Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Eye of the Beholder

If you go to St. Tropez in the month of August, during the period the French call “les vacances,” you will confront armies of Gallic beauty readying themselves to take over the imagination of the importunate tourist. Such procrustean and impenetrable displays of beautiful eyes, chins, breasts and cheeks serve as a reminder of how ugly beauty can be. There is a famous episode of The Twilight Zone called “Eye of the Beholder,” in which a horribly deformed creature about to be sent off to a colony filled with other similarly mutilated beings is given a last chance at corrective surgery. But when the bandages are taken off there is a gasp—the operation has failed. However, when the camera pulls back we see that the object of the failure has what we might call exemplary features and those looking down at her are gargoyles. Rhonda Garelick’s op-ed piece in Monday’s Times (“High Fascism,” NYT, 3/7/11) deals with the John Galliano episode in light of the fascistic history of haute couture and idealized beauty in France. “Dirty Jewish face, you should be dead,” Garelick quotes the English designer as having said during his notorious outburst in a Paris bar. “Your boots are of the lowest quality, your thighs are of the lowest quality. You are so ugly I don’t want to see you.” Garelick goes on to point out that, although the woman in question didn’t even turn out to be Jewish, the “reprisals came quickly.” Galliano was fired by Dior and now faces “charges of using a racial insult, a crime in France.” Significantly, in our modern age, with its sensitivity to problems of alcoholism and addiction, no one asked if Galliano had any problems with alcoholism, which sometimes produces self-undoing behavior. Without condoning his outburst, doth the lady (in this case Dior and the French judiciary) protest too much? Galliano’s vulgar pronunciamento was plainly too close for comfort in a culture that prizes a kind of appearance so curiously aligned with the Aryan ideal. “The Nazis were so enamored with fashion’s place in French culture,” Garelick points out, “that in their plans for postwar Europe, they stipulated that, unlike other industries, the fashion sector would remain in France.”

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