book of the same title (along with Susan Sontag, Luce Irigaray and a metre-high stack of women’s magazines) formed the basis for my third-year literary criticism term paper when I was at uni. Wolf’s argument that Western ‘feminine’ beauty ideals are fundamentally geared towards economic and social repression seems – in retrospect – fairly obvious, but it was a revelation to my 19-year-old self.
Once in a while it’s nice to limber up the critical faculties, so let’s give the old argument a run through. Here’s a look at one of the Independent’s Saturday fashion features, where you can see exactly how this whole using-beauty-as-a-tool-of-economic-repression thing works.
Note the disingenuous phrase: ‘returns to the high-maintenance Hollywood look’ (as opposed to the sloppy, carefree Hollywood of today where starlets spend mere tens-of-thousands on a single red carpet outfit). It alludes, of course, to the Marilyn, Bette, Veronica and Rita years. The post-Second World War period when, “looking pristine and elegant was considered more of a social obligation.”
Anyone with even the loosest grasp of social history will rightly surmise there was more to the original fetishisation of ‘Hollywood glamour’ than a spontaneous cultural enthusiasm for pillar-box red lipstick, silk dressing gowns and finger-waves. The post-war economy, if you recall, was faced with a excess of workers as GIs returned home to find their jobs being done by women.
While men were off fighting the Hun women’s fashion was all Rosie The Riveter and being allowed to wear trousers. As soon as Johnny came marching home, though, he wanted ‘his’ job back and the women had to go. And what better way to occupy their free time than by filling it with complicated beauty routines? (“It was common to visit the hairdresser once a week to set your hair. Nails were kept clean and manicured. Clothing was pressed and accessorised with gloves and hats.”) Better yet, make it a matter of “social obligation”.
Consider the parallels. Britain is crashing out of a long-term boom economy. In the face of rising unemployment working women are a threat to male economic hegemony. Unfortunately for the boys, it is no longer so easy to crudely dismiss them. A careful blend of discrimination, cajoling and diversion is necessary. What better time to whip up a fever for anachronistic, time-wasting beauty regimens that will distract the little ladies? For good measure, throw in some guilt-inducing fauxstalgia about how back then, “women paid more attention to details, that now with our busy schedules we seem to forget.”
The real genius of this is that it subtly undercuts women’s resistance to employment discrimination while prompting them to embrace the vital role of shopper. Reduced consumer spending is credit crunch Britain’s worst nightmare. Luckily ‘glamour’s golden age’ has the answers. “If you want to style your hair and make-up… it helps to have the right accoutrements to get you in the mood. That’s why retro fetishists will delight in the new West Coast US range Besame, which has recently arrived at Selfridges in London,” chirrups the writer (who undoubtedly got a big fat goody bag full of retro face goo for her efforts). Lest anyone miss the point that you’re going to have to spend money to look this good, she continues: “a lot of tools are required to create the look… rollers, heated rollers, old-fashioned scalloped rollers and hot tongs as just a few of the things you might require.”
Even if you drop a month’s grocery money on hair machinery you still might not get it right (“creating truly polished hair is incredibly difficult, and ultimately you might wish to visit a salon”) but – thank goodness – “specialist retro salons are springing up”. Since “this sort of hair is more time-consuming” they charge by the hour, naturally.
What do you get at the end of all this pin-curling, eyebrow grooming and paying by the hour? Rita, Grace and Audrey got their name in lights. In the 21st century the reward is merely “the satisfaction [that] comes from achieving a classic, sophisticated kind of glamour”. In other words, if you’re a good little beauty robot your reward is to have a walk-on role in men’s economic wish fulfilment by aping a previous generation of beauty robots who were created to do exactly the same thing.
So before you go rushing off to Selfridges to stock up on vintage-looking lipstick, or start worrying your head about hot rollers, remember the old saying: ‘fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.’