Saturday, December 15, 2007

British Beauty

On and off, I'm currently reading Isaiah Berlin's letters. It's a wonderful book. The review in NYT does it justice. The letters are charming, witty, & all that. They show Oxford life, particularly All Souls life, in the 1930's. They're rich with detail about literature, music, politics, travels in Europe, and intellectual history. There's much about the Jewish elite in Great Britain, the US, and Palistine. The rise of Nazism is present as a backdrop; a tragedy for Jews, but it's future unkown. He sees danger but no signs of build up toward the absolute anihilation of European Jewry.

Born in 1909, he was all of 25 when this photo was taken:

{Click to view full-size.}

As you can see, it's 1934. He and friends are in a garden, taking a break from a formal dance -- the quadrennial Commem Ball at New College. They're a bit self-conscious, none more than IB himself -- a bit apart from the others, over on the right in a pose that says, "I can be theatrical if I wish; I do wish, and so I am."

You can easily be misled by appearances in a single photograph. The men are elegant in their white ties and tails. Nicely done out. The women are well dressed. But aren't they mostly surprisingly unadorned? I'm no expert on formal costume, but I think of my Mom who was 19 at that time. She wanted to look like a movie star: Myrna Loy, Norma Shearer, Claudette Colbert, or maybe Ginger Rogers. Here is a studio portrait of Maire Lynd, second from left in the Commem Ball photo, along with one of Myrna Loy from the same mid-30s timeframe. Both obviously possess an abundance of natural beauty. One chooses to appear unenhanced while the other is strikingly made-up. (Yes, I know, of course I've chosen these photos to dramatize my hypothesis. Nonetheless I do think they help to make the point that I'm groping my way toward.)

{Click images to view full size. One comes from the book of Berlin's letters, the other from a fan site.}

So, my question: Is there a tradition of un-glamor -- or anti-glamor -- among English women?

This comes to mind on reading this astoundingly pro-glam and superficial article in the Times (UK): American beauty?. The author, an American expatriate, compares the grooming habits and relative devotion to appearance among US and UK women, concluding that the latter are unkempt and lazy about grooming. He says, approvingly -- and I don't think this is a put-on:
An informal poll of my US female friends revealed that they spend roughly $700 (£350) a month on what they consider standard obligatory beauty maintenance. That covers haircut, highlights, manicure, pedicure, waxing, tanning, make-up, facials, teeth whitening etc. They will spend a further $1,000 (£500) a month on physical conditioning such as military fitness, spinning sessions, vikram yoga, Pilates, deep-tissue sports massage, personal training etc. On top of that, add the occasional spa day, a week-long “bikini boot camp” in Mexico at the start of every summer and seasonal splurges on personal shoppers and clothing. I’m not sure any of my British female friends spends £700 during an entire year on her appearance. American women see these costs as a simple and sensible investment in their future.
Here's the photo that accompanies the diatribe:

So, then, is there a tradition on anti-glam among British women?


I arrived in London in September 1968 to begin Ph.D. research at the London School of Economics. I'd spent a year in New York City, living down in the East Village, which was known than as a home of flower-power hippiedom. That period time has myriad associations: student rebellion, block power, recreational drugs. Above it all resistance to the war in Vietnam and the effects of a population statistic: the purchasing power of the boomer generation producing a cult of youth.

A more immediate impression on my arrival was the sight of so many young women in mini-skirts and tights. This photo, taken by a woman pro photographer, is appreciative not prurient; it's a pretty good take on what's cast up in my mind's eye when I think back to that time.

{Click to view full size. Flickr source:*}

What I recall of the girls of London -- the many I'd see each day in the tube stations, buses, and pavements -- is a sense of amazement. But I think I understood that this style was indigenous and self-directed, not a product of a celebrity-obsessed society. In fact, I understood the main reason for mini-skirts to be a quirk of British tax law whereby short skirts were classed as children's clothing and taxed much less than longer ones.

London was beginning to enjoy some economic development and it was comparatively easy for young women to find work, but the pay was low and they were necessarily frugal. The tax advantage of short skirts was important to them.

Added to this, at technological innovation, nylon tights, had recently been commercialized. Tights made short skirts practical. A fashion site explains:
When tights were first introduced in the 1960s it liberated women from girdles, roll-ons and suspender belts. It's difficult to know which came first the skirt or the tights, but the introduction of seamless stockings had started the tights revolution. What is certain it is unlikely the one could have existed without the other as no groomed young lady ever went out bare legged then. A pair of Wolsey tights cost about £1 in 1965 and with careful daily washing they could be made to last a month.
This could not last:
The changing fashion scene did not go unnoticed by the Treasury. In 1965 we spent almost £1.7billion on clothing - on a £10 to £15 weekly wage! Up until 1966 skirts under 24" long were classed as 'children's clothing'. In fact, the dresses were becoming so small that on 5th November 1965 the government brought in new Customs and Excise rules to prevent women avoiding taxes by buying children's sizes. The 10% tax depended on the length of the clothes ..... before a rethink! From 1st January 1966 womens clothes were assessed for tax purposes according to bust size, not length.
An article by Margaret Drabble in the Guardian earlier this year helps explain the phenomenon. I think she supports my conjecture: The underlying pressure in the fashion revolution of the 1960s was bottom-up, not top-down. It's not outrageous to say that British women tend to go their own way and resist pressure to be archtypically glamorous. They seem not to become slaves of celebrity and they are careful not to put themselves in debt for appearance sake. As the editor's intro says, "Skirts were short and hopes were high. Margaret Drabble remembers a decade when women got vocal, artists got rude and the young ruled the streets." Here's an extract:
The 60s was an uplifting decade. Our skirts were short, our hair was long, our hopes were high. London was the centre of the world, and we breathed the heady air of social hope. After years of austerity and docility, we sensed freedom.
* The Flickr photog uses the handle pbar12003. The camera's exif data says she took the picture at 11:45am on Oct. 10, 2005, using a Nikon SLR. She makes the photo available with some restrictions (provide atttribution, don't charge money, and don't alter). There are a couple other shots of the same subject in this photostream. The key tags are tights, pantyhose, stockings, and london.

Here's the info recorded by the camera.
Camera Make: NIKON
Camera Model: E5700
Image Date: 2005:10:01 11:43:15
Flash Used: No
Focal Length: 41.1mm (35mm equivalent: 161mm)
Exposure Time: 0.0079 s (1/127)
Aperture: f/3.9
ISO equiv: 100
White Balance: Auto
Metering Mode: Matrix
Exposure: program (Auto)

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