Commentary Magazine


The Beautiful People's Beauty Book, by Luciana Pignatelli

Skin Deep

The Beautiful People’s Beauty Book.
by Princess Luciana Pignatelli, as told to Jeanne Molli.
McCall. 122 pp. $5.95.

Beauty manuals have existed in Western culture for centuries, ever since Ovid’s Ars Amatoria and probably before. Such texts usually contain highly organized material and are based on the simple premise that female looks need some form of improvement in order to attract the male. Men, on the other hand, have long surveyed female cosmetic devices with a curious ambivalence. They may respond superficially with disgust and ridicule to false hair, paint, and padding, and yet at the same time be so touched and moved by their intent that the charm succeeds in spite of its failure. But the enduring power of cosmetics, however it functions, is reflected in the enormous industry presently devoted to them; and the need for them was generally acknowledged even in puritan Victorian America, when noticeable paint was taboo in respectable society. Cosmetics were very much in use, but solely for the absolutely undetectable improvement of what had to appear entirely the gift of God. Beauty instructions in those days tended to be embedded in books on etiquette, household management, and home dressmaking. Such works briskly cautioned against careless mistakes—“false hair is never to be exposed on the dressing-table”—and always gave solemn due to the importance of good health, a commodity more susceptible to the workings of chance in cruder medical times. The main theme, however, was always the enrichment of insufficient natural gifts: one must be redder, whiter, curlier, and plumper—never paler, thinner, or straighter. The sexual power in a female body of which the skull and skeleton are visible through the skin has only acquired ascendancy in the present century, which in Europe and America at least has seen the total eclipse of modish fat.

One of the most engaging 19th-century handbooks is The Arts and Secrets of Beauty, published in 1853 by Lola Montez, the famous mistress of Ludwig of Bavaria, who was an Irish “Spanish dancer” and a conspicuous public beauty. Reprinted in the last year or so (unfortunately with a dreadful introduction), it is a refreshing piece of work if only for its excellent style and delicately ironic tone. Lola, like Princess Pignatelli, is in dead earnest, but she has an independence of spirit that charges her utterances with humor and enduring vitality. She gives several cosmetic formulas, saying: “The recipes I shall give for the various cosmetics, washes, pastes, creams, powders, etc. are such as are in use among the fashionable belles of the various capitals of the Old World. I give them as curiosities, desiring that they may pass for what they are worth, and no more.” So much for the secrets of the Beautiful People. She adds that one should make one’s own cosmetics to avoid being taken in by manufacturers who “make preparations for three-pence halfpenny a quart and sell them for five shillings,” Her chief recommendations are cleanliness, exercise, and temperate habits; but she also includes numerous reflections such as: “If a lady is anxious to have her mouth look particularly charming for some particular occasion, she will do well to fill her thoughts with some very delightful subject.”

Not a word of this kind of advice is given in Princess Pignatelli’s The Beautiful People’s Beauty Book, which is misleadingly subtitled “How to Achieve the Look and Manner of the World’s Most Attractive Women,” The Princess’s own grim, expertly-painted face pictured on the jacket shows that she has rarely given the matter much thought. She prefers to quote Gore Vidal: “Beauty is exterior; it is not interior. Not only does it not matter if there’s nothing inside, it probably helps. Character has a tendency to ruin looks.” A Wilde remark, but without Oscar’s advantage of truth. The Princess allows that happiness helps, but “not unless you use that happy glow only as a starting-point, and then really work at it”—thereby destroying its effect, one would think.

The Princess, writing a hundred years after Lola, is dealing with a very different fashion in physical looks. Lola did not have to worry about the flesh on her upper thighs, for instance, at least in public, and she knew nothing of face-lifting and trichology (the treatment of hair), although I doubt that the Princess could ever match her in the realm of pure charm. The main difference, however, is that this modern Roman is free of the 19th-century tenet that cosmetics must not be noticeable. In ancient Rome, similarly, the poet Ovid was not the victim of any enforced separation of cosmetics from respectability nor of sex from honesty. He incorporates his prescriptions for elegance into a love manual, and his theme is artifice in every aspect of life, from the false eyebrow to the false orgasm. He announces at the outset that he is not concerned with virtue, which of course inspires love without any help and is incapable of dissembling. The rest of us, however, must use our ingenuity to make ourselves loved. Nevertheless our hearts are truly warm, our dissembling and our paints and dyes reflect only that search for love which we share with the gods, our humankindness, not our vanity.

Ovid is a man and a poet, and his advice has a magnificent range. No detail escapes his creative eye and receptive heart. Bad fingernails, or a laugh that distorts the mouth, are abrasive to a soul longing to be entranced. Conversely, as we are told by other poets in other periods, a slight dishevelment of the hair or moment of unguarded behavior may suddenly capture a fancy unmoved by total polish. All his generalizations are given authority by his sudden expressions of strong personal taste and feeling, which show he is not contemptuous of his subject nor ever unmoved by its seriousness.

The author of the present volume moves chiefly in the mid-20th century Roman circle of the Beautiful People, and her observations all concern them. There is a lot of specific description of the individual cosmetic routines of these famous beauties, accompanied by a tremendous amount of prattle about their energetic activity-work, exercise, sport, travel—in the approved modern mode, so that each of these women emerges as a self-maintaining piece of glossy machinery—efficiently constructed, tuned up, simonized, and utterly soulless. Speaking of a certain masseur, she says: “He takes a woman who looks like a dump truck, or a matron who is fast becoming a tank, and turns her into a Ferrari.” Why not a golden coach or a sedan-chair? Languor, mystery, and any appearance of leisurely idleness, however graceful, are unacceptable. One must be busy as well as beautiful, and, one need hardly add, very rich.

If one’s previous observation had lent these women any human power to charm, this book dissipates it completely. A magazine photograph of Marella Agnelli might have made us gasp and believe her to be freighted with the true beauty’s traditional legendary power to enthrall; but in these pages a spirit of racehorse grooming and training prevents any sense of charm or even of humanity from emerging out of these private glimpses. If one wishes to assume that any recipe for effective personal beauty could be provided, whatever one’s natural endowments, the instructions or hints given here are curiously lacking in several dimensions. There is no formula for, not even any description of, a set of suitable gestures, movements, or facial expressions to provide a living, harmonious vehicle for the perfected physical machine. And there is not one word about the voice, to which Lola Montez devotes a whole chapter. For all their much-praised vitality, these beauties are immobile and silent; or else their sound and motion, as in racehorses or cars, is merely an automatic function of their physical perfection. In fact, as the book finally and unwittingly reveals, they are photographs of themselves.

Toward the end of the book, after sections on face-lifting, exercise, hair care, etc., the point is made in a chapter called “On Being Photogenic.” The camera, through which the general public may have its only view of these ladies, is the ultimate judge after all. Sound and movement are irrelevant to the photographic ideal. A quality of gesture, or even of voice, maybe suggested by the artistry of the photographer, and no original need exist—only a basic physical image out of which the camera can create beauty. The private audience among which these women move may well be utterly lacking in imaginative susceptibility and capable only of judging the polish of surfaces; or perhaps they really are all great beauties, but possessed of secrets so potent they “dare not be revealed.” Or, indeed, perhaps the Princess Pignatelli herself cannot comprehend them. If she knows the secret of characteristic personal charm, she carefully declines to describe what it is like, how it operates, or how it might be imitated.

One may learn more on that subject from two short paragraphs written about these same women by Truman Capote, in a text he wrote once to accompany some Richard Avedon photographs. In that chapter of their collaborative book, Observations, the actual pictures of the Beautiful People have less, not more, to say than Capote’s comment, which he entitles “A Gathering of Swans.” For example: “The cleverest are easily told; and not by any discourse on politics or Proust, any smartly placed banderillas of wit; not, indeed, by the presence of any positive factor, but by the absence of one: self-appreciation. The very nature of her attainment presupposes a certain personal absorption; nonetheless, if one can remark on her face, or in her attitude, an awareness of the impression she makes, it is as though, attending a banquet, one had the misfortune to glimpse the kitchen . . . authentic swans are almost never women nature, and the world, has at all deprived. God gave them good bones; some lesser personage, a father, a husband, blessed them with that best of beauty emollients, a splendid bank account. . . .”

Capote sets forth here two superb observations on beauty both of which are completely absent in Princess Pignatelli’s book. Her descriptions of cosmetic surgery neglect to mention, even vaguely, its cost, or that of masseurs, trichologists’ consultations, and other things which non-Beautiful People ordinarily would not encounter. The reminder about self-appreciation is particularly needed in a book which expounds the theory throughout that cosmetic care is done entirely for self-satisfaction. A warning about looking too much aware of all you have accomplished would not be amiss, since, as Capote says, your final achievement is your “perishable self.” A strong effort of will is necessary in order to stand back from your masterpiece, instead of gloating from behind it, so to speak.

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What, then, does the Princess offer in her book, in place of what is not there? She makes familiar and sensible remarks throughout about the importance of regular habits, enough sleep, proper food, and a harmonious life and she carefully explains that no amount of cosmetic effort will insure sexual success or happiness. She states firmly, however, that believing yourself to be beautiful can make you more so, and that makeup helps you believe it. This is true enough, except for those unfortunate miscalculations in the specific application of makeup (or arrangement of hair, or whatever) which blindness to one’s own actual looks often permits. Such mistakes, once understood, can only be corrected by trial and error, which experimenting the Princess urges. She does not, however, explain what specific mistakes are common, or how to know that one has been made.

The true subject of this book is, of course, not beauty, but rather certain aspects of fashionable elegance or “chic” which, like real beauty, is unteachable without the passion and the will to be elegant on the part of the student, and that our Princess confesses she has always had. Such a passion, judging from her book, makes one a slave to that ideal of chic which is absolutely current, and does not permit charity for one instant toward previously admired styles, toward present styles which are egregiously un-chic, nor to any wide view of the subject. Such charity or imaginative scope might confuse the will or dilute the passion and thus cause hesitancy or stumbling in the disciplined steps toward modish perfection. Ovid’s advice will stand for all time, chiefly because of the marvelous flexibility of masculine appreciation in every epoch; but on the business side of the dressing table, such an appreciative turn of mind cannot be allowed to muddle the self-image and promote adulterations in the absolute purity of a fashionable personal style. Chic seems to demand a systematically narrowed vision and no imagination.

Princess Pignatelli is at her best when she delivers herself of strong-opinions: “I adore to ride . . . but I fail to see why certain society ladies in the horsey set should look so weatherbeaten when the horses they ride are so well-groomed.” Or of recommendations: “The bosom must never soak in the tub: hot water only drags it down, and no woman wants that.” On the latter subject she shows all the modern horror of the force of gravity. Nothing must on any account be allowed to sag; but at the same time, of course, nothing may ever be plump in the obsolete manner. The only recourse is the most stringent program of massage and exercise and, finally, face and body lifts, to eliminate any effects of the natural downward pull which the upright human beast is heir to. Everything must be taut, tight, and firm forever. Help!

There is a section of photographs in the middle of the book showing many of the women mentioned. Some are breathtakingly lovely, and one wishes that one had not learned quite so much about the technology of it all, particularly such details as the pulling-back of the corners of the eyes with tape fastened under the hair, or injections of silicone under the skin to fill out the face. The princess is scrupulous about warning against any preparations or apparatus being worn to bed, or even where they may be seen by anyone, and she also explains how to manage it. This is one of her excellent pieces of advice, and it lies strangely in the same volume with an utterance like “Hair should be cut when the moon is in the ascendant phase,” which comes from a whole chapter entitled “Beauty and the Astrologers.” There is a final chapter in which she allows men the same cosmetic scope as women, according to the current trend. In it there is one outright lie, however, attributed to Gianni Agnelli, who says with a fine disregard for history, “A paunch never seduced anyone.”

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In general, the flavor of this book is singularly out of keeping with its subject, to which greater justice ought to have been done. The entire theme of the natural self embellished and enhanced by art, however it is approached, is one of great allure and suggestive depth. Perhaps because they are the ultimately desirable reflectors of feminine beauty, the sensibilities of men who are also poets fit them best to deal with the subject. Baudelaire, in his great essay, “The Painter of Modern Life,” elevates the role of cosmetics to a kind of priestly function whereby a woman who noticeably paints her eyes and cheeks is creating out of herself a kind of semi-divine being, higher than nature, fit for adoration. He sees fashionable dress and makeup, which are treated in this book with such a lack of any sense of poetry, as “one of the signs of the primitive nobility of the human soul.” For Baudelaire, the cosmetic arts were a form of idealistic striving, like art itself, reflecting the need to transcend nature and satisfy the deepest spiritual longings. Such a creative and visionary response to the details of the toilette was heretical in the 1860’s; something like it, however, might give the Beautiful People of this moment a measure of the mysterious, potent glamor which Princess Pignatelli’s limited view, however privileged, must fail to lend them.

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