What makes us beautiful? This is indeed a loaded question that I do not seek to answer in this column, but believe me, it matters. Musical artists have been theoretically probing us with this question for what feels like ages, with contemporary examples ranging from One Direction’s “you don’t know your beautiful / that’s what makes you beautiful,” to Drake’s “sweatpants, hair tied, chillin’ with no makeup on / that’s when you’re the prettiest, I hope that you don’t take it wrong.”
This isn’t a critique on the general decline of good lyricism in 21st century pop music. This isn’t even really anything “deep” or “meta” about WHY we subscribe to beauty ideals, but something more practical. I’m thinking of the 1 odd consonant among the 3rd grade staple of the 5 W’s – How.
How do we buy into beauty? With capitalism, it’s a form of consumption. By existing we buy into beauty every day. By flexing our agency on Instagram, we become architects of our beauty in an autobiographical 3x3 grid, as well as curators rearranging other people’s autobiographies within our own context via the ‘bookmark’ tab. By working our fingers on Twitter, we chirp our own ideas out at neck-breaking speeds, and share other people’s words even faster. Every second of everyday beauty is consumed, as the structure of society is based on items bought and sold, images generated and objectified. Knowing what is “beautiful” and even trying to subvert that costs its own kind of capital; clicks and taps from consumers result in commas and zeroes for elite “tastemakers.”
Another ‘How?’ is literal: we also physically buy beauty as products. In every item of clothing sold, every cosmetic purchased and treatment, injection or surgery scheduled, we exchange physical capital for goods and services that are a part of beautification process. Expression becomes consumption under capitalism, and is inherently tied to hegemonic ideas about beauty and its uses for social distinction.
But beauty’s questionable capitalist ethics extend past theoretical ideas also, affecting real people.
On July 25th, i-D published an article called “A new report says the fashion industry is fueling modern slavery,” and exposed what stan Twitter would call a “problematic fav.” The article reports that not only did Burberry, recently rebranded and on the come-up again, burn roughly $37 million dollars of worth of backstock (instead of putting it on sale or recycling, good job), but also reminds us that the fast fashion industry is ranked within the top 5 worldwide industries supporting modern slavery. While we have long understood that sweatshop labour is the backbone of cheap clothing production, it is not often spoken of in terms of actual slavery; additionally, 71% of these modern slaves are women and girls, which i-D notes as adding a layer of feminism to the issue.
This, dear Couturesque-ies, is the implicit price of beauty. When you spend your cultural capital to consume images of Christopher Bailey’s pro-queer or nostalgic-fuelled Burberry collections, you support slavery. When you spend your physical capital to consume fast fashion, or really any clothing that is not explicitly produced under fair conditions, you support slavery.
When ideologically parsing through this i-D article, I couldn’t help but think about Sorry To Bother You. One of the biggest take-away motifs from Boots Riley’s debut film this summer is the idea of how modern slavery is marketed as logical, even necessary. Don’t worry, no spoilers here, but the film expertly employs symbols as well as visual prose to critique how contemporary marketing strategies lull consumers into a stupor to where the ends justify the means. In Cassius’ (Lakeith Stanfield) character arc, the ends of his wealth justify the means by which he earned it. In our own individual arcs as consumers, the ends of consuming and reflecting beauty justify the means by which the products we buy are produced.
While upon first glance Sorry To Bother You appears a pessimistically absurd comedy critiquing systematic oppression under capitalism, the film is not without a symbolic hero. Beauty-wise, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), Cassius’ partner in the film, performs your stereotypical thrift-store image of scavenged and individualised beauty. Detroit’s entire character is based on subversion, and her look reflects that. She’s a proud owner of the classic lightskin 3b/3c curly bob, however it is dyed shades of muddy pale grey, purple, magenta and orange. Each one of her Goodwill-esque outfits is accentuated by a colourful cosmetic display, her eyes highlighted with the likes of glitter tears to unique neon geometric shapes in every scene. To take the subversion to the next level, Detroit’s DIY jewellery throughout the film literally makes a statement through eye-catching phrases, or even small glittery penises.
All of these attention-grabbing aspects to Detroit’s look are reflective of her insisting that her existence matters, and that she has both the agency to look however she chooses, and the voice to critique the system through her (literal) statement earrings. Detroit is a bold voice reminding us of the capitalist spell that befalls Cassius, and stands as his aesthetic foil through her beauty choices – operative word being “choices.” The solution Detroit’s look poses to the myriad of real-world problems critiqued in Sorry To Bother You is populism, and the incredible importance of a collective push-back to systematic enslavement. Detroit demands that her life and choices matter by embodying a look by and for the people: it is uniquely “her,” and judging by the distressing and worn-looking quality of her garb, cultivated through thrifting and representative of her activism.
Image via Annapurina Pictures
Detroit, however, is not the standard of subversive dress - instead, she reminds us that aestheticizing one’s individual look and branding it as an act of resistance is in and of itself commodification and consumption. Her look matters in that it isn’t that deep – that’s just HER way of making a statement, but not the only way. That’s her personal negotiation of the system she lives in, where art is a commodity as well as a form of expression.
Alas, we now come full circle in looking at how we choose to negotiate these arguments of beauty and fashion. The industry does take looks that, otherwise, are just the way your layperson dresses and brands them as something more specific, and then mass-produces them through actual slavery. Your stereotypical Protest Girl™ looks and feminist t-shirts create more capital for massive corporations than the movements they are associated with. But does that reality mean that none of this matters, or that fashion and beauty are inherently and irrevocably "problematic?" We want things to be a clear yes/no: are we pro-fashion, or anti-fashion? Are we “fashion is an art,” or are we “fashion is an elitist commodity?”
Personally, I don’t choose to give that division my time. Either side is an absolute, and cannot represent a holistic definition of the fashion and beauty fields, but rather the start of an important conversation. While I tend to lean more toward the idea that fashion and beauty are commodities, because, well, that’s irrefutable, I refuse to reduce the artistry and creativity that goes into either field respectively. It is important to acknowledge the labor of those subjugated to create the products that we consume. It is also important to advocate for the rights of those subjugated by the industry without discounting the creative side. Yes, the creative side of the industry is elitist and inherently based on unethical consumption, but so is literally every system under capitalism. Does that mean that nothing matters, or that everything matters that much MORE? Does that mean that creativity doesn’t exist at all, or better yet, that we should understand how creativity is commodified to quell as many gross displays of injustice as we can?
I choose to believe in the latter. And while neoliberalism implicitly controls my ability to make choices, I also ~choose~ to be self-aware of HOW I consume. That’s the best I can do, and that assurance is all you need, dear Couturesque-ies, to begin your own critical negotiation of fashion and beauty. J
That being said, here (scroll up) is my look inspired by the iconic Detroit, our favorite subversive shawty.