Radical Ecological Democracy

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BEAUTY & FASHION: CONFRONTING COMMODIFICATION, ADVANCING ALTERNATIVES (Part 1)

Alessandra Monaco

The motivation for writing this series

About seventeen years ago I entered the world of fashion, more by chance than with any serious intent. In fact, I had been a student of the humanities with a keen interest in philosophy rather than any passion for style in attire or accoutrement. It was a whole new world to discover and make sense of as I stepped into a place made of super expensive garments and accessories of unimaginable shapes, made from refined fabrics and precious skins. It was as if I had jumped into a rabbit hole – a parallel, unintelligible universe requiring new lenses to decode it. The happenings there were remarkably distant from my ordinary life, making it difficult for me to fathom people’s fascination and desire to possess all that expensive stuff. But, soon, in the company of the unconventional folks inhabiting that wonderland, I began exploring the eccentric needs of consumers and their bizarre ways of dressing. Slowly, I started getting an insight into, and, dare I say, appreciating, not only its peculiar hedonistic aesthetic, but also the artistic value, the fine craftsmanship and the devotion of all those hands and minds working meticulously on a piece of cloth or leather.

The modern fashion industry creates and then fulfils the anxiety to look beautiful

While I lived through many adventures in the fashion industry, the feeling of something being amiss accompanied me through all those exciting times. The new world that I had entered pushed the urgency to appear “beautiful” as a requisite for affirming individuality, a social constraint forcing people to put all their efforts on the form, and depriving them of the time and calm to reflect on the substance. The essence of being human and even the life’s purpose, were put aside. It didn’t matter what individuals thought of or felt, the important thing for being appreciated was to always conform to the latest fashion trend. Not surprisingly, every now and then, the hookah smoking Caterpillar would accost me, and ask me, “whoooo are you?”, forcing me to question myself.

“To have or to be?”

My mind wandered towards “To have or to be?” in which Eric Fromm explored how humans could live by focusing on “being”, taking care of their inner development, relationships, creativity, or “having”, concerning themselves with the accumulation of material possessions, social status, power. He explained how a consumerist society drives individuals towards the pursuit of pleasure through forms of voracious accumulation and consumption of things, leading to a feeling of inadequacy, alienation and dissatisfaction in the constant quest for something that is never enough. The antidote, Fromm suggested, is self-awareness and authenticity. But how does one resist consumer culture and also aspire to greater self-awareness when the prevailing social winds are headed frantically in another direction? How does one aspire to be authentic when the pressure to conform to ever changing trends is so crushing and paralyzing?

Wisdom from the east also gave credence to my fledgling skepticism.  The Buddha preached “non-attachment”, articulating that happiness does not lie in the possession of impermanent material goods but in the gratitude for what we have now. He advocated for detachment, a way to be free from suffering and reaching a sense of inner peace not dependent on external circumstances. I also recalled the Hindu concept of sannyasa (i.e. renunciation), where selflessness is a path to spiritual growth and liberation. That notion also has an echo in Saint Frances of Assisi’s decision to give up all his possessions in his pursuit of divine truth.

For millennia, people have strived and, also struggled, to find a way to cultivate and grow their inner being, and also aim for something “higher” in life. But, the contemporary societal aspirations undermine that noble intent by putting value on exterior appearance as the necessary condition for social appreciation.  How did we get to this point? I was faced with numerous questions while working in the fashion industry, but life didn’t afford me enough time to find their answers then. So, I set them all aside, but, not surprisingly, those questions were still waiting for me when I emerged from the industry. Some time has passed since then, and after introducing the necessary changes in my personal and professional life I’ve begun delving into my doubts about the vision of the fashion industry and its hold on people’s imagination. The world of fashion is still in my radar and dear to my heart, but now I have the chance to take my time and try to answer some of those open questions. The purpose of this series, therefore, is to focus on beauty, and investigate a possible path that leads from “the urgency to APPEAR beautiful” to the alternative aspiration, the “need to BE beautiful”. The first part will investigate the meaning and the role of “beauty” through history, identify the moment/s when it has been corrupted, and, importantly, the role the fashion industry has played in making that happen.

Capitalism thrives on conspicuous consumption.

Beauty and nature

Throughout the human evolution, certain physical traits were seen as “beautiful” because they could signal good genes and health. Associated with better chances of survival and reproduction, these traits were therefore favored within society. This was a shared characteristic in nature: the elaborate plumage of male peacocks signals their “superior” genetic quality to potential mates, and mate selection is key to the perpetuation of a species. Mate selection could involve varied strategies: some individuals could prioritize physical attraction and aesthetic, while others focused on factors like resources, social status, or personality traits. In all these cases, these characteristics are largely communicated through physical appearance, emphasizing some specific aspects of the body or embellishing and adorning it. In this sense, beauty is constituted by a complex interplay of genetics, biology, culture, and individual preferences that contribute to defining attractiveness, and it could be considered a tool for procreation and the survival and continuity of the species, whether it is animals or humans. Needless to say, beauty standards have evolved over time, influenced by cultural, social, and environmental factors. Different cultures have had varying ideals of beauty, often reflecting the values and priorities of their societies, though what is considered attractive today may differ significantly from its conception in the past.

The historical understanding of beauty

Starting from the classical world to the Romantic period, “beauty”, to a large extent, has always been considered a combination of the beautiful and the good, in accordance with the values of different ages. In the classical world,“beauty” signified the concepts of harmony, symmetry, proportion, virtue, all underlined by a sense of limits. The concept of beauty as we understand it today, with exclusive reference to specific physical characteristics, did not really exist. Instead, the ancient Greeks used the term καλὸς κἀγαθός (“kalos kagathos“, i.e. beautiful and good), which went beyond physical appearance and emphasized the importance of harmony between outward appearance and inner qualities such as virtue, nobility of character, intelligence, and morality. 

Clothing by that time didn’t have a specific aesthetic value, rather it was functional, and allowed to easily identify the sex and function of a member of the community. Culturally, the naked body was not expected to be hidden, rather it was to be appreciated. Shapes and colors were usually linked to social and ritual habits. The term “fashion” didn’t exist in the Greek vocabulary, but one can observe a change in customs and collective taste appearing to correspond to the transformation of the political and economic characteristics of the era.[1]

The beauty regimen of the nobility was a distant dream for those living the reality of oppression in the middle ages.

In subsequent historical eras we continue to see a link between external beauty, and, both, the values that represent the spirit of the time as well as the functional role of social classification. During the Middle-Ages clothing, and consequently ideals of beauty, were fundamental to identifying the social status and the economic stature of people. A “pale” appearance, for instance, was supposed to stress modesty and grace in a patrician woman. While the classical concept of being “beautiful” i.e. the body, and being “good”, i.e. the soul, could also be discerned in the Medieval society, it existed essentially at a symbolic level. In practice, it sowed the seeds of discrimination and marginalization of the poorest classes who could not, in fact, afford the required beauty routine to aspire to be “beautiful”. 

A strong bond between natural perfection and moral values was also present in the Renaissance period, but with a strong Christian characterization. After having gone through a period of austerity in the Medieval times, the Renaissance aesthetics imagined a “woman-angel” defined by ethereal beauty, grace, and purity, emphasizing once again the harmonious balance between physical beauty and spiritual values, reflecting the humanist ideals of the era.

The Baroque period was characterized by excess, artifice and wonder. Art and architecture of that time are rich in sinuous lines that point towards a space beyond, towards infinity. Composure and grace give way to emotionality and drama, introducing subjectivity in judgment. Similarly, dresses not only become a means to indicate social status, they also become an expression of excessive luxury. 

Continuing to build on emotional expression, the Romantic period reflected the tender sensisibilities of that time.  Contrasting the sublime with the beautiful in art and other creative expressions, the human soul is animated by a mixture of pleasure and terror. Embraced by the grandeur of nature, an observer finds herself/himself entering a supranatural dimension with an intrinsic ethical value. Female beauty is based on two main models: the romantic muse with her diaphanous beauty and the rich bourgeois, portraying masculinity and health. But, then, change came knocking on the door.

Turning points

The 18th century onwards, significant events such as the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, and the rise of the bourgeoisie profoundly reshaped fashion and the concept of beauty itself. The introduction of the mechanical loom revolutionized the production of clothes and textile, making fashion accessible to the hitherto marginalized social classes and breaking the exclusive hold of the nobility on fashion trends. This technological progress, while ushering in a modicum of social equality, also ended up distancing the society from nature resulting in the loss of moral symbolism in the concept of beauty. With mass production, a part of the bourgeoisie sought to set themselves apart from the masses, giving rise to dandyism. Both Dandyism and Decadence, emphasized aesthetics as an end in themselves, idealized beauty as an absolute, while favoring the artificial over the natural. The “Art for art’s sake” motto asserted that art should be pursued for its intrinsic beauty without moral or utilitarian concerns. Ideals of beauty also explored androgynous figures, challenging traditional gender roles and identities, and celebrating individualism. At the same time, beauty standards promoting the idea of a slender figure led to the adoption of some extreme measures such as the prolonged use of tight corsets or extreme dieting, forcing women to conform to male enforced aesthetics even if it compromised their health.

Marxist critique of Fashion

Feeding on an artificially created  novelty, where “all that is solid melts into air”, the production and consumption model of Capitalismn continually invents new needs and desires, and  fashion perfectly embodies that artifice. Marx dismissed it as “the murderous, meaningless caprices of fashion”, highlighting pathetic scenarios that, unfortunately, still hold true in the fashion industry: factory systems based on exploitation, the frantic pace of production, continual and deliberate lowering of quality and durability, quick disposal of garments, contraposition between “Lumpenproletariat” (i.e. the proletariat dressed in rags) and the elite, and the natural need for clothing as a contrast to fashion as an ugly symbol of class stratification.

Marx’s analysis of the inherently exploitative nature of the textile industry continues to be relevant today.

As a logical next step of capitalism, imperialism became a reality in the 16th century, and European territorial conquests in the non-white regions forced a wretched, new cultural paradigm on the world: white, European stereotypes as the archetype of beauty and fashion. While the roots of Eurocentric beauty standards could be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome where specific European features were idealized, it was imperialism that imposed a new set of racial standards on the colored world to psychologically impair the people in these regions with “beauty” related anxiety, fear and inferiority.  In India, for instance, Western beauty ideals, emphasizing fair skin, European fashion trends and Victorian beauty standards popularized skin-lightening products among the urban populace, laying the basis for colorism that persisted in many post-colonial societies with lasting effects on self-esteem and social mobility. 

Fashion, however, played a positive, quasi-revolutionary role in India’s journey towards independence. Gandhi started a peaceful but resolute movement to boycott the use of imported European textile products and materials that forced poverty on to the people, uprooting the village based textile production and trade. Conscious of the destructive role played by the modern textile industry, he started the Swadeshi Movement and decided to go back to the use of the traditional loom to weave hand spun khadi, adopting the Indian dhoti as his attire. That piece of cloth, produced with locally self-grown cotton, became first a symbol of self-sufficiency and economic independence, and then a flag for freedom for all Indians. “There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness”, stated the Mahatma. Paradoxically, and unfortunately, today dhoti is often considered a symbol of corruption following the appropriation of khadi by the Indian political class, exploiting the strength of the symbol but moving exactly in the opposite direction.

Scientific racism and Fashion

The colonial era dominance and superiority of European standards is founded on the pernicious idea of scientific racism, which was an ostensible “intellectual” movement that developed in the 18th century and reached its peak in the 19th century. It sought to justify racial supremacy through pseudo-scientific theories, which promoted the concept of racial hierarchy, in which Europeans were considered superior, and provided a pseudo-scientific “legitimization” for the oppression of indigenous populations and the slave trade. It is particularly relevant to highlight how this movement played a role in the transatlantic slave trade and contributed to the spread of the  “fat shame” culture. 

Western standards have become the universal archetype of beauty.

In “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia”[2],  Sabina Springs, professor of sociology at University of California, Santa Barbara, describes how race, class and gender prejudices were validated by colonists in the United States, connecting obesity with African “greed” in contrast to Protestant values which underscored the impiety of eating too much. While the plump, well-fed female form was considered a mark of health, privilege and sexual purity in African societies, the colonial standards portrayed those characteristics as lazy, sloppy and unhealthy. In contemporary times, the size scales of fashion brands continue to affirm that bigotry by asserting that beauty is predicated on thinness. What we witnessed at the height of colonialism, between the 18th and 19th centuries, paved the way for the contemporary commodification of beauty, which spread rapidly and inexorably throughout the world in the 20th century. With European beauty standards becoming the universal ideal type, a production model abetted by industrial mass production and an economic structure centered on profit now form the fulcrum of modern fashion. “Having” and “appearing” have taken precedence over “being”.

Questioning orthodoxy, Building alternatives

Leaving behind the odd and extravagant world of fashion, and gaining a much-needed pause to reflect upon my time spent there, I have parsed and scrutinized it to explore alternative ways in which the societal perception of beauty and desire for fashion could be reframed while respecting and celebrating human creativity.  People’s longing to give expression to their individuality has evolved through time and survived the ebb and flow history, but I wonder if in these modern times we have done enough to preserve that instinct from getting overawed by the sterile and mechanical functioning of capitalism? 

I also wonder if it was ever possible to repel the pressures which led to the twentieth century commodification of beauty demanded and then actively fabricated by the market? Perhaps not. In fact, in the post-war era, the United States, as the much-celebrated victor, had gleefully taken on the role of equal parts enforcer of capitalism and the enticer-in-chief of the western middle class. It was a hard act to contend with, the foxy American cultural model, firmly rooted in the seductive allure of the American Dream, slyly pushing the lusty male gaze into the political arena, redefining female roles, behavior and aesthetic, all in the name of beauty and fashion. What followed were the post-war pinups, beauty pageants, the era of supermodels and the glossy mystique of synthetic femininity. That stratagem has had an enduring presence in society. I delve into these issues using contemporary philosophy and personal experiences to explore alternative cultural standards and related political paradigms. Fashion does and will continue to influence how we express our physical selves, but it should never make us feel diminished, nor persuade us to degrade others, because of some market diktats. It should not paralyze us into ignoring the intrinsic self-worth of people because of some ill-conceived and insidiously enforced norms of beauty. I have tried to give expression to these thoughts in the second and third parts of this series, which will follow in the next couple of months. 

Alessandra Monaco works as an independent sustainability consultant and advisor in Lugano, Switzerland, drawing upon over 16 years of experience within the fashion industry. In 2023,, Alessandra transitioned to a solopreneurial role, and now works with organizations seeking to pave a path toward a fairer and more sustainable future.

Reference:

[1] Reviewed Work: Mode im antiken Griechenland by Anastasia Pekridou-Gorecki

[2] Sabina Springs, Fearing the Black Body. The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, NYU Press (2019)

Note: The pictures in this article have been taken from open sources on the internet.

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