I want to be her clothes

Kevin Kopelson

Many people believe that Jesus, when alive, was both human and divine, or both mortal and immortal; many people, likewise, believe that God himself, of the Old as well as the New Testament, is both spiteful and forgiving, or both hateful and loving. And while we all believe such contradictory things about ourselves, about other people well known to us ‘in person’ (friends, lovers, colleagues), and even about the writers we read, we do not believe such things about relative strangers – that beautiful young man at the gym, that horrible troll there – and neither, as a rule, do we believe them about celebrities. We believe from reading him that Oscar Wilde – in person – was both superficial and profound. Or we believe that Roland Barthes in person – after publishing The Fashion System – was both structuralist and poststructuralist. And yet while Barthes himself, correctly, found that fictional characters seem realistic only if described by novelists as, say, demure yet determined, tender yet tough, casual yet cunning, he just as correctly did not find this to be so of female movie stars. ‘Garbo’s singularity,’ he wrote in Mythologies, ‘was of the order of the concept, that of Audrey Hepburn is of the order of the substance. The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of Hepburn, an Event.’

There have, though, been two exceptions to this rule concerning celebrities. One of them is Lisa del Giocondo, née Gherardini, better known as Mona Lisa. Consider this famous description by Walter Pater:

Hers is the head upon which all ‘the ends of the world are come,’ and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed.

Kate Moss

For Pater, physical lust and spiritual ambition are opposites. The other exception is Kate Moss. Consider this description of her by Dennis Freedman, former creative director of the American magazine W:

Kate has been our muse – ours and our photographers’ – for the simple reason that there are so many aspects to Kate’s personality. She’s a woman, she’s a child, she’s a tomboy, she’s very sexual, she’s smart, she’s funny, she’s good, she’s bad.

For Freedman, it seems, intelligence and humour are opposites. Others have found Moss ‘perfect’ yet ‘imperfect’ (Brandon Hurst); ‘childlike’ yet ‘womanlike’ (Calvin Klein); ‘exquisite “bête”’ yet ‘monstrous “belle”’ (Craig McDean); ‘powerful’ yet ‘vulnerable’ (Laura Collins); ‘unobtainable’ yet ‘accessible’ (Collins again). Or to quote the photographer David Bailey: ‘She’s the kind of girl you wished lived next door, but she’s never going to.’

Kate Moss

Many of these descriptions – perfect yet imperfect, unobtainable yet accessible – relate to a distinction often made with respect to oil painting but almost never to fashion photography: the nude human body v. the naked. The nude body, whether male or female, is – Garbo-like, or young-man-at-the-gym-like – always beautiful. It is an ideal. It does not return the viewer’s gaze. It is a passive object of that viewer’s gaze and also of his or her desire. And so it invites – indicatively phallic – penetration. Most Western art, of course, depicts nudes. The Hepburn-like (or horrible-troll-like) naked body, though, may or may not be beautiful. He or she is real. He or she does return the viewer’s gaze. He or she is an active subject of desire – as well as of everything else, to quote Nietzsche, that’s ‘human, all too human’. And so he or she invites not penetration but – indicatively maternal – protection.

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