18 December 2015

The Portrayal of Beauty: Part 1

Perceptions of beauty are dependant on so many factors, presenting differing ideals and challenging the elusive definition of beauty. Painting, sculpture, photography, film, fashion, advertising and in the current day, media and celebrity influence has afforded specific looks their time in the spotlight. In part 1 of this 2 part series, I'll analyse the work of 4 select fashion designers to dissect the fundamental idea of beauty itself; with a focus solely on appearance and image as opposed to socially positive inner attributes (the only bit that should really count for anything). Despite the unrealistic expectations and exceedingly high standards of beauty that have been popularised for centuries, perhaps “anti-beauty” and the exaggeration and creation of imperfections are equally as false and unrealistic.

Dolce and Gabbana have practically pioneered a fetish-meets-femininity ideology. They've used underwear as outerwear, season after season - contrasting it with masculine pinstripe suits and white shirts. They often promote beauty as bronzed, brunette and busty; an Italian signora with qualities that just so happen to generally appeal to a global marketplace. Dominicio Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have explained in the company’s mission statement that they want to make woman look “fantastically sexy” in their clothes. The Dolce & Gabbana woman lives in a world formed of sensations, traditions, culture and a Mediterranean nature. Italy’s prestigious film history has shaped the approach of the two designers who were enveloped in its influence growing up. Their male gaze has created a brand focused on shaping women into their sexy, sensual, curvaceous, flirtatious and young mould as this is a beauty ideal that is not only drawn from Italian culture and their upbringing, but also holds a somewhat traditional world-wide appeal.

McQueen's fascination with death, religion and violence was played upon by the media as a mere expression of his theatricality as opposed to the reality of deep-seated unhappiness and clinical depression that it was. He often referenced historical art works in his garments with particularly strong influence stemming from the work of fifteenth-century Northern European painters like Hans Memling, Robert Campin and Hieronymus Bosch. McQueen's clothes often exemplified theological and spiritual despair in the most extreme context alongside odious persecution and above all: death. The show sets, narratives, models and the whole performances that replaced the generic catwalk shows were thrust upon fashion’s elite and prompting the success of the Savage Beauty exhibition. “I want people to be afraid of the women I dress,” said McQueen famously, with this element of fear seeping from the seams of so many of his gowns. Lee Alexander McQueen presented a beauty that was disturbing, destructive, pitiful, unleashed and disgusting but it was also feminine, raw, pure, elegant and otherworldly.

Madeleine Vionnet’s designs were inspired by Greek art and presented garments that concealed the shape of the wearer. In the 1930’s, the ideal of slimness remained but the silhouette regained some curve as the natural waist and breasts reappeared. Evening dresses during this period were made of clinging bias-cut fabrics that allowed the body underneath to flirt with its viewers with every motion. This somewhat curvaceous figure required diet, exercise and the return of corsets to give more form and control to the silhouette. Vionnet shunned over-structured silhouettes and the exaggeration of features through means of restrictive padding, so instead liberated the female form with garments that united free-flowing motion and a lavish comfort that so many competing houses failed to replicate. Her signature became delicate embroidery of lengths upon lengths of sumptuous silk thread, which was passed and looped through the fabric and finished with grandiose fringing. Such decoration over a clinging gown would call constant attention to the exact line of the body underneath, the intricate cut and precise shape hugging the figure in all of the right places. By concealing the body under lashings of opulent silk, Vionnet’s garments could actually show off the bodily ideal and aspirational silhouette of her time with admirable perfection.

Pheobe Philo has adapted her minimalism beautifully from collection to collection for Céline. Her early work for the French fashion house followed a sharp, boxy ideology in sombre neutrals before she gradually brought in adroit artisanal touches. Philo has ventured into new territory, confirming herself as an unorthodox minimalist by introducing more visual and symbolic characteristics to her design process. Explosive brushwork strokes in a primary colour palette were among the first of a succession of experiments with colour and pattern, still against the original over-sized framework of the garment. Philo’s designs heavily influence modern minimalism and the beauty ideal surrounding the movement. Her apparent dismissal of its core attributes and simplistic nature has ignited debate as to whether the egoistic maximalist trend has infected Philo’s design process and electrified her clean aesthetic. Although this approach has been revised and refined dramatically, the structure still lurks among the delicate lace, luxurious silks and distinct patterning. The garments are not strangling the figure and instead, the oversized silhouettes act as a camouflage, concealing the bodily proportions and lengthening them, giving a perceived slimness while bringing comfort and a newly derived confidence hand-in-hand. Céline’s beauty is modern, modest and honourable, creating an unorthodox elegance and contrastingly clean eccentricity that woman feel comfortable in and actually want to wear.

Different perceptions of beauty over time make up the cultures of the world and are all based on their own values and history. Diverse external factors in the wider world force beauty in fashion and style to evolve, develop and change as new designers are given their time to shine. Defying conventional beauty and consciously trying to create something the challenges social expectations has become the norm. This approach is too as inaccurate a representation of bodily proportions and beauty ideals as prettified expectations and current day over-edited photographs. This presents a paradoxical way of seeing that challenges beauty’s elusive definition and is so often celebrated as an unorthodox approach. McQueen's armadillo-shoe clad aliens of S/S10 for example, are certainly more unrealistic and unattainable than an celebrity who's silly been morphed in Photoshop. Even Céline’s boxy shapes opposing skin-tight garments and Margiela's gritty artisanal approach stand in protest to the popularisation of perfection. So many designers consciously go out of their way to form and present to us, their own version of idiosyncratic beauty - making it anything but a traditionalist cliché.