The Aesthetic of the Ugly

As I mentioned last week there is going to be an influx of wordy posts on the blog for the next few weeks. Today's post is all about the aesthetic of the ugly. What do I mean exactly? That sometimes in clothing and style there can be something nauseating to the senses visually, morally, logically; something that goes against everything you thought getting dressed up was all about that can actually be massively appealing. What is the aesthetic of ugly that makes it so not ugly? Below Elizabeth Wilson in her book Adorned in Dreams discusses how the industrial revolution, dressing in the city life and challenging the accepted notions of beauty have made the aesthetic of ugly more popular than ever before. 

 "A machine could be beautiful, there could be beauty in the harsh vistas of the city, beauty found itself in garish colors, in exaggeration and distortion, in the flickering cadaverous images of the screen, in the black and white contrasts of photography, in the discords of both jazz and atonal music. This modernist aesthetic of ugliness infiltrated received standards of ‘good looks’, as Vogue already recognized in the 1920s:

                ‘The much admired woman of today…isn’t in fact the beautiful woman. Look at the international ‘beauties’ of today and you will see features that never were lovely, individual, unusual faces, faces that a passed generation might even have called ugly but which today are universally admired for their chic. (Vogue, 15 April 1931)” 

“Modern tastes in looks do seem to oscillate between naturalism and artificial exaggeration—what I have termed the ‘aesthetic of the ugly.’…. The twentieth century fashion for the tan is perhaps one of the best examples of a confusion between the natural and artificial, and is a good example of the aesthetic of ‘ugly’. The tan had always been the sign of a worker, and therefore abhorred by those with pretensions to refinement, but in the 1920s the tan became the visible sign of those who could afford foreign travel…..A tan symbolized health as well as wealth in the 1930s…It is no longer sufficiently extreme. It looks too healthy. 

The white-faced punk has made the compulsively healthy glow of the open-air freak look a little mad and very dated. Tan is being abandoned because of visual boredom with a beauty style that has lost its novelty. The white face won’t now be the sign of a woman confined to the shrouded half light of the Victorian parlour, or even locked in a Manhattan penthouse for fear of violence on the streets, but of a different aesthetic of artificiality—the neon-bleached beauty of the subway, the disco, the bar.” 

“It has even been suggested that the ‘aesthetic of the ugly’ is fundamental to the modern sensibility:

                ‘Our literature adopts an aesthetic that aims to reveal the ugly as the true, and it often uses the sexual libido, which our culture has turned into a species of the ugly, as part of its rhetoric…the ugly becomes an ironic figure of revelation, exposing an implacable universe unrelieved by spiritual or moral design. Sartre’s concept of slime and nausea are eloquent statements of an aesthetic of the ugly.’ 

…Mary Douglas, in her discussion on the ambiguity of boundaries…uses the same passage from Sartre to illustrate her thesis that boundaries have to be ritually strengthened because their uncertainty gives rise to the anxiety that necessitates taboos and magic. Fashion in its ‘modernist’ mood flirts with these dangers of the boundary, not only the boundary of androgyny, but also the boundaries of decency, good taste and sanity. Secondly, if it is true that western culture does perceive the sexual as a species of ugliness, then this must complicate any relationship between fashion and the way in which it constructs ‘the beautiful’. And in fact contemporary fashion does call into question its own basis in canons of taste and charm."

"Jean Paul Gaultier dressed his models in a motley fusion of punk pilferings, slattern sophistication and B-movie anecdotes: his mannequins interspersed with ‘real’ girls of all shapes and sizes. He showed 1950s corsetry as outerwear, put together everything that doesn't ‘go’, subverted the whole idea of a fashion showing:

                ‘The antics of stick-thin models shimmying in parodies of femininity guarantee roars of approval; tawdry transparent white blouses over black bras are greeted as great innovators; a dwarf and a fat girl parade the catwalk to catcalls and hoots of derisory laughter.’ (Observer, 30 November  1983)

In an interview with The Face (1984) Gaultier enunciated the classic contradiction of the aesthetic of the ugly:

‘It’s always the badly-dressed people who are the most interesting.’ 

This is truly the absurdist notion of fashion....The importance of exaggeration and of the extreme in contemporary standards of beauty. This element of exaggeration is due at least in part to the nature of city life, for in the rushing metropolis it is the strange that most catches the eye.”