Constructing Beauty

Conversations about beauty standards often bring up the fact that magazines use heavy image editing to construct very specific images of the people in their pages; they are heavily styled, they are shot in very specific conditions, and post-production can include substantial manipulation of those images. But, but, people say, what about those oh so casual shots of celebrities in jeans and t-shirts? Those aren’t carefully constructed and edited, they are, in fact, candid shots, and they still look perfect, so clearly, celebrities really are naturally better than the rest of us.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret. It’s called a tailor. I often get compliments on dresses, when I wear them. They fit, people say, like they were made for me. That’s because they are; I have a seamstress that I work with to tailor my dresses so they fall at the right length, fit correctly, and look flattering. I can casually throw on a dress and look pretty damn good because that dress has been altered from its on the rack state to look good on me.

Celebrities take that to a whole new level; those off the rack, casual garments they wear are sometimes hand constructed, and they are always, always tailored. The plain white t-shirt look? It looks good on them because the shirt has been custom-fitted to their bodies. So of course they look good, even when they casually throw on pants and a shirt to head to the store to pick up a quart of milk. Because they’re wearing tailored garments designed to look great on them. Anyone would look smokin’ hot in a tailored t-shirt, trust me, because, well, yeah, it is a very great casual look.

People in the public eye do this because they are aware of the expectations on them, and their bodies. They cannot afford to be seen in ill-fitting garments, because of the expectations on them. They must carefully construct beauty at all times. The performance of beauty is a particularly heavy obligation for women, of course, but it’s also something men experience too. Those snug-fitting casual tees on the chest of male action stars are also tailored and fitted, because they have to be. Because no one, really, looks good in clothing off the rack, unless you happen to randomly luck out. That clothing is tailored as generically as possible to fit as many people as possible, and that means that almost no one is going to find a good fit.

Many people are not aware of the role of tailoring in the fit of ‘casual’ garments and thus experience considerable frustration when they try to put together a casual, but still stylish, look and it doesn’t look right. They follow the advice they see in magazines and take note of the brands mentioned, but then they buy them, they don’t perform in the same way. I almost never see women’s and fashion magazines discussing tailoring and garment fitting, even as they tell you how to replicate a look spotted on the street. It’s a pretty key piece of information to leave out.

Even if you buy that $500 skirt to look just like your favourite celebrity, it’s not going to look as good on you. This is not because you don’t have the body that celebrity does, but because you don’t have a seamstress. The community where I see discussions about tailoring and fitting most often is the fatshion community, where it’s often really hard to find garments that look good on people of your size because they aren’t made available. Fat folks who want to be stylish are often forced to learn sewing so that, at the very least, they can tailor garments that won’t work, and so that they can construct custom garments when they can’t find something that works for them. I don’t see conversations about tailoring in the fashion community in general, even among very fashion-conscious people.

I can’t sew very well at all, beyond making very basic garment repairs, and I fortunately have enough of a slush fund to be able to afford basic hemming and other tailoring services from my seamstress, who is an awesome and lovely lady. It helps, too, to have friends who can spot garments that would look good on me after tailoring and who encourage me to buy them and get them fitted.

Such services are not available to many people who do not want to look like they are wearing flour sacks all the time, which sets up a nice construction of guilt. You can’t be perfect if you don’t look like a celebrity, which you can’t actually do, because you don’t have a personal trainer to shape your body in a very specific way, nor do you have a tailor who hand-fits garments to your body (nor do you have access to designers who will custom-fit projects for you so you can look unique and distinctive), nor do you have the other support staff to help you with hair styling, makeup, etc.

The construction of beauty goes far beyond the use of manipulation to change the way people look on paper and on film; there’s a reason you can’t replicate the casually put together look touted as a necessity for anyone who wants to look fashionable, but it’s not because you don’t have the right body. It’s because you don’t have the right tools to meet a standard created by very carefully constructing beauty and appearance. The beauty industry’s talons run deep, and it is important to not forget that when you’re frustrated by being unable to match up to artificial standards and when you’re stymied by manipulation that may be hidden, largely out of your view. Something that seems too perfect to be true? Probably is.