Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Two Lessons: When is Pink Not the New Cute?

Most of what anyone needs to know about cuteness versus beauty and classic versus trend can be gleaned from Funny Face.

UPDATE: Many thanks to the inimitable Manolo for the inclusion of this post in the second Carnival of the Couture with the theme of Fashion Dont's. Mine: Don't follow the herd when it doesn't suit your personality or position. Don't skip efforts toward cuteness, for they be marvelously effective. Read on, if you would.

If yesterday was about the contemptible, today is about the cute. The nature and purpose of cuteness, especially in choices of personal appearance.

The NYT had a recent article on the scientific basis of perceived cuteness that leads us to gush over baby penguins and pandas alike. Sidenote: Crafty China is apparently trying to use the universal panda AAAaaawwww as a cover for their creeping covetousness of Taiwan.

But, as Natalie Angier writes: Cuteness is distinct from beauty, researchers say, emphasizing rounded over sculptured, soft over refined, clumsy over quick. Beauty attracts admiration and demands a pedestal; cuteness attracts affection and demands a lap. Beauty is rare and brutal, despoiled by a single pimple. Cuteness is commonplace and generous, content on occasion to cosegregate with homeliness.

I believe that in dress and grooming for women, "cuteness" connotes a related, but not identical idea. Which is to say, cute refers to something approachable. Even girls preferring reduced quantities of clothing may call a sequin-bedecked thong "cute", and certainly it creates a perception of easy approachability, non? Severe, rigid, unyielding styles, unleavened by sparkle or enlivened by color or pattern, may be icily elegant or even beautiful, but not cute. This is why, depending on your job and aims, looking cute- NOT juvenile- can be an important tool in the workplace.

Cuteness, as I'm using the word for choices in beauty and wardrobe, has a friendly, welcoming quality that defuses gripers and hotheads and paves the way for fruitful exchanges. Your employment may force you to cooperate with busloads of contradictory, even annoying, other humans. The charm of cuteness in your arsenal can make that easier. But mind you, cuteness is only metaphorical armor. You defeat the aim of being cute if you're studded with encumbrances like a briar bush or clanking like cowbells. Cuteness is simplicity, a veil-like armor. Fashion as an industry creates trends and sensations, many of which don't qualify as cute or welcoming in the least. These are for the temporary, effervescent appreciation of aesthetes and gawkers, these are not to live in.

The inimitable Kay Thompson, who also notably created little Eloise of the Plaza Hotel, was a song-and-dance dervish, most beloved to me in her role as Maggie Prescott, the editor-in-chief of Quality magazine in Funny Face. In the movie, Quality rivals Harper's Bazaar as an arbiter of taste and design. Our first sight of Maggie Prescott is costumed as a tailored force of nature with edges like scimitars. This is because she is an order-giver, heedless of whether anyone is actually her employee. People in positions of ultimate power and responsibility often have uncompromising styles, you'll notice. Maggie Prescott juggernauts right into the timeless number Think Pink where she alone decides the color pink will be the Next Big Thing and dictates to her flocking staff every pink incarnation.

The next time Maggie enters the offices, her giddy assistants and the decor are pinkriffically swathed, though she sports an identical suit in crisp black and white that she wears in other neutrally colored versions during the film. When a workman asks her why she isn't wearing pink, she answers memorably, "I wouldn't be caught dead."

Lesson One: Those of self-determination and discrimination don't slavishly conform to trends, they pick and choose. Trendiness and cuteness are not synonomous.

Audrey Hepburn, as aspiring beatnik and philosophical bookstore clerk Jo Stockton, is first seen in black turtleneck and tights with a loose, tweedy brown jumper like an oversized burlap bag. Her hair is loose, not the usual updo that echoes her upturned features. They let her aspect here be dragged downward by the unrelieved darkness of her clothing, the weight of an ill-fitting gunny sack, and her floppy, drab hair. Cuteness is a comforting quality to onlookers, not emoted except as the object of comedy in one's own discomfort. Of course later, when Jo Stockton decides to becomes a model to get a trip to Paris, her hair comes right up to the most flattering height and Givenchy eventually costumes her in the most ethereally glamorous, Renaissance Madonnaesque, floating blue sack of a cloak you've ever seen.

The purest examples of cuteness in Funny Face are also reinforced by lyrics. The softest look for Maggie Prescott is here: cigarette pants with a gathered, wraparound white blouse she wears during preparations for the big fashion show. Simultaneously, Jo Stockton has lightened up in a bright white, oversized shirt with her tight black legs. The two further soften their edges and spark up the palette by gathering blue tablecloths with gold fringe to serve as proletarian aprons and kerchiefs while Maggie teaches Jo the art of the press conference in the song On How to Be Lovely. The lyrics are telling.

On how to be lovely(On how to be lovely)
You got to be happy (You got to be happy)
When you can feel light and gay
Then you'll be lovely as a holiday.
On how to be charming (On how to be charming)
You got to be merry (You got to be merry)
If only to weave a spell
And you'll be lovely
As a carousel too...
Lesson Two. Cuteness is approachability and warmth, but also playfulness and cheer. And no bunny prints or glitter gloss are necessary to provide it.

For more on the specifics of achieving trendless good dressing in the workplace (which may always be seasoned with fashion-conscious accessories), read this article by the fabulous BelleNoelle at Ladypens. Also, note that the BelleNoelle online boutique is having a shelf-clearing, $5 extravaganza of a post-holiday sale on accessories both vivaciously trendy and classic, proving again that cute is in the exercise of personal taste, not the credit limit.


April said...

Pink is the new black.

DesignerElla said...

Well, I am the cutest, and yet ... the most beautiful!

triticale said...

Nothing can ever be the new anything else, even if it fills the same niche. No new black, no next Elvis. Stand on your own merits.

Henway Twingo said...

Cuteness does not exclude beauty, but does not require it. Trends can be amusing, but aren't necessary until material changes occur. A new fabric with radically new capabilities- like the ones with computer chips woven inside or those can act as LCD screens which are in development- will change how fashions appear just as the polyesters and elastic fibers revolutionized clothing because they had different qualities. Still, it doesn't excuse Ugg boots or those (evolved adults) who let novelty overwhelm aesthetics.

Hillary Johnson said...

This is one of the most ravishing blog posts I've ever read, on any subject. You've changed the meaning of the word cute for me--there, did you feel the axis of the earth shifting ever so slightly? I did.

We're so often exhorted to be beautiful, yet beauty is, as you've indicated, an achievement rather than a state--and by nature transitory. Beauty is something I muster, when I can and when I care. But cute--that's an inhabitable state of being.