Celebrities who are famous for being famous often try to distance themselves from the shallowness of their fame by emphatically articulating what they want to be: an entrepreneur, a businesswoman, a DJ. They turn their hobbies into passions, to add depth to their persona and legitimise the attention trained on them. But they do not originate their own fascination: while they benefit from it, we too are implicated. We desire ‘heroes into which we pour our own purposelessness,’ looking to apparently notable people to divert us and amplify the events of our own lives, celebrities thereby functioning as ‘ourselves seen with a magnifying mirror.’
Viewed from a distance of more than a century, the nineteenth-century beard fashion looks like a basic historical fact. And yet the arrival of this fashion came as a great shock for those who lived through it. Sweeping much of Europe, North America, and Latin America after roughly two centuries of clean-shavenness, the beard movement was almost certainly the most dramatic development in nineteenth-century men’s fashion – every bit as shocking as if knee breeches and ruffled shirts were to once more become the dominant mode of men’s dress throughout the so-called ‘Western’ world.
When he was out running errands or working in his study, bent over a book or teaching the students who filed into our house to sit with him and fix their test scores, I’d slip into his bedroom and rifle through his belongings: fingering his penknives and leather-strapped watches, feeling the soft silk and woven wool of his neckties, inhaling the funky, wonderful smell of his aged leather belts – which I handled with a mix of awe and fear, the two or three times I behaved very badly, these doubled as instruments of punishment – and studying that weathered, bizarre source of power, his wallet.
To age in public for a woman is, despite all woke societal efforts to the contrary, still hell; to age in public as a star is worse. A roll-call of the sex symbols of my youth in the noughties – Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, Lindsay Lohan, Megan Fox, Christina Aguilera – is notable for the fact that many of them dared to suffer what the tabloids saw as lapses in their promised hotness: weight gain, insanity, shaved heads and bad haircuts, cheap fake tans, bad plastic surgery, each mark against them more or less a problem auto-generated by the fact of being female, famous, femme and fuckable during a wave of (dubious, commercial) feminism that mistook the marketing of slogan thongs for self-empowerment.
Despite the state rhetoric of ‘locking down’ our physical movements haven’t been suspended, they have adapted: adapted to demonstrate our participation in a new, collective, movement practice called social distancing. I’ve seen people jogging with their arms extended like wings and others lurch off the pavement onto the road, risking ensuing traffic to evade human contact. There seems to be either the tactic of retreat – ducking, dodging and swerving – or the unwavering confidence that the other will and must move. These gestures all ask of the other ‘please don’t touch me,’ or the more assertive ‘don’t you dare touch me.’
The surplus of time and money of the Upper East Side clientele is mirrored in the quiet and calm behaviour of the store personnel: it is a Veblen-esque type of conspicuous consumption which shows off the privilege of the leisure class: a dressing down of your high economic status, and squandering time just because you can. These leggings and sports bras in muted colours are markers of status and wealth, an opulent lifestyle expressed not through golden logos but mesh fabrics. The group habitus of these women shapes the bodies and local economics of the area, which is densely populated with plastic surgeons and athleisure stores, mirroring each other in the quest for physical perfection.
Individuals feel a social and moral imperative to perform their identity in particular ways, and this includes learning appropriate ways of dressing. Like so much bodily behaviour, codes of dress come to be taken for granted and are routinely and unreflexively employed. But not only does dress form the key link between individual identity and the body, providing the means, or ‘raw material,’ for performing identity; dress is fundamentally an inter-subjective and social phenomenon, it is an important link between individual identity and social belonging. Dress works to ‘glue’ identities in a world where they are uncertain. Dressed inappropriately for a situation we feel vulnerable and embarrassed, and so too when our dress ‘fails’ us, when in public we find we’ve lost a button or stained our clothes, or find our fly undone. However, the embarrassment of such mistakes of dress is not simply that of a personal faux pas, but the shame of failing to meet the standards required of one by the moral order of the social space.
In a plane of crisp sunlight that angles down through the door frame, and dissolves into rust-coloured shadows settling across the dark floor, unease spreads along the walls of this wooden interior. A woman in the centre hugs a small infant close to her breast. Next to her, another holds a child on her lap. To their left is a muscular man dressed in light yellow work trousers and a waistcoat: he watches them, his face expressively surly. Seated in a semi-circle the women stare intently at the stove, or let their eyes settle on something outside the room. They are dressed well in respectable printed cotton dresses, their sleeves billowing out from under stiff white aprons. Four white men – one in the background and the other three conversing in the doorway on the left – like sentinels, stand watch. And as they watch and we watch them, these slaves, neatly arranged on rough wooden benches, quietly wait to be sold.
As the service industry has taken over goods, the parameters of conspicuous consumption have also shifted. The ‘lifestyle experience’ is how architectural theorist, Brian Lonsway, describes the subtle aesthetic choices used to complement the interests of target consumers. And for spaces like Coal Drops Yard in London and Birmingham’s Custard Factory, where a creative, ‘edgy’ lifestyle is cultivated through its authentic-slash-heritage infrastructure, digital technology has been as essential as the buildings themselves. Embedded within these spaces then is a connection to the past and a lucrative, aestheticised placemaking that emphasises authenticity – an especially important factor in a digital, social media-driven age.
My mother has not held a job in nearly fifty years. This is not because she chose to be a stay-at-home mom or enjoyed independent wealth or relied on a man to dole out an allowance. She had four children from different fathers, none of whom contributed financially in any notable or legally mandated way. We lived with my grandmother in her once-stately New England home in a small Connecticut town in which we, as a familial economic entity, were ill-fitted at best. We were poor and happy. And my mother was jobless but prolific. She woke every day between four and five in the morning, made coffee and began to work. That is: to sew.
An Amish catechism manual devotes nine pages and forty-three questions and answers to dress – second only to the topic of heaven. In hypermodernity, dress articulates individuality and personal taste. In Amish life, clothing expresses exactly the opposite meaning. When members wear Amish garb, they relinquish their right to self-expression and signal their commitment to communal authority. Clothing that shows off one’s individuality produces a proud, haughty person, and pride is considered an abomination in the eyes of God.
To be pregnant, and then to be a mother, is to be reliant on others – to greater and lesser degrees dependent, like almost everything, on access to money, although family and community can play a vital role of support here too. I was reliant on the information and care of each different midwife I saw throughout my pregnancy. Then I was reliant on doctors, nurses, more midwives and the neonatal care team to keep me and my baby alive. I was reliant on my employer and the government to provide maternity leave, I was reliant on my boyfriend to provide income when I couldn’t, though many mothers, my own included, are reliant on government support instead. The extreme individualism of late capitalism both ensures this dependency, and does not make space for it having any value, any sense of positivity. It is simply a drain on resources. As I lost my privacy and sense of self-governance, I was no longer able to feel like an autonomous woman, and I craved the aesthetics of a woman who did.