A woman watches her body uneasily, as though it were an unreliable ally in the battle for love.
—Leonard Cohen in The Favorite Game
“You know what I do with unhappiness? I buy it off! . . . I’m buying this house for my baby’s wedding present. Forty thousand dollars, cash! Now that ain’t buying happiness, that’s buying off unhappiness!”
—Cassidy in Hitchcock’s Psycho
Sequins and Tristesse
Blowup (1966) by Antonioni
Fifty years later and nothing has changed:
And the pièce de résistance:
Kate Moss for Versace
Almost without exception the models in ads for haute couture look any of the following:
They do not look inviting, warm, happy, sensual, mysterious, dreamy . . . .
I have heard many speculations but none of them ever seemed right to me.
For example it is often said that this unhappy aloof look is a sign of high status—some combination of power, money, good looks, and fame. But that is simply not true. High-status women in real life look relaxed, confident, and happy:
Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen (founder of Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund)
Susan Wojcicki (senior vice president of Google)
Kara Swisher (co-executive editor of All Things Digital)
Clara Shih (CEO and founder of Hearsay Social)
Alison Pincus (co-founder and chief strategy officer of One Kings Lane)
Juliet Baubigny (partner at Kleiner Perkins Calulfield and Byers)
(from Vanity Fair October 2013)
Another idea given is that this unhappy lost look is saying that if you wear this dress you will create envy in other women. But this makes no sense at all. A woman in a beautifully designed expensive dress will create more envy if she looks happy. An unhappy woman will cause other women to say: “Well she is beautiful and she has money but at least she is miserable.”
Another suggestion I have heard is that the models themselves are unhappy because they are starving and live stressful lives. But models are actresses and follow the direction given by those calling the shots: the executives at the fashion house, the advertising agency, and the photographer. (I imagine Antonioni was having a little joke about this when he has the photographer in Blowup yell “Smile!” and the five models all continue to look blank.)
The solution comes easily if we stop thinking that the lost unhappy look is some secret message that needs to be decoded. If instead we take the unhappy look at face value everything falls into place. These women look unhappy in order to express unhappiness.
Ads are mirrors: they are designed to reflect back the inner state of the person they are selling to. The viewer identifies with the person in the ad and is seduced into buying the product: “That’s me! I want that!”
So if the fashion houses are universally showing lost unhappy women in their ads then that is because they have identified their primary market: lost unhappy women who will identify with this look and this feeling.
But we still have a mystery: why would a look of unhappiness sell more dresses than a look of happiness?
A clue comes from Versace’s logo:
This is Medusa.
Medusa was a girl of ravishing beauty. So much so that she induced great desire in Poseidon and they made passionate love in the temple of Athena. This angered Athena, who changed Medusa’s hair to snakes. And anyone who looked upon Medusa turned to stone.
Why would Versace choose Medusa to express the essence of his company?
At first it might seem like a strange choice for a company that makes women beautiful. But Versace was truly inspired. I am sure he knew exactly what he was doing.
Medusa was so sexually exciting she drove not just all men but a god to a frenzy of desire. And then suddenly she finds herself out in the cold unable to attract anyone at all. Poseidon is surely out of her life forever. She is no longer in the game of love. And it was another female who banished her. She is understandably upset by all of this.
This it turns out is the perfect image to mirror the primary market Versace is selling to. And in fact the Versace logo is the perfect icon for the entire fashion business. Versace even got the eyes right: blank and lifeless.
Versace was a genius—as a designer and as a marketer. In one image he lets us in on the secret. He is telling us a story—an eternal story that began before Medusa and continues to this day.
Let me offer what I believe is the solution to the mystery of the sad lifeless faces.
If I were the head of a top fashion house here is how my thinking would go:
I am in business. I want to make as much money as possible.
What am I offering? To make women look stunningly beautiful.
I do this for a price: my dresses can sell for $2000 . . . $5000 . . . and more.
So my primary target buyers are women who are wealthy.
Within this niche market—women with lots of money—who has more money . . . women 15 to 35 or women 35 to 55 and up? Clearly the most money is with women 35 and up: divorce settlement, inheritance, career success . . . .
So I can make the most money by creating ads that appeal to women 35 to 55.
To do this I must understand the inner state of mind of women 35 to 55.
Women are in constant competition with each other to be sexy and desirable. This competition is often unstated but it is no less intense for that.
Women 15 to 35 will generally have an advantage over women 35 to 55 in this competition.
This tends to cause frustration and discontent in women 35 to 55 as they feel their power to create desire slipping away.
Women 15 to 35 are at the peak of their sexual allure. In addition they have not had as much disappointment in love as women 35 to 55. So they will be happier than women 35 to 55.
Women who are young, happy, and less wealthy will have less motivation and less ability to buy my clothing. Women who are older, less happy in their love lives, and have more money will be more likely to buy.
So the women who are my primary target are feeling insecure and unhappy inside.
Hmmm . . . what do I do with this?
Instead of running away from this and glossing it over with fake smiles on my models, I will play to it. But I won’t leave the woman in that state. I will come to her rescue. My ads will say two things in one image:
1 I know you are unhappy in love. I can see it in your face. You can’t compete with younger women. Perhaps your husband has even left you for a younger woman. I feel your pain. I understand your bitterness. I sympathize. I truly do. I know how you feel inside. You feel like Medusa after you have lost Poseidon and been sent by another woman into the desert. You want very much to return to the days of desire, love, and sexual ecstasy.
. . . but never fear . . .
2 I have the perfect solution: a very beautiful dress created by a master. Perhaps it is true that you can’t buy happiness. But you can do the next best thing: you can buy off unhappiness. My dress is so stunning and will show you off to such advantage that the sting of your discontent will disappear. You may feel miserable inside but you can walk into any room and still make a splash. Heads will turn. You can still be in the game.
This is pure genius on the part of the fashion houses and the advertising agencies they work with. Instead of running away from this sensitive and emotionally-charged issue they plunge headlong into it and use the intense emotions of these women to make the most sales.
Of course younger women as well as happy women of all ages will still buy clothing from the top fashion houses because the dresses can be stunning and because the brand name has cachet. These women are in the club of high status women. But the sweet spot of the curve—the biggest pool of money and desire to buy—is women 35 to 55.
They are selling to Medusa—not Medusa as monster but a Medusa who deserves our sympathy and who represents all women as they get older and watch Poseidon—the alpha male that every woman desires—shift his eyes to younger women.
The fashion houses are saying: you do not have to go quietly into the oblivion of sexual invisibility. We can delay this for you. We are your saviors.
2 Fireworks and Flow
In Picnic (1955) Flo Owens (Betty Field)—gives her beautiful daughter Madge (Kim Novak) some advice:
Flo: It would be awfully nice to be married to Alan, Madge. Better get busy.
Flo: A pretty girl doesn’t have long. Just a few years. Then she’s the equal of kings. She can walk out on a shanty like this and live in a palace. If she loses her chance when she’s young, she might as well throw all her prettiness away.
Madge: I’m only 19.
Flo: And next summer you’ll be 20. And then 21 and then . . . 40.
Madge: You don’t have to be morbid.
Flo gets it right. Nature is cruel. And Madge is wrong to say you don’t have to be morbid: her wise mother understands that this is truly life and death. Survival. Women compete amongst themselves to be the most beautiful just as men compete amongst themselves to win the women who are the most beautiful. It is literally a fight to the death to see who will have sexual pleasure and procreate and who is left in the dust.
This is the primal story. It is told again and again in ancient myths and fairy tales and romantic stories and it continues to dominate story telling to this day.
And when Flo says that a young pretty woman is the equal of kings, she is actually understating things.
Tom Waits says it well in All the World Is Green:
I fell into the ocean
When you became my wife
I risked it all against the sea
To have a better life
Marie you are the wild blue sky
And men do foolish things
You turn kings into beggars
And beggars into kings
A woman is a skyrocket. She is a Roman candle. She is fireworks. Her power rises sooner and faster and reaches greater heights than that of any man. At the top she is incandescent and irresistible and is much more powerful than any king.
A man’s power rises later and more slowly, and even though it can last longer and declines more gently, it never achieves the spectacular heights of a woman.
Hitchcock and Antonioni use fireworks and skyrockets—literally—to express these ideas.
In To Catch a Thief (1955) a 25-year-old Grace Kelly plays a rich American girl on the Riviera at the height of her magical allure. The fireworks express her power and simultaneously express the orgasmic explosion she causes in John Robie (Cary Grant). He is a cat burglar—a double entendre: he steals women’s jewels as well as their hearts.
To Catch a Thief
In La Notte (1961) Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) is a woman in her thirties and though she is still quite attractive her husband Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) shows little interest in her and actively pursues the young Valentina (Monica Vitti). In this scene Lidia watches the rockets going up but this only reminds her that no sexual rockets are coming her way and she turns and walks sadly away.
Love with humans is further complicated by the fact that while men are always the same, women are in continuous transformation.
The essence of men is very simple. It is two things that are constants all their lives: they sexually desire beautiful women and they have a strong need to protect women.
Women on the other hand have five distinct states of being. Five distinct destinies. Women are in continuous flow from one state to the next.
1 The bud pops out in full flower with menstruation and the girl becomes a young woman and for the next ten to twenty years she is irresistible.
2 This leads to desire and a sexual paradise that is the most extraordinary experience we as humans have on this earth. (As powerful as this joy is for the man it is much more intense and ecstatic for the woman. This is borne out by science, by observation, and by ancient myths. Hera and Zeus were debating who had more pleasure in sex. Zeus said the woman did, while Hera said the man did. They could not come to agreement so they asked Tiresias, who had been first a man, then a woman for seven years, and then a man again. He replied without hesitation that women enjoyed sex nine times more than men. This infuriated Hera because this was the greatest secret women withheld from men. Even to this day women understandably deny this and it is still woman’s greatest secret. As you can see I put this in parentheses and whisper it to you lest I stir up the wrath of Hera.)
3 Sex of course leads to the next transformation: pregnancy. The belly swells and the breasts fill with milk and increase in size.
4 The baby comes out and the belly flattens but her breasts stay large and milk continues to flow out of her as her baby sucks upon them. She is now a mother.
5 Menopause: no more eggs. And so no more pregnancy and no more babies.
Just as a woman has eggs already inside her from the beginning of her life, just so all five of these states are contained in women at all times. For example a woman who has just had her first child and is now a mother can still be sexy and can enjoy sex and can get pregnant again. And a young woman who has just fallen in love for the first time—even as she is focused on the excitement and the joy of being with her man—feels a pull of forces that are building up inside her like water in the locks of a canal calling her to sexual paradise and pregnancy and motherhood.
This is the deep explanation for why women “multi-task”: they are truly always doing five things at once. Men on the other hand are single-minded in their continuous desire for sexy women and their devotion to protecting them.
On a hot summer night in Connecticut my cousin David and I decided we would take our sleeping bags and sleep out under the stars in the back yard. I was about 12 and he was about 14. As we lay there looking up at the night sky I said in an early experience of existential wonder: “David, why are we here? What is the point of our existence?” Without hesitation David replied: “It’s very simple, Dick. Reproduction and self-preservation.” Clearly he did not understand I was asking a metaphysical question. But as I look back on it I realize that David had actually given me the fundamental truth about our identity here as humans.
It is all very simple. We are driven by powerful innate forces of nature. Women for a short time—when they are most fertile—are irresistible and create great sexual desire in men. A man is drawn in to sexual paradise and this induces in him a powerful urge to protect the woman at all costs. This allows the woman to flow to pregnancy and then flow again to a breast-feeding mother in safety knowing that her man and the men of the tribe will encircle and protect her from outside predators—human and otherwise.
The fashion houses are simply offering a woman both sympathy for her ever diminishing sexual allure and at the same time a way of extending indefinitely phase one and phase two of her five phases—that of irresistible sexual temptress and that of ecstatic sexual paradise.
3 Smiling Women
Additional evidence for my statements about the unhappy faces is found in ads in which the models look happy and sometimes even smile!
Let’s play a game. I will give you an image in which the models look happy. See if you can figure out why. Below each image is my explanation. As you will see, in each case these happy models actually reinforce my thesis.
Olga Kurylenko for Waldorf Astoria
Olga Kurylenko—a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace—is stunning in this dress. But the ad is not selling the dress. It is selling the Waldorf Astoria hotel.
Furthermore it is selling it to men and not to women. The man on the right with his back to us is clearly the target audience. The woman gives him a look that says: undress me. The not-so-subtle but nonetheless probably effective message is: stay at the Waldorf and you will meet an ultra-sexy woman who will invite you to spend a night in paradise. And in such elegant surroundings too! This is something that happens to James Bond. You are James Bond.
Kate Upton for David Yurman
The look on Kate Upton’s face is dreamy and magical and warm and sensual and open and feminine and in love. When I look at this ad I feel she is calling to me to enter an enchanted land. It is the look every man wants to see when his wife or girlfriend looks at him just before she kisses him sensually on the lips and melts in his arms.
David Yurman sells expensive jewelry. A man does not usually go into a dress shop and buy a dress for the woman in his life. The traditional gift is jewelry. Clearly this ad was created for men. It says to the man looking at it: Your girlfriend feels this way about you. Give her our jewelry as an expression of your gratitude and love for her. It also can say: Give your girlfriend our jewelry and she will look at you like this.
This is as perfect a seduction as can be conceived. While the Waldorf Astoria ad is seduction by pure animal lust, the David Yurman ad seduces us with an irresistible call to the heart. In this one image is the dream of true love, complete loyalty, and a giving of body and soul together—the ultimate ecstasy.
Carla Bruni Sarkozy for Bulgari
A smile! And a big one at that.
And it is Carla Bruni Sarkozy—singer/songwriter and wife of the former head of France. A woman of the highest status looking radiantly happy. Clearly it is because she is wearing a necklace, earrings, and ring by Bulgari.
And she is looking off to her left and at a slight upward angle into we imagine the eyes of her man, waving to him and sending all her ecstatic happiness to him.
The message is clear: give your wife a Bulgari necklace and she will give you this same look.
The face of the woman is one of love and devotion and quiet happiness.
The caption reads “Something truly precious holds its beauty forever.” A double entendre not lost on the primary target buyer: a man. It says to him: This is the scene at your home right now. Your beautiful young wife—who is teaching your daughter how to draw—is wearing the Patek Philippe watch you gave her. It is on the wrist of the hand that has her gold wedding ring. She is happily married to you. She loves you.
The pale pink roses are the perfect expression of this same exquisite beauty that is in your life. In the background is a huge window filled with radiant light. A happy home with a loving wife.
Patek Philippe is the perfect expression of this same sentiment. Our timepieces are precious too and hold their beauty forever. Giving her this watch confirms your love for her. This idyllic scene will last forever.
In all four of these ads for Banana Republic the women look happy.
In the first one the woman is smiling as she puts her arm around her boyfriend. He is smiling too and they are both clearly in love.
In the second ad the woman looks happy as she walks by the man sitting at the table. You can see that she knows that he can’t keep his eyes off her.
The girl in the third ad is also happy.
In the fourth ad all four women are radiant and smiling. And in fact the tall brunette is L’Wren Scott—her boyfriend is Mick Jagger by the way—a top designer in haute couture.
So don’t these ads challenge my thesis? No. They actually are more evidence in support of it.
Sadie Whitelocks writes in The Daily Mail:
“It is the first time Ms Scott—whose own high-end fashion brand is much-loved by A-list figures including Michelle Obama and Nicole Kidman—has partnered with a mainstream fashion retailer.
“While her red carpet dresses average at $1,500, the designer’s affordable collection for Banana Republic includes figure-hugging party dresses, fitted blazers and colorful printed trousers, ranging in price from $39.90 to $165.
“While the brand typically specializes in preppy casualwear, Ms Scott has managed to bring her high fashion vision to the new line.” (1)
Owned by the Gap (which targets men and women in their teens and twenties), Banana Republic—while being more elastic in its age range and a little more upscale—is clearly going after a younger more middle-class audience. The ads say: this is you: young and happy in love.
Katie Holmes for Bobbi Brown makeup
Katie Holmes for Bobbi Brown makeup
“Confidence is Everything. But a Little Makeup Can’t Hurt”
Katie Holmes definitely looks happy. And makeup is clearly pitched to women.
But great makeup makes a woman look beautiful without calling attention to itself. It is the invisible assist. It is one of the secret weapons for creating beauty.
A great dress on the other hand causes us to marvel not just at how sexy the woman looks but at the dress itself. (Lipstick is more like a dress in this regard: it covers up flesh while calling attention to itself.)
But most importantly it would make no sense to show an unhappy face in an ad for a product that emphasizes the face. The unhappy look is reserved for items that focus on the body.
The woman looks as adorable as the golden retriever. And she is happy.
But Gucci here is selling a handbag—not clothing. Accessories do not need an unhappy look to sell them as they are not directly about the body.
Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue
The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is not selling swimsuits. It is selling magazines. And it is selling them to men. The models are all smiling and seem to be saying: “We would love it if you would come play with us in the water.” It would make no sense for them to look lost and unhappy.
1 An ad is always created to appeal to the primary audience—the sweet spot of the curve—you are selling to. It says: this is who you are or believe you can be.
2 The unhappy lost look is used in ads for expensive clothing targeting wealthy women 35 to 55—those more likely to be unhappy in their love lives and have the means to buy off this unhappiness.
3 The models look happy in ads that do the following:
target women 15 to 35
are selling products related to the face such as makeup and shampoo
are selling ancillary products such as perfume and handbags
4 Desire and Romance
Wetherby by David Hare: 4:10 to 5:42
Stanley Pilborough: I see people as they really are. I remember once my father—also a solicitor—said: “I’ve learned never to judge any man from his behavior with money or the opposite sex.” Yet it is my own experience those are the only ways to judge him. I expect good of nobody . . . and I’m sometimes pleasantly surprised. When I find good, my first feeling is one of nostalgia for something we’ve lost. Ask John Morgan . . .
John Morgan: Well, I don’t know. I only know goodness . . . and anger . . . and revenge . . . and evil . . . and desire. These seem to me far better words then neurosis and psychology and paranoia. These old words, these good old words have a sort of . . . conviction . . . which all this modern apparatus of language now lacks. We bury these words, these simple feelings. We bury them deep. And all the building over that constitutes this century will not wish these feelings away.
Roger Braithwaite: Yes well you’ll have to say what you really mean by that.
Morgan: Would I?
Roger: Define your terms.
Morgan: They don’t need defining. If you can’t feel them you might as well be dead.
Goodness and anger and revenge and evil and desire. These good old words. John Morgan speaks the truth: if you can’t feel them you might as well be dead.
Some say that desire is a bad thing and leads to suffering. Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Abelard and Heloise, Paris and Helen, The Sorrows of Young Werther . . . . The list goes on and on. Death, castration, war, suicide. Suffering at every turn.
But so what?
First: to run away from suffering is to run away from life itself and so is not a worthy goal. It is the opposite of a heroic life.
Second: desire does not always lead to disaster. Often it is what drives heroes to act boldly to fight off evil and find and save and win the princess.
Third: it is in our nature for men to desire women and for women to desire to be desired. Paris turned down power from Hera and wisdom from Athena and chose instead Aphrodite’s offer of the most beautiful woman. And Helen willingly ran off with him.
Fourth: the rapture caused by sexual desire is the most intense and incredible experience we humans can have. Whether the tale ends badly or well is another matter.
Fifth: Desire gives us romance.
Clearly desire is good.
In fact it is thwarting desire that is the real evil. As Guy Davenport said: “Who acts without desire is beauty’s ruin and the plague of nations.” A land without desire is a land in which beauty is useless—filled with sexless milquetoasts and sad lost women as far as the eye can see. That nation is doomed.
It is our nature to desire. As Goethe said: das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan: the eternal feminine draws us ever on.
Instead of railing against this and fighting it, we should embrace it robustly. Doing so means life.
And so I praise the efforts of the fashion houses in their efforts to help women create desire.
It saddens me to hear people express contempt for the fashion world. They sneer at “fashionistas” and claim fashion is a shiny world of no substance filled with shallow decadent people who are impossible to work with.
The Devil Wears Prada
I don’t like your fashion business mister
and I don’t like these drugs that keep you thin
I don’t like what happened to my sister
First we take Manhattan then we take Berlin
Leonard Cohen: First We Take Manhattan
Others—complaining that fashion emphasizes physical looks—ask: would you want a girlfriend who is beautiful but who is empty and cold? As if being beautiful and looking sexy must perforce mean the woman is empty and cold.
It is often said that beauty is skin deep and fleeting and so we should look to other things to sustain us. But this is silly. Life itself is fleeting and comes to a bad end no matter what we do so we should engage in the world in the most glorious rapturous way we can no matter how long it lasts.
Some say that fashion emphasizes women’s bodies and so encourages men to see women as sex objects. But clearly this is sour grapes as most women love being sexy and causing men to desire them.
Whatever the shortcomings of the fashion world, this kind of carping is ultimately irrelevant. Every woman wants to be beautiful and every man wants to be with a beautiful woman. And every man wants to be powerful in some way and every woman wants to be with a powerful man. Everyone knows this down deep but nobody wants to admit it or talk about it. So instead the fashion houses simply get the job done. They say to women: we will make you beautiful and help you cause men to desire you and then you can be with a powerful man.
Female beauty and the desire it creates in men is of extraordinary importance. Far from being superficial, it is the essence of life itself: if women do not generate desire in men and get pregnant we die and it is this desire that causes men to want to protect women and children with their lives.
Female beauty is not some social construct engineered by men. To overturn this canard all we have to do is return to ancient myth: Venus—the goddess of beauty and desire and enticement and seduction and female charm and love and sex and pleasure and joy and fertility and prosperity—arose from the foam of the sea. It is she who completely overpowers men—not the other way around. She is the prime mover:
The Birth of Venus by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1879)
Female beauty is the most powerful force in the world.
Venus is always with us. Kate Moss in that Versace dress is a recent incarnation of the love goddess from the sea:
The brilliant teasing faux chastity grating strategically and precisely positioned on the dress—look closely and you will find it—will stir Poseidon’s desire to a fever pitch as he rises again from the sea.
Now imagine that Kate Moss had on her face the expression we saw on Kate Upton’s face:
This would cause not just sexual desire but deep feelings of love.
It would without doubt trigger the second Trojan War . . . and inspire poems like these two by e e cummings:
it is at moments after i have dreamed
of the rare entertainment of your eyes,
when(being fool to fancy)i have deemed
with your peculiar mouth my heart made wise;
at moments when the glassy darkness holds
the genuine apparition of your smile
(it was through tears always)and silence moulds
such strangeness as was mine a little while;
moments when my once more illustrious arms
are filled with fascination, when my breast
wears the intolerant brightness of your charms:
one pierced moment whiter than the rest
—turning from the tremendous lie of sleep
i watch the roses of the day grow deep.
i love you much(most beautiful darling)
more than anyone on the earth and i
like you better than everything in the sky
-sunlight and singing welcome your coming
although winter may be everywhere
with such a silence and such a darkness
no one can quite begin to guess
(except my life)the true time of year-
and if what calls itself a world should have
the luck to hear such singing(or glimpse such
sunlight as will leap higher than high
through gayer than gayest someone’s heart at your each
nearness)everyone certainly would (my
most beautiful darling)believe in nothing but love
We should be grateful to the fashion industry and to the great fashion designers, whose creations can make women look spectacular and can create desire and deep yearning in men, which is the stuff of romance. What a great gift—to both women and men.
And so to all the great fashion designers in the world I say: Thank you. You keep the dream alive.
(1) Sadie Whitelocks: L’Wren Scott for Banana Republic
© Richard Hobby