Beauty, Changing the Game, Iconicity, and the Lady Gaga

By Manolo the Shoeblogger

Manolo says, the Manolo has been in the ferociously interesting conversation with his internet friend Eliza Wharton about the matters of beauty, style, and what makes someone the modern icon.

Over the course of this conversation, the Manolo has stated the few of his beliefs, which he will now deliver as the set of provocative Don Colacho style aphorisms:

1. Beauty is not negotiable.

2. If you are not blessed with beauty, change the game.

3. The best way to change the game is by being very different.

4. Great beauty can make you the icon, but beauty is neither necessary nor common among icons.

And now, for the explications:

Beauty is not negotiable

Elizabeth Taylor, Young and Old

'Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety'... ORLY?

The rules of feminine beauty cannot be changed, no matter how much we may wish that they could be. They are as immutable and as fixed as the stars in the heavens: youth, fecundity, symmetry, and the pleasing hip-to-waist ratio.

We may try to convince ourselves that there are other standards of beauty, but such attempts are pretty lies we tell ourselves to make us feel better about our relative lack of beauty.

As cruel as they seem, such statements say nothing about our worth as individuals, or our goodness, or our merit to our family or the world.

Physical beauty is the gift given without reference to merit.

Although, it is the strange gift that inevitably dissipates with age. And one may still be compelling even into oldest age, but one should not be confused: compelling and beautiful are not the same thing. Beauty is compelling, but often the compelling is not also beautiful.

Gloria Swanson, Young and Old

Gloria Swanson, First Beautiful, then Compelling


If you are not blessed with beauty, change the game.

Barbara Streisand Yearbook Picture

Voted Least Likely to Date James Brolin

As youthful beauty fades, or was perhaps never fully present, this is where the art and magic of contriving the desirable is found.

If you are not objectively beautiful, or are imperfectly beautiful, make the conversation about the beauty of your clothing, or your striking personality, your beautiful singing voice, or your intellectual merits. Change the game to more fully favor that which you possess or can acquire through canny means.

It is the opinion of the Manolo that making yourself desirable from the less than ideal position is much more interesting and intellectually satisfying than raw beauty itself. Although, sadly, perhaps never as innately appealing.

Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, 1973

The Game Has Been Changed.


3. The best way to change the game is by being very different.

Shocking Elsa Schiaparelli

Shocking Schiaparelli

By adopting the pose of radical difference, by seeming to reject the immutable standards of beauty, or by rejecting the conventions of society itself, one may achieve the sort of hocus pocus transmutation, one that convinces others of our desirability even as the level of our objective beauty remains unchanged.

This is the secret of most of the fashion icons that our friend Miss Eliza has cited in her post Thou Shalt Be Iconic…

As the Manolo has said, great beauty is inherently compelling. It stands out from the crowd and calls attention to itself. If one is not blessed with great beauty, one must seek other means of differentiation.

This is where fashion and the development of personal style can help.

Wallis Simpson Schiaparelli Lobster

Wallis Simpson wears Elsa Schiaparelli's Lobster Dress

Great beauty can make you the icon, but beauty is neither necessary nor common among icons

Isabella Blow, Fashion Icon

Isabella Blow, not beautiful but iconic.

The Manolo has in the past cited the curious example of the indisputably iconic Elizabeth Taylor, the supernal beauty who has the abysmal taste in clothing. Her iconicity has nothing to do with the clothing she wears; at the best, such things are merely the adjunct to her iconic beauty.

However if you are not Elizabeth Taylor, not even by the wildest stretch of the imagination, and you wish to become iconic, what must you do?

Try putting the lobster on your head…

Isabella Blow Lobster Hat


Isabella Blow Lobster Necklace


And now to address the special problem of Lady Gaga, the Manolo will quote the Salvador Dali.

“The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.”

Lady Gaga Lobster Hat

Possibly the Idiot

The reason why the Manolo is hesitant to declare Lady Gaga the icon is that so much of her work is so identifiably derivative. First she was the Madonna, then she was the Roisin Murphy, and now, this week in Vogue, she is Isabella Blow, and for the Grammies it was back to Madonna.

The problem with the Lady Gaga as both the fashion icon and the pop star is that she clearly suffers from the Anxiety of Influence.


25 Responses to “Beauty, Changing the Game, Iconicity, and the Lady Gaga”

  1. Donna Collins Says:

    Don’t forget Dale Bozzio!

  2. Dani Says:

    The interesting thing about Lady Gaga is that she is objectively and innately quite beautiful. She doesn’t need to change the game. I have never understood why she presents herself as she does- it detracts both from her beauty and her talent. Is it because she, too, has realized it’s more satisfying to try to become iconic through her own devices rather than just relying on natural beauty?

  3. Miss Eliza Wharton Says:

    Your conceptions are very thought-provoking Manolo, and I have so much to comment that I guess there yet another post on the subject coming at my place.

    I really don’t know why, but I always feel compelled to try to defend Gaga. I guess it’s mostly because it often involves interesting arguments and good references. Hardly the case for any other popstar I can think of.

    There are some quite interesting passages in this Vogue paper. I just quote this one:

    “What no one can deny is her uncanny ability to mine decades of avant-garde and pop-culture history and twine them together in a way that feels like the future. She is a human synthesizer, a style aggregator, the perfect Wiki-Google-YouTube–era pop star.”

    So much for the derivative part. Elton John says she’s adventurous. She interest me just for that: she takes the game of avant-garde subversion at a whole new level. And the reason is that she weights millions, and still takes risks as if she was indie. Many will probably say that provocation is her signature, so she’s just doing what she’s paid for. Conceptions along this line probably come from people who never tried their hand at subversion games. It takes serious guts.

    I’m not much into her music, you know that Manolo, but she amazes me. Even if most of her stunts are déjà-vues. At least you’ll concede she has good sources.
    She’s possibly the idiot, but with a keen eye.

  4. Manolo the Shoeblogger Says:

    The Manolo wavers on the Gaga. On the one of the hands, she is by far the most quotable and intelligent seeming of all the pop stars…

    And yet, on the other of the hands, to the Manolo, her act and music are derivative.

    And this is what the Manolo means when he says he believes that the Lady Gaga is suffering from the anxiety of influence. She is well aware of her predecessors and their merit, but has been unable to transcend them, most likely because of some intrinsic fear.

    She knows she is capable of profoundly talented mimicry, but is worried that she cannot succeed as herself.

    Which, may well be the sound judgment, if this video above is to be taken into account.

    And now, oddly, she finds herself in the position of being the Rutles for the post-Madonna age… She is doing the sort of brilliant pastiche that approaches originality, but does not cross over the line.

    So, perhaps the Manolo’s final judgment is that she is brilliant at being other people, brilliant at generating reactions using the templates already laid down for her, but at the same time, also afraid to move beyond the templates.

  5. Nora Charles Says:

    The Manolo is quite right in his observation and I was particularly struck by: “The best way to change the game is by being very different.”

    And I am reminded of the Australian television presenter Claudia Chan Shaw who hosts a collectables and antiques show on the ABC (the Aus equivalent of the BBC/PBS).

    To be sure she is not a classic beauty but she has found a sense of style that works wonderfully for her. She’s not shied away from her angular cat-like face but used it to create a 1920s re-interpretation.

  6. Miss Eliza Wharton Says:

    Oh I had never seen this delightful person. She’s Mrs. Spock no doubt, and I swear I say it in a very positive way.

  7. Riona Says:

    The best way to change the game is to be very different.

    The numbers seem to bear this out. Check out this post from the (always fascinating) OK Cupid blog:

    The more people disagree on someone’s looks, the more likely they are to be seen by SOME as extremely attractive. So quirky, odd, iconic, can outweigh cute.

  8. Kate B. Says:

    Fascinating article! I heart nerds!

  9. caia Says:

    The Manolo is correct that certain characteristics in women are universally considered beautiful, such as symmetry, clear skin, and waist to hip ratio. However, this precis glosses over some crucial context that is quite important: that while that famous ratio remains the same (it correlates with fertility, and is therefore evolutionarily appropriate), the numbers in that constant ratio can vary quite a lot.

    Generally speaking, the standard of Western beauty now is extraordinarily thin in a historical context. One need not even look back to the pre-Raphaelite beauties with their thick thighs and rounded bellies to see this. Since the 1950s, Miss America winners have gotten both taller and thinner. Moreover, I invite you to consider this engraving of Helen of Troy from 1908.

    Helen, as we all know, was “the face that launched a thousand ships”. In the myth, she was lovelier than three goddesses, including Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and love. She has been considered, simply, the most beautiful woman of all time.

    And this is how she was seen in 1908. Click on the picture in the link to zoom in. Look at her arms, what you can discern of her figure under her dress. She even has a hint of a double chin.

    This woman is by no means fat. But in 2011, she would be unable to obtain the lead female role in almost any major American tv series. She’d never be considered for a romantic lead in a movie. She’d be instructed to diet, to Pilates, to spin off forty pounds before she’d even get casting call-backs. Miss America? Not on your life.

    I know, this is tangential to the Manolo’s point. But I felt the need to bring it up because this fluctuating standard, that has been forced so far into thinness that it’s nearly starvation, has real consequences. Not just for the women who develop eating disorders, but for the millions who constrain their self-expression and self-worth, and believe they are unlovable because they are not living up to the narrow expression of the eternal ideal that is our current standard.

  10. Manolo the Shoeblogger Says:

    The Manolo would point out to his friend Caia that while the chubbiness or thinness of the model of feminine beauty changes, what has not changed very much is the importance of the hip-to-waist ratio.

    Yes, in the last half of the 19th century the preferred feminine body type was chubbier, however, those chubbier bodies were forcibly corseted and bustled into strikingly hourglass shapes.

    Indeed, one may assert that our preference for skinnier models has had the roughly inverse relationship to our disdain for foundation garments.

    As we have rejected the mechanical means of producing the attractive hip-to-waist ratio, we have also demanded that our models be capable of producing such ratios on their own.

  11. caia Says:

    But the Manolo, that was precisely my point! The ratio has not changed, but the expression thereof has. And the expression women are supposed to achieve now is abysmally more difficult for all but a small handful of genetic sports to achieve without dangerous dieting.

    I’m sure foundation garments played a significant role in many women being able to achieve the hourglass figure. However, the pear shape is very common in women of all sizes, so many women would not have to lose any weight at all to achieve the male-desirable waist:hips ratio.

    Those same woman would, however, have to do so in order to meet the modern beauty standard.

  12. Miss Eliza Wharton Says:

    My dear Manolo, I fear there maybe a little too much enthusiasm here over the signifiance of this ratio. Most of the usual ratios of the human face, for instance, are really stable, but we are extremely sensitive to small changes in them, so we feel our faces are vastly different.

    A good example of a similar phenomenon is provided by your discussion with the delightfully articulated Caia. No one on our catwalks displays the kind of h/w ratio expected from the corseted ladies (and it’s absolutely NOT a matter of same ratio against different values): moderns expect a higher ratio. The numerical difference is small, but means everything in the world (look at Dita @Gaultier’s).
    And, as everyone knows and is noted in the wikipedia entry you linked, even greater differences in responses to h/w ratio are found when one goes cross-cultural.

  13. ChaChaheels Says:

    Lady Gaga is just a very well paid academic with a music degree and a vast closet. She doesn’t “transcend” the influences she references, she just makes us see them when she reflects “us” back to us. Not many pop stars even realize you can think about things like that, and not many pop stars can even play a piano like she can. She seems never to have set out to be a beauty icon, but she sure wants you to think about whatever value you give to that phenomenon.

  14. Manolo the Shoeblogger Says:

    This is yet another subset of the Manolo’s problem with the Lady Gaga: The Manolo has difficulty ascribing such knowingness to any pop star.

    But, if there were any pop star whom he would believe capable of it, Gaga would be at the top of the list.

  15. Daleth Says:

    The Daleth has difficulty ascribing such knowingness to the audience.

    I fiercely avoid intellectualizing my response to any art (including fashion). I like to keep it more intuitive by simply saying ‘Yeah!’ or ‘meh.’ Loading a Lady Gaga video on the YouTube never fails to remind me that I have something else that urgently needs doing, making her the Queen of the ‘meh.’

  16. M Says:

    Well … before the Gaga …

    there was the self-written, self-produced, all-instrument-playing, still-writing-and-performing …


  17. caia Says:

    And for that matter (though it may be gauche to say so on a fashion blog): nuts to beauty, anyway!

    Campaigns that claim that all women are beautiful (usually to sell them beauty products) are all very well. Certainly better than some of their advertising competitors. And yet, they miss great swathes of the point.

    Some of us are not beautiful. And that’s ok! We still have value. I spit on the recent editions of Austen that attempt to photoshop away Jane’s plainness for our delicate modern eyes. She is brilliant. She does not have to be beautiful.

    For shame. You do not see them trimming Darwin’s bushy brows, or giving Shakespeare the Bosley Medical treatment. And why? Because everyone has accepted that unbeautiful men can be brilliant.

    Let us re-learn it of women.

  18. Miss Janey Says:

    Another wonderful post…

    Miss J doesn’t care for Gaga’s music. But that, too, is a game that can change. She obviously has intelligence and wit.

    Although not a beauty of Elizabeth Taylor’s ilk, Miss J argues that Barbara Streisand does possess physical beauty. Miss J has always thought so. She does admit, she is lonely in that opinion.

  19. Azulao Says:

    @Caia: WORD! Hear HEAR!

  20. Astra Says:

    And for that matter (though it may be gauche to say so on a fashion blog): nuts to beauty, anyway!

    I can’t agree with you there, caia. I was never beautiful, but the young Elizabeth Taylor takes my breath away. I don’t think it makes her a better person or me a worse one, but beauty has the power to stupify and it always will.

  21. speasummerlin Says:

    Lady Gaga has also already had rather a lot of work done on her face….

  22. Mifty Says:

    You know this how? And anyway, she’s 24. What is she going to have done?

  23. M Says:

    You’d be surprised. Take a look at Angelina Jolie’s nose and cheekbones, and Jennifer Lopez’ nose and cheekbones, then … and now.

  24. Anne Says:

    “She is well aware of her predecessors and their merit, but has been unable to transcend them, most likely because of some intrinsic fear.”

    I wonder if it isn’t just laziness rather than fear. Lady Gaga has said many times that she is a “student of fame”. My impression is that she is interested in fame and fortune for their own sake more than in being an artist or an icon. Why come up with something new if recycling what has worked for others in the past obtains the desired result?

  25. Anonymous Says:

    @ Mifty: Simply Google “Lady Gaga plastic surgery” to see the many links on this subject-
    There are lots of before ‘n’ after pics of rhinoplasty, etc., etc.

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