Monday, March 07, 2011

One last Galliano post

Rhonda Garelick has just penned the best take on l'Affaire Galliano I've yet found. She's absolutely right to contextualize it within both the history of French fascism and the undemocratic aesthetic of fashion even today (token black or average-size models notwithstanding). But that's all I'll say, other than to reiterate that this is a must-read.


Withywindle said...

And although we insist on the racial diversity of fashion’s current standards of beauty, the fascists’ body ideal has persisted and expanded far beyond Europe. The hallmarks of the Nazi aesthetic — blue eyes, blond hair, athletic fitness and sharp-angled features — are the very elements that define what we call the all-American look, still visible in the mythic advertising landscapes of designers like (the decidedly non-Aryan) Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.

C'mon, this is self-evidently silly. Does she think that no one valued blond hair, blue eyes, and athleticism before 1933? That the All-American look was really invented in Berlin and Vichy? Fail; try again.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"Fail" is rather harsh; "silly" I'm not seeing. It's an op-ed, not an academic paper. I mean, she might also have mentioned Vicky Caron's article about the connection between pro-"artisanal" and anti-Semitism (the 'Jews sell cheap, mass-produced crap' argument) in the 1930s, but she couldn't cover everything.

The all-American look largely was invented by postwar American Jewish fashion designers who couldn't possibly not have noticed that the extermination of the Jews was carried out largely in the name of it being so much better to be blond and blue-eyed than brown-and-brown. The gushing over athletic blondes in Portnoy's Complaint had - and keeps on having - its parallel in the fashion world.

And yes, while veneration of blond hair did not begin in 1933, what ended around then was a parallel and perhaps even more pronounced admiration for 'exotic' female beauty, a category that included but was not limited to (the presumed appearance of female) Jews. Today, there's an attempt at reintroducing the idea that something other than blonde is sexy, but it manifests itself a politically-correct order to put women on runways and in ads despite the fact that they do not meet conventional standards of beauty, not because they do. (Kind of like when the leader of my Birthright Israel tour asked the Jewish guys to notice how beautiful the Jewish girls around them were. When you start asking people to think this, you're inadvertently reaffirming the idea that whichever group is not attractive.)

Britta said...

I don't see how pointing out that the Germans didn't invent the concept of Aryan superiority makes it more acceptable. Yes, other European and American racists had the same views often expressed in the same way both pre-Third Reich and post-Third Reich. In that sense, the Nazis weren't necessarily the formation of something new rather than an extreme expression of widely held views. I guess one could say that, since it was so widespread, belief in N. European supremacy is actually harmless, it was just that the Nazis took it to far. A more morally defendable position however, is that actually, it was *never* acceptable, and the Nazis just exposed the ugliness which underlay even the most "civilized" expression of these beliefs.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I suspect what Withywindle's getting at isn't that Gobineau had ideas about "Aryans" in the 1860s, ideas that came to be politicized in the 1880s and we all know about the 1930s, but that Helen of Troy or whoever was supposed to have been blond.

Regardless, we can separate out the historical specifics and we're left with a pretty interesting paradox about fashion. On the one hand, fashion loves to present itself as this space for creativity, outsiders, misfits, women and gay men, etc. An escape from corporate conformity! It's about looking different! And Galliano looks different, that's for sure.

On the other, the standards of beauty fashion perpetuates are so much stricter when it comes to age and the body and so much more racially exclusive when it comes to face/hair than are the famously undemocratic desires of lowest-common-denominator heterosexual men.

The standards the Gallianos of the world promote are not quite in line with those of the Nazis - athleticism, an appearance of fertility, a healthy glow, these are not what today's Estonian waifs are known for projecting. So my slight quibble with the op-ed would be that the all-American ideal comes from a different and more mass-oriented subset of "fashion" than Dior couture and whatnot. I think the essential point, though, is not that blondness in particular was valued then and continues to be valued now, but rather that fashion perpetuates incredibly undemocratic beauty standards, while at the same time presenting itself as a home for eccentrics.

Withywindle said...


The Op-Ed hangs upon some more-than-casual connection between the modern fashion industry and Nazi aesthetics; if the aesthetics are not particularly Nazi, then the article collapses. Hence “fail” and “silly.” I would be more gentle if this were just distorting simplification; but I take the thesis in any shape to be wrong, and “Op-Ed genre” doesn’t justify just plain wrong. It seems, rather, an example of “if it’s bad, it must be Nazi; and by calling it Nazi, I can avoid any more uncomfortable sort of self-examination; only a Nazi would do something bad.” And in any case, it simply seems to be a return of the sublimated: it isn’t a new idea that Nazis are pervert homosexuals, collaborators are more pervert homosexuals with a taste for domination, we couldn’t possibly be Nazis because we’re normal straight people. Your op-ed just seems to be heading us back to the same-old same-old with different lingo.

As for the all-American look being invented by post-World War II American Jews—although I don’t quite see what that has to do with the Op-Ed you cite—you mean like John Wayne? Occam’s Razor says that American advertising features variations on a theme of good-looking Americans, with some bias toward older-stock Americans, both for culture-hegemony reasons and for genre-reference reasons. I would take the All-American look of the 1950s to refer to American advertising images over the last century, and to the actual look of most Americans; the ethnicity of the fashion designers should be relatively unimportant in comparison to those two factors.

As for blonde/exotic beauty ideals—you care about this more than I do, and you know about it more than I do, but I am wary of your thesis. This is the sort of thing where my intellectual resources are My Experience and My Pop Culture Knowledge, but for neither of these does it seem quite so hard-edged, or quite so reductive; and neither do I have an overwhelming sense that the pin-up of the day so greatly affects everyday behavior or desires. But this is an instinctive wariness rather than an articulate argument.


“Blondes pretty” isn’t quite the same thing as “We Are Racists, yeeha!” I suppose “X is normal & natural” is usually meant to excuse X; see Dr. Kinsey; but it doesn’t have to. And as noted above, “X is Nazi” is also a comfortable way to avoid self-scrutiny. And since I think “X is Nazi” is just false, let’s avoid it.


I’d also add that an Englishman in 1700 might have said about Natalie Portman that She’s a Black Girl; and maybe a Mycenean Greek would have said She’s a Blond Girl; the words are imperfect indicators. I think “blonde pretty” does go back a fair ways; also “brunette pretty” and “red-head pretty”; but I would be wary of any narratives on the subject, given the limited and ambiguous evidence early on, and the unlimited and ambiguous evidence later on.

Beauty ideals (“standards”) don’t comport well with democracy.

Forgive me if I’m repeating points made by commenters at earlier points in this blog’s career. I don't have a perfect memory.

Britta said...

I think Phoebe might mean something more like Barbie. Barbie was invented by a Jewish woman and based on a German hooker doll from the early 50s, and she has been criticized for decades for reinforcing a certain narrow blonde/big breasted beauty ideal.

I mean, I agree that there is a certain nebulousness surrounding beauty ideals, so it's hard to separate racism, racial/ethnic beauty standards, the question of what is beautiful, is/should beauty be universal etc. from one another.

I agree that "blonde is beautiful" does not necessarily have to be drawn from Nazism, because it is and has been such a pervasive meme in European culture. Questions remain however, as to whether valorization of blondeness ever can have non problematic undertones, leaving Hitler out of the equation, considering that in modern times valorization of blondeness has been part of the narrative of colonialism, slavery, and basically ill-treatment of people not from NW Europe.

Even if the answer to the first question is yes, I think there is also a question of, even if in 1932 such a statement wouldn't be problematic, would knowing what we know about the Nazis today make it problematic now. Similarly, the swastika was not invented by Nazis, has a completely different meaning in other parts of the world, was used with regularity in home decorating in the pre-war Western world, yet the person who nowadays decides to tile their bathroom in a swastika pattern would be considered to at best have extremely poor taste.

I don't think we have to claim that blondes are ugly, but I do think that the utter dominance in high, mid, and low fashion of the northern european beauty ideal should be questioned more than it is. It is so ubiquitous that its hard to notice unless you are paying attention, but once you do start noticing, you will realize the way in which magazines/pop culture plays lip service to diversity but the vast majority of models/actresses still fit the same narrow beauty standards.

I also am not sure, at least in Europe, that the connection between blonde = beautiful & racially pure and Jew = ugly & impure is as dead as it ought to be, although it may be buried far below the surface.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


A few things...

First, the problem with discussing Nazism is that it was both and at one and the same time the most horrible "ism" ever, to which nothing can be compared, and a movement very much of its time. Fascist aesthetics could be found in movements that were not at all fascistic, non-racists could (for a time, at least, in some places) be fascists, etc. This how one finds Zionist propaganda posters from around then with strapping, athletic, implicitly-Jewish blonds and blondes. The aesthetic had sinister implications even leaving Nazism aside, but it's exceedingly difficult in retrospect to leave Nazism aside. The problem is, if you're going to discuss the connection between X and French aesthetics of the early 1940s,

I interpreted the op-ed writer not to be thoughtlessly equating "Nazi" with "bad" or "perverted," but rather to be pointing out the connection between the undemocratic and youth-and-blondness-leaning aesthetic ideals of fashion and those of Nazism. Given that Galliano seems to "love Hitler" and wish that all the Jews had been gassed, it seems a stretch to claim that he's being referred to as connected with Nazism simply because he's gay and especially flamboyant.

Next, the relationship between "blonde pretty" - that is, between the continued necessity for all but a few token models to have the same Nordic-looking coloring - and Nazism. Prior to Nazism, there was no connection between the valorization of blondness and Nazism. 1700 England is irrelevant here, because genocide largely in the name of ridding the world of non-blonds had not yet been committed. (Britta, I see now you get at this as well - I began writing this before you'd commented again.) After the fact, one might imagine (naively, fine) that everyone would have learned a lesson, and it would no longer be socially acceptable to be rah-rah any particular coloring, especially that particular coloring. What's interesting is that if anything, the reverse has happened. We as a society have if anything become ever more convinced that "Aryan"=beautiful, a move that, yes, does owe something to Jewish self-hatred, or whatever it is we're going to call Ralph Laurenism.

Finally, two small points. One, I'm not a fan, as a rule, of the phenomenon by which articles by female writers - and mostly female writers seem to get this - is referred to as "silly." A pet peeve of mine, not a substantive argument against your comment, I realize. I'd prefer "wrong," etc. It may well be that you could cite many instances of times you've called male writers' ideas silly, but as a rule, this is a word that comes up in reference to women, when if a man had written the same, "wrong" or some variant would have sufficed. Two, you refer to "Your op-ed," as though I wrote it. While I wouldn't mind being an established prof with an op-ed about fashion and anti-Semitism in the Times, this was written by a person who is not me. I think it's a fabulous article, but as you know I've already written my own take (takes, really) on Galliano, which are somewhat different from that one. I wasn't comparing this op-ed with my take, but with other takes I'd read, which brush over the connection between Galliano's chosen hatred and the history of the French fashion industry.


Agreed with most of that. But as someone currently living in Europe, I'm not aware of much of a Jewish-as-ugly beauty ideal here, at least compared with NY. The various beauty procedures Jewish women undergo to look more "Aryan" don't seem as popular here. That, and while this is not about Jews, one sees many more black woman-white man couples here than in NY, suggesting that Nordic-ish whiteness is not the only look white French men find attractive. I can't, of course, speak for all of Europe, and it could be different in, say, Scandinavia, or any place other than Paris.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

One more thought on this, as I'm too tired to make sense of what I'd intended as a general comment about chastity once and now not so much being more expected of females than males and that has now become one about the romantic adventures of Vikings, Russian peasants, and... as I mentioned, too tired to weigh in on that.

But this... I think where the op-ed may have caused some confusion is in the fact that the Garelick refers to "deep and unsettling parallels between the industry, particularly in Europe, and fascism’s antidemocratic aesthetic," and parallels, though the stuff of much academic research, are not really an op-ed style argument. It's straightforward - and she also spells it out - where Galliano in particular fits in, but it's not clear where or to what extent we should assign blame for the continued craze for fine-haired blond models, or why it's necessarily fascistic that fashion designers are eccentric divas. I feel as though this is something Garelick could have made clear easily enough in a longer piece, but that hinting at things, especially when it comes to Fascism, gets people (Withywindle and no doubt others as well) riled up.

For what it's worth, this: is also worth a read. Maybe when I wake up I'll see that it was wrong and silly as well, but so be it.

Withywindle said...

Britta: I think this argument parallels a fair number of others: does Nazism implicate all future articulations of 1) nationalism; 2) socialism; 3) Christianity; 4) paganism; 5) environmentalism; 6) vegetarianism; 7) etc., etc., you can make similar lists about Communism, and, strangely enough, one doesn’t seem to get a consensus. And you can write poetry after the Holocaust, after all. I am generally skeptical of “x implicates y” arguments, and tend to think cigars are just cigars. Also particularly skeptical of this argument—but nothing to add to what I’ve said before on that subject.

Phoebe: I think you are paying more attention to my vocabulary than I did. I can tell a Maltz from a Garelick when the wind is south-southwesterly.

Britta said...

The argument isn't a "Nazis did x, therefore x must be bad" type one, a la Jonah Goldberg and organic honey. It's that belief that blonde people are inherently more beautiful than others and therefore more deserving of life (and lebensraum) was the central tenant of Nazism. Of course, blonde was supposed to be linked to being "Aryan," but ultimately, Hitler cared almost as much about being blonde/blue eyed as he did about having Germanic "blood," as things like the lebensborn program attests to. (Also, blue eyed concentration camp victims were not allowed to be experimented on, and blonde ones were often given preferential treatment, regardless of ethnic background. Similarly the Finns, who were technically considered Asian by social scientists of the day (and certainly not Aryan, aka Indo-European, by anyone's definition), were liked by the Germans because they were fair complexioned.) Likewise, antiSemitism was not invented by the Nazis, and one can certainly discuss European antiSemitism without mentioning Nazis, but I don't see how that makes Nazism ever irrelevant to the discussion of European antiSemitism, nor is linking antiSemitism to Nazism ever a spurious connection.
What Godwin's law is about is against people who know nothing about Hitler saying things like, "x is bad, Hitler was bad, therefore x is like Hitler." I don't read it as ruling out a genuine analysis of how things compare to Nazism. In fact, I think we need to take Nazism's romantic critique of liberalism and the enlightenment (albeit an extremely twisted one) *very* seriously if we want to understand how it came about and how to avoid returning to something similar (though of course not the same) in the future.

Moreover, I can't think of, separate from Nazism, a formulation of "blonde people are more attractive than others" that is worthy of defense. Unlike Christianity, or socialism, or good freeways, or vegetarianism, or whatever else people try to smear by linking to Nazism, Nordic aesthetic supremacy is not in itself something worthy and in need of rescuing.