Cosmetics and Revolution

Against the Current, No 6, January/February 1987

Nora R. Wainer

Cosmetics, Fashions and the Exploitation of Women
By Joseph Hansen and Evelyn Reed
Pathfinder Press, 1985.

By Susan Brownmiller
Simon and Schuster, 1984.

THE QUESTION OF cosmetics, fashion, and other articles of personal embellishment may not seem the likeliest theme for a debate on socialist theory, individualism, and feminism.

Indeed, one of the principals in the dispute at hand, Jack Bustelo (pseudonym for Socialist Workers Party leader Joseph Hansen) begins his rejoinder to an angry army of critics with the question, “Is the use of cosmetics worth the attention of a Marxist? At first sight,” he continues, “it might seem we should say no. What difference does a question seemingly so remote from the class struggle really make?

“After all, the great problems of unemployment, fascism, war, and the struggle for power reduce everything else to subordinate importance. And surely, in the list of subordinate questions that Marxists do feel constrained to consider, cosmetics comes at least close to the bottom.”

That statement only angered Bustelo’s critics, mostly women comrades, all the more. Tirades were launched back and forth, in a perhaps long-lost atmosphere of free-flowing Marxist political exchange. That debate occurred in the Socialist Workers Party in 1954-flaring up just when it seemed the women’s movement in the larger political arena was dormant-and has been recently reprinted in the Pathfinder Press volume, Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women. But feminists of the new generation, most of whom avoided the rather claustrophobic orthodoxies of the SWP, have carried the debate through the period of rising consciousness of the sixties into the more problematical feminist movement of recent times.

Bustles, bonnets … boyish bobs

To paint or not to paint. . . Susan Brownmiller’s exhaustive book on the torments of the feminine affect, Femininity, chronicles the various aspects of feminine appearance and how women respond to it, beginning well back into the last century.

Bustles, bonnets, corsets, pompadours, boyish bobs, tiny waists, big busts, high-button shoes, spike heels, bee-stung lips, tweased arching brows–why do we torture ourselves to conform to these distortions of nature’s graces? To please some man? To gain women’s approval? Or for not well understood reasons of our own, which include, yet transcend, relations with men and other women?

Brownmiller’s treatise seems to suggest that fad and fancy are almost totally a matter of social imposition, if not an outright plot on the part of men to keep women docile sex-objects.

But there’s more to it than that, especially in recent times. As Evelyn Reed, speaking for the SWP, points out, “The fashion world became a capitalist gold mine with virtually unlimited possibilities.

“All a big businessman had to do was to change the fashions often enough and he could become richer and richer. That is how, under capitalism, the sale of women as commodities was displaced by the sale of commodities to women.

“Correspondingly, natural beauty became more and more displaced by artificial beauty; namely, fashion beauty. And that is how the myth arose that beauty is identical with fashion and that all women have identical fashion needs because they all have identical beauty needs.”

As for the economics, of course Bustelo and Reed are absolutely right that cosmetics are big business, backed up by media.

I have been on the editorial staffs of both Good Housekeeping and Vogue, and I know that if Revlon takes a double-page ad for its new lip gloss and nail enamel, the beauty editor will likely–either on her own initiative or on orders from the publisher–follow through with a special recommendation for those Revlon products in her supposedly unbiased editorial pages.

You can believe that the publication is not going to feature an article on why women don’t need another lip gloss and nail enamel–how it’s all a capitalist, male-chauvinist plot.

But the fact that the leading media are in collusion with the billion-dollar cosmetics industry to hype all that face and hand goo only begs the question. Why do we consumers listen?

With that question in mind, I found myself nodding in agreement with most of Brownmiller’s descriptions and analyses of why women have tortured themselves to appeal to men.

I was particularly interested in her disclosure of what a hard time the suffragists had getting their members to adopt Amelia Bloomer’s bifurcated apparel as a more comfortable, more defiant mode of dress.

Even the advanced feminists of their day could not face-above and beyond the derision of men-going out in public in those rebellious pantaloons.

Curiously, Brownmiller and others fail to make the point that women who dressed to please men were not just love struck flatterers.

Until well into this century women did not have the means to exist apart from men’s good graces. They were totally dependent on men as husbands, occasionally as bosses, for daily survival. Of course the domesticated creature knows how to gain the approval of the keeper.

As Elisabeth Lenk writers in her piece “The Self-Reflecting Woman,” in Feminist Aesthetics, “The woman who attracted everyone’s gaze was only apparently narcissistic. In reality she did not exist for herself but only for others. And what was even sadder and left this fairest of all women so empty was that others did not exist for her. This woman was purely passive, an object only, but she herself did not love; she was seen, but she herself did not see.”

It is only the advent of independent incomes that has made possible a modem feminist movement of such intensity, a movement predicated on the possibility that degrees, jobs, careers–in short, the means of eating and paying the rent–are not solely dependent upon the good offices of husbands and lovers. Being “pretty” is no longer the only way to survive, however much it may help.

Cosmetics at the Workplace

Why, then, do cosmetics persist beyond the arena of male-female attraction? That women need cosmetics at the workplace was argued in the SWP bulletins against Joe Hansen/Jack Bustelo’s case that women were more attractive in plain wrappers.

In answer to Bustelo’s suggestion that women were a bit ridiculous to keep Revlon rich by buying cosmetics, one comrade, speaking for many, replied: “Now what is it that women want, which makes it easy for the cosmetics companies to wring out of these strivings profits for themselves?

‘They want some loveliness and beauty in their lives. They want to rise above the sweaty grind of the shop, which distorts their bodies, and breaks down their spirit with fatigue and hopelessness.

“The housewife wants to break away from the monotony and dull routine of trying to manage on a worker’s wages. Not only is she bogged down with innumerable chores, so that she has no time to take care of herself, but she can’t afford good clothes.

“Soon all the youth and attractiveness, which by right belong to her, are snatched away, and both wife and husband are left with a feeling that the)’ had been robbed of something essential.”

So the main complaint I have against Brownmiller is that she does not deal at all with women in the workforce–where we now find well over fifty percent of women of working age.

It is surely obvious to anyone who has worked in an office that women are moving more and more into executive positions, and their strategy of appearance reflects just as much care, taste, and ready funds as does that of the men with which they now compete.

Brooks Brothers has a women’s department; so does L.L. Bean. From what I can observe, executive women dress with the same attention to grooming and leaning toward conservatism that men do.

The point is to indicate loyalty to the company, cooperation with the machinery of business, and enough assertiveness to sell the product and oversee underlings–the small heel, the good tweed suit, silk blouse, modest hair style, and unobtrusive high-quality cosmetics.

Sex-objects with the kind of measurements and clingy sweaters Brownmiller cites as the Jayne Mansfield type are for the movies, not the boardroom. All the women’s outfitters, from Saks to Estee Lauder, have turned to making their fortunes off the faces and clothing of the upwardly mobile woman of the eighties, who has cashed in her feminism for a carpeted office with private secretary of whatever sex.

As for working-class women, Bustelo extols the look of years of hard work etched in the face of the hard-working woman. His opponents point out that working-class women want nothing more than to look as good as they can despite their hard work.

Brownmiller does not take up the question at all. She seems to assume that the popular magazines and novels of the nineteenth century and on into the present represent all women everywhere, not just the bourgeoisie.

Thus, she does not, as the SWP women of the fifties do, address herself to the question of how working-class women want to appear and why.

I don’t get the opportunity to talk with many working-class women, unless you count the secretaries and bookkeepers on my job–and they are more made-up and wear more get-ups than do their female bosses.

But I have gotten to the age when friends’ offspring are getting married and I have had occasion to go to a few working-class weddings. To attend without a trip first to the beauty parlor, without applying one’s best face, and without wearing an appropriate semi-formal gown is almost an insult.

There is dancing, there is catered food, there is ceremony. Surely, every woman there does her all to show off her own best side–and not strictly for the sake of attracting men. If anything, the gesture is made to please the parents of the bride and groom. Cosmetics and fashion represent a means of showing respect.

Looking good, as they say, is the best revenge of those who must work hard for a living.

A High-Fashion Family

To catch a glimpse of how the upper class lives, I took a tour through Francine du Plessix Gray’s latest novel, October Blood, which centers on an extended family that edits a high-fashion magazine, Best.

Gray, an offspring of the Vogue/Conde Nast family, strictly upper class going back to French and Russian aristocracy, knows whereof she speaks. But she misses the essential point made easily by Evelyn Reed-that somebody is making a bundle of money off that stuff the hucksters of the fashion press push.

Gray’s characters live in a never-never-land of high style like the pampered dog on the leash that is under the impression it is leading the owner and not vice versa.

Here are designers Galanos, Balenciaga, Chanel, and the parasitic editors and writers who live off them. And I can’t remember when I’ve met a more repulsive bunch. So concerned are they all for fashion and style for its own sake that all emotion and real feeling–even that for family members-is subordinated to the good show.

And yet they are disturbing, for they epitomize–or think they epitomize–fashion and cosmetics, as a pure art form not open to historical or moral or class-conscious interpretation.

Still, it may be that we have to conjure with such terms of transcendence in order to imagine fashion, cosmetics, and individual appearance under socialism.

Personal Opinion or Social Compulsion?

For Evelyn Reed, it comes easy: “Under socialism, the question of whether or not a woman wishes to paint and decorate her body will be of no more social consequence than when children today wish to paint up on Halloween and other festive occasions, or when actors paint up for the stage, or when clowns paint up for the circus.

“Some people may consider them more beautiful when they are painted. Some may pot, but this will be a purely personal opinion and nothing more. There will be no social compulsion for all women to become painted and decorated regiments. Therefore, let us not defend this fashion regimentation in the name of ‘beauty.'”

Fashion As Art?

To conjure with the question of transcendent fashion as art form, consider the new teenage punkers we’ve been seeing around in art ghettoes and teen hangouts, with their greased-lightning hair, scrappy black leather duds, spiked ornaments and armaments, and electric kool-aid makeup. Why are they doing this? Is it simply a matter of negation, of turning against established society and its too conformist look? But like so many of these groups they conform among themselves.

The notion that they are making of themselves a work of art does not seem so far-fetched when we consider the Hair, Who, Willem de Koening, car-bash sculpture, and the better part of what you see in Soho galleries.

More than almost any other group one can think of in recent times, these kids have created a look. Different from anything else going on, that look defines them. It is, for each of its members, a creation. They have created an artistic statement out of such private matter as hair and physiognomy, body shape and strut.

Punk, in its adamant negation of popular modes goes beyond beat and hip to become the most forceful, most arresting statement any subgroup has made in many years just using body equipment. Their negation defies interpretation.

Is this what we can expect in Evelyn Reed’s socialism? I rather doubt it. And yet we must give the problem some attention.

Consider the point always made about the communist countries, that everybody looks the same, dreary and grim. As an example of why communism doesn’t work, my conservative dentist just told me about a trip he made to Leningrad with a female friend, on a tour led by a woman. Gratuities of some sort, not cash tips, were suggested. My dentist and friend were going to offer the guide cigarettes.

Instead, the guide ogled the friend’s cosmetics bag. They wound up giving her the whole kit. This, my dentist concluded, was sure evidence that communism doesn’t work–they can’t even manufacture the simple cosmetics women require. Similarly, the recent pieces in the New Yorker on developments in Chinese culture under Deng make quite a point about how clothing is becoming more variegated; bright colors are returning; you now see red lips and artificially-curled hair.

This, the western world assumes, is a sign of bourgeoisification, a step away from the old puritanism of Mao and the Gang of Four, toward Coca Cola and free enterprise. The fact remains that communist puritanism has frightened a good deal of the working class, not to speak of art-oriented should-be socialists, and the socialist movement in the western world has to answer for it.

Beauty Under Socialism

I don’t mean to equate Sino/Soviet communism with the future world order in times of peace and plenty.

When it comes to envisioning cosmetics under socialism I am inclined to agree with Evelyn Reed-some will; some won’t; nobody has to do it; nobody has to refrain. But the fact is that socialists these days have a lot to answer for in the Soviet-dominated world. And the feminists’ simplistic answer that cosmetics are a male-serving bourgeois plot is not much help to a modern woman for whom grooming is as easy and natural as a daily shower.

Will we produce the stuff? Will we preach against it? Will painted women become suspect? Of what does socialist individualism consist if not the right to tease your hair and wear bright-colored special duds?

At one level we must know that grooming is as important as cleaning house-it’s a matter of pride of self, not only self-presentation to others, but a matter of fundamental morale. Grooming is natural to the species as it is to rabbits, cats, and apes. Socialists cannot hope to win by countering that.

It may seem stretching a point to make of cosmetics a means of artistic expression, but for many people, their persons, their homes, their choice of belongings are the only meins they have to express their creative beings.

This may not be so under socialism. I think many of us hope that the reorganization of production in the materially-advanced countries can mean easy access to the means of artistic expression-and the leisure time to pursue it-for us all.

Until that time, one can only hope to call for a more complex understanding of the modes of personal style. And to urge our fellows to shun the easy prol-realism puritanism which is unfortunately not confined to sectarian socialist grouping.

The point that the Soviet women with their treasured makeup kits and the Deng women with their curls and floral prints seem to broadcast is that women in the post- as well as pre-revolutionary times will want to experiment with the stuff–the cosmetics and fashion–that goes into creating a personal, individualized statement.

What the association with Stalinism should teach us is that socialists-feminists included-will make no headway dictating to the mass of people what the terms of individualized personal life will be. The edict “socialist man (or woman) will ….” too easily translates into the terms of our imprisonment. The bureaucracy utilizes our fondest hopes for fulfillment as a means of double-thinking us all into line.

If this piece is nothing else, let it be a special pleading for the end of the dicta as to what socialist man or woman will look like and what the anti-bourgeois, anti-sexist will wear.

I would like for a change to hear a call for reimagining the potentialities for individualism made possible by the reorganization of production, and an exploration of the new democratic forms by means of which those decisions will be made.

Maybe we won’t want face gunk in the ultimate utopia of the future, maybe we’ll all go naked in insulated glass-domed cities.

For these times, the cry that all self-improvement is male-directed and bourgeois-manipulated is to miss the point that any of the secretaries down the corridors of my office building could make: for whatever reason, we have a right; we have a need to feel we look our best, whatever that may entail.

Socialists appealing to this generation would do well to take such needs for individual expression to heart.

January-February 1987, ATC 6

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