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Ingenues and Aliens at Fashion Week

First, let’s think of all those girls who’ve wondered, “Why can’t I look like that?”  We now can say, here’s why.

Sure, bone structure has something to do with it, but, jeez. . . .  Four attendants, all pros, working attentively to get her perfectly turned out–this is not something even the most dedicated 13-year-old can match.  And, of course, the kids are working off of magazine photos and we haven’t even talked about air-brushing.  Femininity is the work of many hands, not to mention rigorous training for intense competition in highly mediated arenas.  It’s no accident that there are two bottles of sport drink in the background.  It’s too bad that we can’t apply a warning label: don’t try this at home.

This month Fashion Week (or I should say, Fashion Week!) has moved through New York and London on its way to Milan and then Paris, and the modest knockoffs will be coming to a mall near you soon enough.  Everyone involved understands that the scene is intense, over the top, and pitched high, high above the budgets and day-to-day realities of ordinary women.  But it’s also anxious, ritualized, and a strange combination of visual imagination and pragmatic calculation, and so not so different after all.  What fascinates me is how this very limited theater can still reveal so much about how society itself is fashioned.

The ingenue is a stock figure of innocence, and the young woman above would seem to qualify.  Her candid willingness to cooperate so precisely with those who are shaping her for her public presentation is an endearing type of poise, and yet one that also exposes extreme vulnerability.  One who can be made up so willingly and well will surely become beautiful, but she also could be made into something else entirely, so much as to lose her soul.

Like this, perhaps.  A battle-hardened older woman?  Lady of the night?  Vampire?  Space alien?  You can take your pick (speaking of imagination . . .).  In any case there is something otherworldly about this scene, and whatever it is, it’s trouble.  Personally, I like the aliens angle.  She could be planted among us, a secret agent preparing the way, with the first of the ships arriving from above.  Or perhaps she is a leader, ready to start implementing The Plan.  There certainly could be fury behind those eyes, and there is no doubt that brutal calculation also will be involved.  Such conjectures are pure fiction, of course, but like films ranging from The Stepford Wives to Blade Runner, each fantasy points toward an unsettling truth.  As girls are made into models of femininity, they reveal how all social life is the product of human artistry.  And more to the point, they reveal yet another path by which our drives to please, to compete, and to perfect our creations can lead to self-destruction.

Photographs by Jonathan Short/Associated Press and Eric Thayer/Reuters.

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Ingenues and Aliens at Fashion Week

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