Elegantly-coiffed black hair, red lipstick, pale skin and defined cat-like eyes encompass burlesque performer Dita Von Teese’s famous beauty look. However, you re-wind approximately 50 years and discover that these visual aesthetics celebrated worldwide have comprised another former burlesque performer, no other than notorious Bettie Page. In fact, the pin-up look has been popular for 60 years and it’s all because of Ms. Page. Bangs and a fascination with the burlesque are what make this sexy style so desirable. Similarly in mainstream fashion, thinness and ‘heroin chic’ are old news. Before Kate Moss there was Twiggy before Dita Von Teese there was Bettie Page. “Ideal” beauty and femininity becomes a parody. Thus, those icons that are portrayed as possessing an element of divinity are in fact nothing more than a copy of a copy.
Similarly in mainstream fashion, thinness and ‘heroin chic’ are old news. Before Kate Moss there was Twiggy before Dita Von Teese there was Bettie Page. “Ideal” beauty and femininity becomes a parody. Thus, those icons that are portrayed as possessing an element of divinity are in fact nothing more than a copy of a copy.
What is deemed beautiful and feminine has been mimicked and repeated over and over throughout history until modern day. As Judith Butler suggests, it is this repetition, which gives the illusion of their being a core and original feminine ideal. In reality, it is us, you and me that continue buying into the same images and ideals which culture and we alike refuse to deviate from. Certain visual aesthetics have been echoed and naturalized so far so that any person who visually embodies such features is instantly deemed attractive. Pale complexion, red pouted lips and shimmering blonde hair outline the look of bombshell Marilyn Monroe and are traits evident amongst the Hollywood actresses of modern day. I want to prove that what is deemed ‘natural’ of a feminine ‘ideal’ is just as constructed as a man in drag. Nothing is original; everything is parody.
The term blondes have more fun, often used as a tagline for images of Marilyn Monroe, may have stemmed from the Renaissance period. The Renaissance culture believed that the lighter the hair, the better which was often reflected through artistic depictions of women of the time. As for make-up, pale ivory skin was all the rage as well as tinted red lips. Women used vermillion a brilliant red pigment made from mercury sulfide to colour their lips.
And so Marilyn Monroe’s “iconic” look could have stemmed from depictions of women in the Renaissance period. Meaning Monroe too was a copy of a copy. Many women in modern day imitate the Monroe look, perhaps even unconsciously. Kim Kardashian has recently gained much prestige for exposing her all natural curves, but celebrating curves is nothing new. During the Renaissance period, fat meant sexy! Even Monroe appeared naked in photo editorials revealing her curvaceous body and that was decades ago! She also had a breast enlargement to accentuate her already voluptuous assets!
50 years after her death, Monroe is venerated still, forever referenced and imitated by Hollywood starlets as well as adoring drag performers.
Monroe even remains on our screens today. The ‘Inside Chanel’ campaign for Chanel N°5 depicted the star using authentic recordings and photographs.
Dior has also revived the screen siren using the latest digital technologies in an advert for Dior’s J’adore perfume. Marilyn Monroe really was an object of imitation, repetition, replication and re-gendering. Many drag queens as well as mainstream celebrities impersonate the iconic Marilyn Monroe look, reinforcing how easy it is to copy and adapt an “ideal” gender.
Another example of imitation is masculine styles employed by women. The 1920’s brought us the styles and handiworks of Coco Chanel, where androgyny and women dressed in suits whilst smoking were all the rage. Thus, modern day depictions of women in suits or sporting shaven heads are really nothing new! Check out Kristen Stewart modelling Balenciaga suits for their Fall 2012 Menswear Suit collection!
Cosmetic surgery also provides evidence to the constructedness of gender and identity. And cosmetic surgery is often used in the realm of icons and celebrities who will all aspire and adore. Certain characteristics deemed masculine or feminine can be achieved or at least accentuated through surgery, a very unnatural un-biological process. Many still quiver at the idea of a man being castrated and constructed a vagina whilst boob jobs have long since been the norm! As a result, it appears that even perceptions of cosmetic surgery have a hierarchy of normalcy. In reality, I feel cosmetic surgery, no matter the actual procedure is as fake and constructed as the next! Surgery is not exclusive to transsexuals it’s been employed by many iconic beauties, male and female and has become more and more mainstream. Cosmetic surgery evidences again that gender and identity can be constructed, changed, enhanced and accentuated! Surgery is even a parody!
Artist and photographer George Chamoun played with photos of classically beautiful faces past and present. Chamoun created Iconatomy, “an investigation in the beauty ideals of the movie world. These are collages of two movie stars or icons from two different eras, merged together to form one face, one ideal image.” These fascinating images evidence how fashion and “ideal” images are mimicked over and over, generation to generation.
Overall, I hope to have proved through these examples the performative nature of gender and the parody of “normal” gender identities.
Style Caster (2010) A Timeline of Sexy Defined Through the Ages [online] available from<http://www.stylecaster.com/timeline-sexy-defined-through-ages/> [25 January 2014]
Pigeons and Peacocks (2014) Revival of Icons [online] available from<http://www.pigeonsandpeacocks.com/editorial/revival-of-the-icons/> [25 January 2014]
Garber, M (1991) Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety. London: Routledge .369
Slade, J (2000) Pornography and Sexual Representation: A Reference Guide Volume 2. Greenwood.