on beauty (and fashion)

Hello October 21, Hello Blog, Hello Readers. It’s been far too long since I have written for you, I know, but you’ll just have to forgive me. The process of applying to grad schools means quarantining myself off from humanity to study for the GRE and write application essays. You understand. I hope I didn’t miss anything important. Like, say, a government shutdown.

As it happens, during my time off I did do some writing other than “This is Why You Should Admit Me to Your School.” Never one to dismiss a writing trend, I wrote an open letter to a celebrity on my Tumblr. It’s not addressed to Miley Cyrus; I’m sure Sinead O’Conner, Amanda Palmer, and everyone with a Twitter account have that covered. Actually, the letter to Miley Cyrus that grabbed my attention was written by musician Sufjan Stevens and posted on his Ghetto Blog.

You can read the whole thing here (after you finish my blog post, obviously), but here’s the last bit, which refers to the Present Perfect Continuous tense.

It’s a weird, equivocal, almost purgatorial tense, not quite present, not quite past, not quite here, not quite there. Somewhere in between. I feel that way all the time. It kind of sucks. But I have a feeling your “present perfect continuous” involves a lot more excitement than mine. Anyway, doesn’t that also sum up your career right now? Present. Perfect. Continuous. And Tense. Intense? Girl, you work it like Mike Tyson. Miley, I love you because you’re the Queen, grammatically and anatomically speaking. And you’re the hottest cake in the pan. Don’t ever grow old. Live brightly before your fire fades into total darkness. XXOO Sufjan

That’s right. Sufjan’s letter to Miley was about grammar. And hot cakes and Mike Tyson, apparently. Talk about Continually being Present and Perfect, eh?

This is probably not the most accurate image to faithfully represent Sufjan's music, but he's the one who posted it in the first place. That's the danger you get for being ironic, kids.

This is probably not the most accurate image to faithfully represent Sufjan’s music, but he’s the one who posted it in the first place. The danger of irony, kids.

After I read Sufjan’s letter, I inadvertently spent the next few hours (days) on his blog, and I came across this post:

Emily Post. Etiquette. 1922.

FASHION HAS LITTLE IN COMMON WITH BEAUTY

Fashion ought to be likened to a tide or epidemic; sometimes one might define it as a sort of hypnotism, seemingly exerted by the gods as a joke. Fashion has the power to appear temporarily in the guise of beauty, though it is the antithesis of beauty nearly always. If you doubt it, look at old fashion plates. Even the woman of beautiful taste succumbs occasionally to the epidemics of fashion, but she is more immune than most. All women who have any clothes sense whatever know more or less the type of things that are their style—unless they have such an attack of fashionitis as to be irresponsibly delirious.

tumblr_mkdz38BwA11rgw0ado1_1280

The post was preceded by this collage, and I’m not entirely sure why. I can only assume it has something to do with that gorgeous striped top from 2002. Or the fact that Skyler White has a megawatt grin in hopes of a great life after her engagement to Walter White, probably.

In return, I decided to join the conversation. This is the part where I wrote an Open Letter to Sufjan about fashion theory. Enjoy:

Dear Sufjan, I’m a 22-year-old teacher and I haven’t stopped listening to your music since junior high. “Casimir Pulaski Day” is the sixth best song that I’ve ever heard, even though you (and technically all of Illinois) spelled Pulaski’s name incorrectly—splendid music, poignant lyrics, powerful storytelling. Plus you’ve got a great face. You’re amazing. But I haven’t even begun to touch the purpose of this message, and somehow I already digress.

I’m not sure if you posted this excerpt from Emily Post’s Etiquette because you agree with it, but I find it to be pretty problematic. So regardless of whether or not you share Ms. Post’s sentiments, I’d love to discuss it with you.

First of all, the entire construct of etiquette is a classist method of identifying which allows one to identify which people belong in his or her socioeconomic circles so that he or she rarely must leave these circles. Etiquette does not simply equal manners. I can’t help but be skeptical from the get go, you see.

But Sufjan, the point that I pick with this argument concerns BEAUTY. The assumptions Ms. Post rely on are these: beauty is objective, and this objective force of beauty can be known if one has good taste. It all seems very Kantian in its disinterested understanding of the judgment of aesthetics. I can’t help but wonder who benefits and what they gain from setting the ideal standard of beauty. I’m not sure that Post’s and Kant’s ideas are true, although if they are, I’m completely aware that you would be the one to possess good judgment. Your music is beautiful. I think. (I’m not sure that I share your good taste.)

Even more than that (and still on the topic of beauty), here’s what irks me: the implicit idea that this objective form of beauty is that which we must strive to achieve. Fashion is not synonymous with beauty, true. In fact, fashion can be intentionally non-beautiful, or gaudy, or scary, or intimidating, or bright, or muted, or self-expressionistic, or even ugly. With reference to my previous paragraph, if someone benefits from deciding what “beauty” is, then fashion can, ideally, subvert these expectations of beauty.

Of course, fashion isn’t a one-way street to overthrow patriarchal norms that keep women grooming themselves to reach a standard of beautiful that doesn’t exist. Not everyone is as boldly repellent as the Man Repeller. In many ways, fashion can work as a force to keep people unaware and submissive to exploitative capitalistic constructs when they throw away their money on a hi-lo skirt that will be dated next season because Seventeen told them to. But I think the tension between the subversive and subservient forces created by fashion is worth exploring, rather than writing off everyone interested in fashion as hypnotized by an epidemic, don’t you?

Sufjan, you’re the greatest. A conversation with you would turn me giddy with curiosity. I adore you, even though I’m terrified of the prospect that your winged costuming is cultural appropriation. Please keep making music, because few things make me happier.

xoxo Kasia

p.s. (to my readers, not to Sufjan) Remember how I said that it’s worth exploring the tension between the subversive and subservient forces created by fashion? You can expect a lot more of that on this blog in the future. I checked out Roland Barthes’ “The Fashion System” this evening and I am already taking notes.

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