Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Beautiful People, A candid examination of a cultural phenomenon – the marriage of fashion and society in the 60’s, by Marylin Bender (1968)

The excesses of any fashion, no matter how flattering in their initial concept, bring it to ridicule and eventual disgrace. - Marylin Bender. 

This gem lay buried in the nickel bargain bin of my local used bookstore. Unlike the subtitle above, the paperback edition I read sported a different, slightly misleading subtitle: Who they are and what they really do behind the golden doors of their scandal-ridden world. Based on this less accurate description, I expected an exposé of that era’s famous celebrities, a catalogue of classic movie stars, the Jet Set and their dirty laundry, in paparazzi-like fashion. Some of that appears, but only in passing. Yes, we visit, albeit briefly, Andy Warhol, Barbra Streisand, Pierre Cardin, Truman Capote, Twiggy, Jacqueline Kennedy, et al. We’re introduced to John Weitz, Baby Jane Holzer, Eleanor Lambert, and a Vanderbilt or two, but their mention relates mostly to movements, trends, and indulgences. More attention is devoted to the history of fashion in both Europe and America during the mid-twentieth century, particularly as this history influenced American society and its identity.

I normally don’t care about fashion and its associative accessories. True, when I was 20, I was subjected to a brief interrogation by my father’s friend for sporting an earring. He was a righteous man and most likely viewed my fashion statement as a subtle nod to a homosexual lifestyle. But my friend, probably wanting to deflate his father’s questions and their portent, possibly because I was a guest in his parent’s house at the time, came to my rescue before I could form a coherent response.

Friend’s father: “Mark, do you know who first wore earrings?”

Friend: “Yeah; pirates.”

Friend’s father: “Do you know what that earring says?”

Friend: “Yes! Made in Taiwan.”

Thirty years later, the hole in my earlobe (my left; your right) has since closed, and apart from the cane I occasionally brandish, I no longer dress in a way that might draw undue attention to myself. Instead, I wear what I find comfortable. At home this means either pajama bottoms and t-shirts or warmups and house slippers. In my line of work, I have little need for formal wear. When it comes to casual wear, the only reason I tend to choose name brands over off brands is because I find those name brands last longer, which allows me to shop less frequently for replacements. So while I sport Nike and Wrangler for my job or when running errands or lunching with a friend, it’s not because I want to be associated with an athlete any more than I identify with a cowboy. In short, apart from not wanting to look like a bum, the extent of my fashion identity could be summed up in a Mark Twain quote: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”  

As a result, before breaking open this book, I knew next to nothing about Dior or Yves or Vidal Sassoon. But the writer Marylin Bender, who wrote for several years for The New York Times, is a gifted wordsmith, and I found myself impressed by her finesse in shaping what I’d considered trivial subject matter into something well stated and engaging. Plus, as a writer, I always regard reading as a sort of lecture on writing. I’ve said it before: reading even bad writing can teach you what not to do.

I’m reminded of something Sol Stein said about how good prose can draw us into a topic we’d ordinarily care nothing about by the way in which it conveys that topic. That truth hit home for me throughout this book.

Bender’s exploration of the fashion industries of the Sixties is fascinating if only because the trends and fads of that era that turned some of these behind-the-scenes artisans into household names is conveyed with authority and flair. The celebrities and politicians’ wives who put many of these designers of the haute couture world on the map by either frequenting their establishments or naming them in interviews was engrossing primarily because Bender knows how to keep an otherwise indifferent reader engaged. The magazine editors and fashion leaders who colluded to advance one another’s careers, the fundraisers, soirees, benefits, press announcements – all of it is revealed with both sass and wit.
In the Pop decade, the man who came to dinner was the hairdresser. When dinner was over, he stayed for the dancing … A comparative unknown in the coiffing hierarchy who was identified only as Mario, he had been invited to the stateliest of American summer resorts to minister to the tresses of one of Mrs. Drexel’s friends.
Fashion, a principle perpetrator of pop culture, exploits the young through an unholy alliance of merchandisers and misguided parents. But the victim is also a tyrant to the same degree that the manipulator is a puppet. The fashionable child is a prop and a consumer, a means of distraction for adults as well as of social and economic gain, an authority and a wanderer on a road without signposts.
In the Sixties, fashion designers have reached new heights of esteem. They are lionized by hostesses, ennobled by the press, admitted to the ranks of pop celebrities. Yet this fashion-drenched decade has produced only a handful of creators. Those few – on both sides of the Atlantic and at opposite ends of the American continent – have initiated the new dialogue of fashion, which no longer takes place between the haughty dressmaker and his elegant client but between the mass designer and the adventurous hordes.

Five out of five stars.

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