Before my appointment to a visiting scholarship at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace was confirmed I had to submit a synopsis of my proposed research. At that time my working title was ‘Physical Appearance and Life Chances in Modern Society’. Already before my departure in late October I had changed the latter phrase to ‘Life Experiences’, having worked out that while the good-looking arouse different responses from those encountered by the less well-favoured and thus have different opportunities and experiences, one cannot say that they are inevitably more successful. The matter was academic, in that my hosts clearly did not trouble to read my synopsis and simply appointed me on my record as a – let us put this as neutrally as possible – much-published social historian. While my immediate sponsors, anxious to foster research of the widest kind, have been most supportive, some embarrassment has been engendered by the open secret that the higher powers (the Hoover is, of course, best-known as President Reagan’s Think Tank) feel that serious studies of, say, the vices of Soviet foreign policy, or the virtues of monetarism, are to be preferred to such frivolities as human beauty. In the annual report just published my topic is officially designated as (oh magic word!) ‘élites’; my major public performance in ten days’ time will be on ‘The Upper Class in Britain, France and the USA since World War One’ (the argument, as it happens, will be that class is a far more useful category than élite). My paper on ‘Beauty and Ugliness in Western Society: The Social and Political Implications of Personal Appearance’ will be presented a little later within the confines of the (largely anti-Republican) History Department, where for the Winter Quarter, I am a visiting professor teaching a colloquium on 20th-century Britain.
The resources of the Hoover, and above all of the magnificent Hoover Archives, the best 20th-century collection in the world, have enabled me to make progress beyond all expectation: my newest title indicates that I now know exactly what it is I am trying to accomplish. There has been much general reading to do, as well as research at various levels in the Stanford University Library and Special Collections, and I have been greatly helped by some recent American publications, including Femininity by Susan Brownmiller and American Beauty by Lois Banner. The former courageously suggests that women’s preoccupation with fashion and cosmetics has less to do with male-dominated standards and more to do with the instincts and needs of women themselves. The latter is a brilliantly written and very scholarly study of changing ideals of beauty: however, so thorough and honest is the research that it frequently controverts the central contention that accepted norms of beauty change, giving support to my own belief that, in Western civilisation, beauty is always recognisable, in its various types, to people of every era. Beauty is a very different matter from fashion, grooming or self-presentation. Indeed, most women recognise the impossibility of achieving the highest beauty and thus – something of the sort was suggested in a few bare sentences by Theodore Zeldin in the second volume of France 1848-1945 – some fashion becomes a substitute for beauty.
Fashion often imposes a hideous artificiality, on men and women alike, dragging even the most beautiful down to an unbecoming common denominator. This is not to argue that one should not make the most of oneself, present as agreeable an exterior as possible. I wear a beard to conceal a weak chin – though I could never bring myself to dye my greying hair. Women’s preoccupation with make-up is a part of selfhood, and no sillier than the many little obsessions through which men assert self. In my mounting pile of newspaper cuttings I have answers to the question ‘Ever leave the house without make-up?’ as recently asked by the San Francisco Chronicle. ‘Not if I can avoid it’ was the basic answer. The reasons: ‘in the winter I look like a peeled potato’; ‘if I saw somebody I knew I would die’; ‘make-up makes me look like I have eyes’; ‘I look pretty hairless without it.’
With the advance of extreme feminism and other causes which wish the world to be other than it is, the Darwinists and Freud have fallen into disrepute. Both said some silly and some highly obnoxious things. One Darwinian predicted in 1884 that by 1984 there would be no more blondes and no more men with beards. Through the principle of sexual selection blondes, associated in this writer’s mind with the passive ideal of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, would be phased out in favour of dynamic brunettes – it’s a tough life for feminists knowing whom to hate! – while as men got handsomer and handsomer there would come a time when none would need to hide behind a beard. Yet the notion that human sexuality, once a certain level of culture has been achieved and a certain basis for choice established, has a strong aesthetic element seems to me incontrovertible. Beauty then simply means that which is sexually attractive. Certain things have general sex appeal: well-proportioned features, good health, thick hair. Some are sex-specific: males seem to prefer female characteristics that are positively human and in no way reminiscent of the animal kingdom (only two hot-potatoes: breasts, underarm hair), and ones which proclaim a child-bearing prime. Neither sex is generally attracted by reminders of death, though males again appear to be faddier in this respect than females. I speak, necessarily, in generalities; fortunately human beings can be marvellously idiosyncratic in their particular choices. In any case, many other considerations come into play in the matter of choosing a mate; and in most places at most times very few indeed have complete freedom of choice. But consider the choices of rich and successful men, those who do have freedom: there you will find your definition of beautiful women. Now take these beautiful women and give them complete freedom of choice (not always an actual historical circumstance): in the men they choose you will find your definition of beautiful men. Those Darwinians who studied the matter concluded, and I fear I agree with them, that the very highest standard of human beauty was to be found among a relatively small number of women, while reasonable good looks were to be found more widely spread among men than women. Some of them also argued that women are most beautiful – i.e. most attractive to most men – in the age range 18 to 28, men being at their best in the age range 30 to 38: which is not to say that there is not a beauty appropriate and fitting to each age as both sexes grow older (the bitter sting being in the ‘appropriate and fitting’).
I speak only of that which I have studied, Western Society, and note only in passing that not all forms of deliberate self-presentation aim at beauty – savage tribes and punk rockers can have other objectives. I agree with Kenneth Clark that there is remarkable consistency in standards of beauty throughout Western history (no, since you ask, I don’t actually think Rubens was trying to paint beautiful women). Our culture tends to be unkind in its judgments of those whose origins lie in other cultures: this has little to do with colour of skin, but much to do with shape of nose. What I have come to understand beauty to mean is, then, very plain, if not proverbial: beauty is no more than skin deep. Throughout Western history there have been plenty of canting philosophers to tell us that beauty is truth or godliness, or goodness, or spiritual harmony, or dynamism, or some other abstraction which it manifestly is not. And, indeed, it has been a habit of human society to obscure the truth about beauty, for it is in many ways a cruel and comfortless truth. My developing studies seek to establish the significance of beauty (by my no doubt controversial, but indisputably specific definition), and its opposite, in private and public life, and to examine the ambivalences in attitudes towards beauty.
The hypothesis which is emerging from my labours is that the appearance of the unambiguous notion that beauty is an autonomous quality (not, for example, to be confused with goodness), an independent ‘status characteristic’ (as the sociologists would say), is bound up with what for lack of space I shall term ‘modernisation’ (a contentious term, I know, but I mean urbanisation, mobility, dethronement of theocracy, mass communications, diffusion of affluence, and greater freedom and enhanced status for women), and that widespread acceptance of the notion came only with the international cultural revolution of the 1960s. Greek ideas reek of poofterdom and Platonic obfuscation; the Romans still grossly undervalued women; the Middle Ages produced some lovely conventions, but only with the first modern age of urbanisation, that of Renaissance Europe, do we get both a reasonably fair evaluation of the capabilities of women and clear statements of the autonomous value of beauty. For the wealthy, there were opportunities to make comparisons and contrasts; standards of beauty were transmitted through art. The points I am getting at can be found in More’s Utopia, in The Book of the Courtier and in Agnolo Firenzuola’s Dialogues on Beauty and the many similar works published in 16th-century Italy. There follows a long period in which life is too serious, too grim, for true beauty to be properly valued: one grotesque fashion follows another; false curls, wigs, cosmetics by the ton, abound. As a heading for this section of my book when ultimately written I propose to adapt a phrase of Shakespeare’s which summarises the ambivalences of a time when the terrible power of beauty was recognised, but feared as much as welcomed: ‘Beauty, Provoker of Thieves’.
Here at Stanford I am now concentrating my researches on the Sixties. The way in which parochial, convention-bound American society opened itself to influences both from inside and from abroad is quite staggering. One fabulous source is the ‘Negro’ magazine Ebony (it is part of the cultural revolution of the Sixties that ‘Negro’ becomes ‘black’, as, at home, ‘English’ became ‘British’, and, a little later, ‘girl’ became ‘woman’), which till the middle Sixties is loaded with advertisements pushing skin bleaches and hair-straighteners for male and female, with beauty hints, with stories about eligible bachelors and about beauty competitions which constantly present blacks as imitation whites. Then, early in 1966, there appeared on the cover the most gorgeous black woman I have ever seen, a 20-year-old social worker, the subject of a major feature, who is wearing the ‘natural look’ (close-cropped unstraightened hair). The Sixties is the time when the new fashions suit only the youthful, the well-formed and the beautiful; they are no longer designed to conceal imperfections. The criterion of beauty begins seriously and publicly to be applied to men as well as women. Of course the new sensibility had its cruelties, and, when it led to American politicians being rated for their telegenic qualities, its outright dangers. But plotting the development of that new sensibility in the Reagan papers and in sources relating to Kennedy – and, indeed, to Franklin Roosevelt – is one of the tasks I have set myself.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.