Forgoing the Visage in Lieu of the Soul: The Way in Which Covid-19 May Change our Post-Corona Aesthetics and Attitudes

By: Camille Davis

Forgoing the Visage in Lieu of the Soul: The Way in Which Covid-19 May Change our Post-Corona Aesthetics and Attitudes

 

Top: The Cover of Vogue and the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s 2020 Commemorative Edition. Bottom: The Cover of Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell’s Worn on this Day: The Clothes that Made History, published in 2019. Middle: A 1943 Vogue graphic explaining the importance of sacrifices to its readers during World War II.

In a pre-Covid-19 world, the first Monday of May would inextricably be known as the day of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Met Gala.  This mammoth fundraiser highlights the spring exhibition of the Met’s Costume Institute, and it brings together the biggest names in the art, fashion, entertainment, and athletic worlds. This year, the Met Gala, like so many other mainstay components of Western, pre-Corona life is indefinitely postponed. The Met’s need to reschedule is  one  of many reminders of the capriciousness of the time, and it is a reminder of what little control anyone has over something that felt like an indelible component of human control and human strength in the current age — namely the ability to control one’s personal image.

Yes, the Met Gala is an event that highlights the role of clothing and costumes as expositors of major historical moments and eras. But it also does something else that largely may have gone unnoticed until now: It champions a mild form of humanism. It glorifies the human predilection and practice of using clothing as a means of explaining one’s personal values, aspirations, and preferences to the world. It celebrates the role of clothing throughout history as a mechanism for human beings to communicate — and control — how they are seen and evaluated.

Such a power — a power to control perception — has historically been described as necessary, appropriate, and possibly an inherent right of one’s humanity. Think of Fredrick Douglass’ 19th century advocation of photography as a means for African Americans to present themselves as people of dignity in order to combat racial caricatures and stereotypes rooted in slavery. Or what about the practice of 18th and 19th century Native Americans who masterfully blended Euro-centric attire with their own indigenous styles to convey individuality at a time when the U.S. imperial ambitions relegated and condensed all indigenous people to the amorphous, ambiguous, non-specific “Indian”?

Frederick Douglass. Courtesy of Biography.com

 

Payouska (Pawhuska), Chief of the Great Osage. Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin. Silhouette, 1804. National Portrait Gallery

Consider the role of long hair and beards in the 1960s and 1970s as a visual component of the anti-establishment, youth quake. Or think of the practice of 17th and 18th century European aristocrats and American gentry of wearing powdered whigs to convey wealth, power, and physical prowess.

Woodstock, 1969. Courtesy of the NYTimes.com

King George III. Allan Ramsay. Oil on canvas. 1761-1762
58 in. x 42 in. National Portrait Gallery

The history of human adornment and self-presentation provide extraordinary physical evidence of the ways in which people attempt to advocate for themselves and their interests over time. And in the pre-Covid, 21st century, the desire — and the ability — to tailor perceptions may have been higher than at any other time in human history.

But yet, life abruptly shifted.

The institutions, mechanisms, and structures in place that normally provide the materials for self-imaging are now hampered by the pandemic crisis of Covid-19. The fashion houses, the salons, the barber shops, the spas, and the boutiques are no longer readily available. There is no way to maintain one’s “normal” visage and style for public consumption at this moment. From most reports, this will be the case for the foreseeable future. And perhaps that is a good thing.

Although possessing agency over one’s personal visage is a necessary and fundamental part of living in a free society, it can create a new bondage of its own. The 21st century’s ubiquitous use of social media  insinuated an idea of perpetual camera-readiness across the “developed” world that no one truly could ever maintain — before, during, or after — Corona. Instead of the image operating as a representation of a human being, somehow it became a replacement for the human being himself. Looking good became a substitution for being good. Perhaps now, the image has an opportunity to be relegated to its place in order to give the soul a chance to reclaim its rightful position within the human psyche.

Think of “The Greatest Generation”

In March, Princeton University’s Meg Jacobs recalled to CNN the “soul work” of the World War II generation that parallels and exceeds our own. While discussing the sacrifice of those in the armed services who fought across multiple battle fronts and the collective manufacturing efforts of men and women who braved the dangers and excesses of factory life to make supplies for those who fought, Jacobs mentioned some of the aesthetic and sartorial sacrifices required of the time. She recounted that some of the prevailing wisdom was to “Repair a shirt rather than buy a new one; paint on nylons instead of wearing the real thing, [and] go without cuffs on your pants.”

Jacobs explained that women were encouraged to wear pants instead of skirts to preserve fabric and to refrain from nylon stockings so that nylon could be used for parachutes.  And although it would be reductive and historically inaccurate to romanticize the  American society and politics of the 1930s and 1940s — there were plenty of political, social, and moral demons that needed expulsion — it is true that the military success of American troops and the subsequent economic success that helped underpin the “American century” resulted from a collective willingness to adjust to the demands of that day’s crises.

Jacob’s example is a timely reminder of the power that emanates from communal sacrifice.

Vogue, September 1943 Cover

 

Heroism in our Time

      

Christine McCarthy, a nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston on Apr. 2.

Photo Courtesy of Erin Clark—Boston Globe/Getty Images and Time.com

In response to Covid-19, there is a plethora of sacrificial beauty to behold — and to draw inspiration from — in our time, as well. There are the healthcare workers, first responders, food producers/distributors, and essential workers all over the world. And there are the arias from Italian balconies, the poignant sounds from #togetherathome and #homefest concerts, and the optimism emanating from virtually syncronized glee clubs. What of Andrea Bocelli’s hair-raising concert on Easter and the Metropolitan Opera’s concert on April 25th? Think of those quietly serving neighbors and friends without humble-bragging on public platforms. And oh yes – there are the countless fashion houses that are  manufacturing medical supplies and hand sanitizer or providing funds for Covid-19 relief. There are extraordinary opportunities to exhibit generosity of spirit during this uncertain and worrisome time.

 

Photo Courtesy of NYtimes.com

 

 

Italian Tenor Maurizio Marchini’s rendition of ‘Nessun Dorma’, translated ‘None shall sleep’ from his balcony in March went viral. Many grew particular inspiration from Marchini picking up his small son as he sang the words ‘Vincerò!’ translated ‘I will be victorious.’ Photo Courtesy of Youtube.com

 

When life resumes some of its normality, there will be plenty masters of aesthetics to lead the way with beauty and with “soul.” Pierpaolo Piccioli, the Creative Director of Valentino is publicly discussing the need for using women of color as muses for European fashion houses. He has done so and continues to do so in his work.   Harvard Business School alum Nadia Boujarwah sustains the brand she co-created called Dia&Co, a direct-to-consumer clothing line for women who struggle to find plus-size clothing.  Additionally, there is Dallas based social organizer, NeAndre Broussard, who creates photo exhibitions of black men in suits to challenge and change Western misconceptions of black masculinity. And of course, Vogue and the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)  continue to raise money for charitable causes in need of funding and exposure.

 

Adut Akech, South-Sudanese/Australian model who is the preeminent face of Maison Valentino. She is wearing a dress from the fashion house in the photo by Johnny Dufort. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times Style Magazine.

 

Most assuredly, the institutions that make us “camera ready” and “picture perfect” will again have their day in the sun. And so will we, the consumers. But until that day comes, may we join with those who are forgoing their image for the benefit of their — and others’ — souls. And may we become a bit more accepting and loving of our pandemic visages — and sacrificial attitudes — even after we overcome the pandemic itself.

Wouldn’t that make for such a beautiful world?

When Virtue Comes in Color: The Historical Implications of The Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s Voyage to South Africa

By Camille Davis

The Duke and Duchess in South Africa. Photo Courtesy of Yahoo News.

Recently, the world watched Prince Harry, Meghan Markle, and their four-month-old son, Baby Archie, as they spent ten days touring South Africa. The media images of a royal, Western, interracial couple visiting a country that is notorious for its recent, segregationist past presents a poignant and powerful message about the progress and transformation that is present in both the British royal family and in the former apartheid-ridden, South Africa. Even more so, the racial context of the Duke and Duchess trip is palpable because of the criticism Markle has faced for her racially mixed heritage. The royal family has fully accepted Markle, but the British press has not.  There are also those within the American press who are relentlessly indignant about the African blood in Markle’s veins.  During her tenure as a royal, the duchess has not spoken explicitly about her ethnicity, until her most recent visit to South Africa. While addressing a crowd in Cape Town, she referred to herself as “a member of the royal family, a mother, a wife, a woman, a woman of color, and as your  [the people of Cape Town’s] sister.” This statement is powerful because it attests to the ability of Markle to represent multiple components of herself simultaneously. In essence, she exhibited that being a woman of color and being a British royal are not mutually exclusive. One can be both — and represent both—exceptionally well.

One of the great Western misconceptions about people with non-European heritage or racially mixed identities is that they are incapable of filling roles outside of those traditionally prescribed for them. For those who think this way, it is difficult to conceptualize a person of color operating in a position that has been historically preserved — either by law or custom — for those who are white. The Daily Mail’s infamous reference to Markle as being “straight out of Compton” and other pejorative comments of that sort are rooted in the idea that a black woman could not effectively navigate the responsibilities of a British royal. Her ethnicity and/or the culture that the ethnicity represents imbue her with a limited capacity.  In short, a woman of color is not fully a woman.

The Duchess of Sussex guest editing British Vogue. Courtesy of @SUSSSEXROYAL

Such marred perceptions create a proverbial tight rope for which Markle must walk. With each step, she must carry multiple layers of her identity with dexterity and grace because a misstep means that one or all of those layers will be marginalized and diminished by a jeering, chanting critical onlooker. A misstep means that she is criticized about her race, her role as a wife, her role as mother, her role as a royal, her identity as a woman — she is critiqued about her success or failure at being all of these things at once. The cynicism about her race creates a sense of dubiousness about all the other parts of her. “Can a black woman be a  ______?” This is why Markle’s public, multi-faceted identification of herself in her various roles is so important. By simultaneously claiming her familial roles, her royal role, and her race, she asserts her awareness of the tight rope and her willingness to walk it. And what better place to do this than in a country that is still healing from its deeply embedded, historical, racial wounds?

The Duchess cooking at the Hub Community Kitchen, a place for victims of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fires. Photo Courtesy of the LA Times via Jenny Zarins/ AFP/Getty Images/Kensington Palace
The cover of the September issue of British Vogue.
M.M’s birthday cake by Luminary Bakery. Photo Courtesy of Marie Claire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A thank you note from M.M. to Luminary Bakery for her birthday cake.

Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk

As is the case with all of us, the ultimate test for the Duchess of Sussex is what she does — not just what she says. In Markle’s case, the ease in which she delivered her Cape Town speech was indicative of the life she is living and has lived. During her two years as a member of the royal family, she has accomplished a tremendous amount. The most well-documented achievements include working with fashion designer Misha Nonoo  and the charity Smart Works to create a clothing line for unemployed British women who are attempting to re-enter the workforce; being a co-author and royal patron of the Together: Our Community Cookbook to raise money for victims of the  June 2017 fire in  the Grenfell Tower high-rise; guest editing the September issue of British Vogue and creating a theme for the issue that focuses on women who are creating positive social and political change in the world; also commissioning  her birthday cake from Luminary Bakery, a bakery that hires women who have survived trauma that includes abuse, homelessness, and incarceration. Additionally, she recently flew commercial in order to attend the U.S. Open in support of her friend, another woman of color, Serena Williams.

The Duchess at the U.S. Open on September 7th. She is sitting next to her friend, Serena Williams’ mother, who is on her right. Photo Courtesy of Fox News.

Do these actions tell us everything there is to know of her? Absolutely not. However, they do say that she has the ability to be a representation of feminine excellence for a woman of any race in the same way that her storied and beloved, late mother in law, Princess Diana was – and still is. By being an excellent woman of color, Markle will contribute to the eventual characterization of women of color as simply and unequivocally “women” by the Western world.