Friday, July 30, 2010

In defense of effort

If one word could be removed from fashion writing, I'd pick the following: "effortless." It never, ever, ever, ever accurately describes the look in question. How is a shot of someone who clearly takes care of herself hair- and body-wise and took particular care to dress nicely that day evidence of a lack of effort? It's nearly impossible to come up with a styling result that couldn't be labeled "effortless," so meaningless is this adjective in the fashion context. I've contemplated images of "effortless" and tried to figure out what was being referred to about a given shot. Some "effortless" looks include slightly mussed-up hair, but even that isn't necessary. Never does "effortless" manifest itself as an outfit that's the obvious result of whatever was lying on the end of the couch.

The implication with "effortless" is that some women are simply born in Chanel suits and with perfect hair. These are the women whose perfection, we're meant to believe, is on the one hand unattainable in that it's innate, but on the other slightly attainable, if we'd only spend the money aka make the effort. I suppose this is really a standby in fashion mags and blogs - it's always on the one hand about various purchasable goods, but on the other about a sphere the reader could never enter on account of being insufficiently fabulous. If the Impossible were to disappear, it would all just be stuff, some nicer than other, but nothing implying a world of amazingness just past the reach of all strivers.

7 comments:

Britta said...

I agree. Of course, whenever a fashion or lady magazine is like, "cheap," "efficient" or "effortless," it always means that it will be 5x your normal routine and 10x as expensive. True "effortlessness" is sleeping in your clothes so you don't have to get dressed the next morning, or wearing your hair in the same ponytail for 4 days straight to avoid having to comb it (not that I would ever do any of these things, of course). Of course, that actually looks bad, so it's not featured on fashion blogs.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

At least when the mags claim "cheap," they juxtapose a $400 handbag with its $10,000 equivalent. "Cheap" may not be used well but there's usually some sense of what's being compared. With effortless, it's not even clear what the effort-full alternative is supposed to be. Garish logos? An everywoman in the exact same outfit as the model? All it means, from what I can tell, is that we're meant to believe there's a quality money can't buy, but that we nevertheless ought to spend money to do our best to get it.

helen said...

I take fashion's use of "effortless" the same way I take beauty's use of "natural" - it's shorthand for, essentially, "a man [or other clueless individual] would not realize how much work went into this."

The four effortless looks you linked too all clearly have thought behind them, for sure, but they also lack a certain visually explicit intentionality. And of course there's the frustrating contemporary trope that if you're beautiful/thin/rich enough, whatever you put on automatically counts as chic. Of course there's a huge amount of money and work that goes into, say, Erin Wasson leaving the house in a pair of bleached-out cutoffs, a stretched out tank top, a bandeau bra, and fourth-day hair, but the explicit intent is to appear as if she's this fucking cool without any work on her part at all.

Phoebe said...

Helen,

I totally agree that effortless relates to natural - and have blathered on about my opposition to "natural beauty" along similar lines. What particularly bugs me about "effortless," though, is that while it ought to at least depict looks that, as you say, " lack a certain visually explicit intentionality," the images often enough look like every other fashion image, if a bit more windswept. As in, I'm not sure what about Alexa Chung in a blue blazer and matching purse looks anything but intentional. Meanwhile, Erin Wasson (or any other model or model-slash-whatever) wearing nothing special but congratulated for stylistic innovation, if that's what we're going to call "effortless," it's annoying but at least comprehensible, because then "effortless" means conventional good looks paired with clothing that on civilians would look unstylish. What mystifies me is when regular fashion spreads are accompanied by a word describing the precise opposite of what's depicted, effort-wise.

Daniel said...

"Effortless" does not mean effortless. It means that one of the key characteristics of looking good is the appearance of effortlessness. I am not a fashion expert, but do watch a lot of sports. One of the common refrains in sports is that, for instance, Roger Federer "makes it look effortless". Much like fashion, absolutely nothing about what Roger Federer does is effortless -- it took hour after hour, day after day, year after year of constant grueling work to get to where he is. But because he is so smooth, so calm, so prepared, he makes the difficult look easy. I would suspect that the look of effortlessness is as captivating in fashion as it is in sports.

st. valentine said...

I disagree somewhat. In fashion, "effortless" means "not fussy" or "nicely understated." For example, in the Sartorialist photograph you linked to, one can surmise that a certain amount of effort went into getting dressed. But it's not unreasonable effort, and the result looks relaxed and unfussy. To me, that's effortless. But you are right that it's a bit of a euphemism.

Phoebe said...

Daniel,

What you're describing re: sports comes closer to another fashion trope - "natural beauty" - a term used for beautiful women without visible makeup or obvious plastic surgery, if often misused as a descriptor wrt women who clearly weren't born with it. The problem with "effortless style" is that it's impossible to tell from an image of an involved outfit (which these "effortless" looks typically are) whether a stylist arranged it or whether it's just what happened to be lying on the end of the bed of the wearer that morning. The other problem with it, the main one, is that "effortless" is used to describe outfits that are involved enough to suggest effort pretty much had to be involved. Which brings us to...

St. Valentine,

The outfit you mention is indeed the least effort-full-looking of those I link to, but it seems as involved as one could go on what looks to have been a hot day. What, to you, defines "fussy"? I think of fussiness as piled-on accessories (think Edina Monsoon) and logos, but I'm not sure if fussiness=effort. Fussy is more like tacky - not the result of too much effort but of maybe too little. More often than not, "understated" reveals effort. I mean, a minimalist look is "understated," but a North Face and sweats?