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May 15, 2009

Fashion Violence at the Commedia Dell'Arte

Tilda Swinton does not wear makeup, off the set anyway. Needless to say, this makes her the perfect prop for selling makeup to the ultra trendy. The image below is from a session for the Extreme Makeover column in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.


The column by Alex Kuczynski gushes about Ms. Swinton while taking this ugly shot at the rest of her gender: “Any woman who has used makeup can look at this photo and imagine the actual shades in the service of beauty, and realize, with a shudder, that there is nothing more yearning and sinister than a woman’s face covered in carefully applied paint, mascara and shadow.” Help is on the way, however, as the small print tells us that Tilda “is so on trend” and offers nine products from eyeshadow to lipstick. No one said being a woman was easy.

To camouflage the sales pitch, Alex compares Swinton’s makeup to the character of Pierrot in commedia dell’arte. Well, yes, and no. That comparison is the real makeup in the story because it covers up the face we might actually see. That face–particularly when seen in the full page reproduction in the Magazine–looks more like a battered woman than a clown. And those lips could also be stained from engorging on some ripe fruit or raw meat; now the allusion is to The Island of Dr. Moreau. We’re back to that earlier description of women being simultaneously yearning and sinister. A creature of both fantasy and reality who signifies both victimage and vindictive consumption, this extreme makeover has taken us right back to where we started.

The artistry is remarkable, of course, as it works at many levels–I didn’t even mention the hint of ghoulishness, or of a vampire having just slaked her thirst, or the almost medical garb and the dream of making a woman, bride of Frankenstein, and Perrot really is there as well. But under all that lies not the “virginity of her unpainted face” (the Times really said that), but the same old myth that women are both flesh and false, danger and desire. Extreme Makeover? No, one that is all too conventional.

Photograph by Jean-Baptiste Mondino for the New York Times.


Fashion Violence at the Commedia Dell'Arte


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