There's a new Barbie on the scene, and the rest of the dolls on the shelf aren't quite sure what to make of her. She's got long blond hair and bright blue eyes, just as she always has, and a smooth, tanned, curvaceous body. And just like most Barbies you've known over the years, she loves any color as long as it's pink. But there's something different about this new doll. When you meet her, you might notice there's a special little necklace hanging just over her sternum, or as she turns to leave, that there's a flat panel screen between her scapulae. Meet Video Girl Barbie, presented to the world this week at the International Toy Fair, a kind of Flip camera with a face that Mattel promises will let you look into the world of Barbie.
There's something interesting about this notion of looking into Barbie, or looking through her. Barbie has always been a lens into a different world for girls, a glamorous teenaged or adult world full of fashion, parties, careers, and dream houses. This was, after all, the intention behind the doll as it was invented by Ruth Handler — to give girls a way to act out their fantasies and fears through imaginative play. This premise of projection was also the reason for the most controversial feature of Barbie's physicality — her breasts — because Handler felt a mature physique was essential to allowing girls to envision their future selves. The Barbie business model, with its endless parade of kits containing outfits and accessories, serves as stimulus for these projective fantasies, providing ample conduits to aspirational worlds.
It seems to me that girls have never had trouble looking into Barbie's world. Because the nature of Barbie is such that at any point in time, Barbie's world is at least partially (often mostly) in a girl's head, that world is personal and accessible. Barbie is a sketch, just defined enough to inspire a story. She's an outline to be inhabited, a room to decorate with your own desires. The doll and her things provide the form and the context; you provide motivation and narrative. Talking to friends who played with Barbies as children, the imagined scenes vary wildly, even with the same props. Some girls staged fashion shows in the Dream House while others were hosting dinner parties. Some were getting dolled up for the prom while others were making out with Ken behind the bleachers. Barbie's stories are as varied as our own because her stories are our stories. Maybe not the ones we lived, but the slightly more glamorous or dangerous ones we once wished to live. Girls see through Barbie into these fantasy worlds, and they do it effortlessly.
To think that such a view could enhance the fantasy of Barbie is to assume that Barbie's world is the molded plastic one Mattel produces in its factories, and not the ethereal one in the female consciousness. The most interesting things a girl sees in Barbie are not things she sees with her eyes, but with her mind.
Making the leap to Video Girl Barbie, a doll you look through, seems logical but oddly literal, an Amelia Bedelia kind of goof. What can you see in looking through Barbie like a periscope that you can't see with your own eyes? To think that such a view could enhance the fantasy of Barbie is to assume that Barbie's world is the molded plastic one Mattel produces in its factories, and not the ethereal one in the female consciousness. The most interesting things a girl sees in Barbie are not things she sees with her eyes, but with her mind.
Given that, this seems less a doll than a tech toy, and I imagine it will have big appeal to girls on this level. A video camera is a video camera, and it's fun regardless of the housing, though girls today are probably savvy enough that they don't need technology to be softened up with fashion in a bionic Barbie.
But the bionic nature of this doll — a strange mashup of hard tech and feminine physicality — does raise a different set of interesting questions. As we move closer to an era of post-human body modification, what kinds of new body types will emerge as aspirational? If in the past five decades Barbie has represented a standard of beauty that can be blamed with a rise in body modifications ranging from breast implants to blond highlights to anorexia to tanning, how will she evolve as a standard in a world where the available modifications are increasingly technological? Will Barbie offer a new viewpoint on the form and function of the female body as the lines between man and machine are increasingly blurred?
If these sound like imaginary inquiries better left to the world of futuristic sci-fi films, think again. Already, the field of wearable technologies is electrifying fashion, exploring ways our clothes can behave or react like smarter, more beautiful skins. Designer Hussein Chalayan is known for his avant garde work with wearables, exploring how robotic elements can create extraordinary displays of movement and light. Joanna Berzowska of XS Labs is another designer working in this space, fusing fiber and wire to create striking interactive garment-sculptures. Often these designs suggest new functions our bodies might take on in the future, like increased sensory capabilities or protective response mechanisms. The subtle displays of Ying Gao's Walking City dresses, for example, function like hypersensitive second skins, unfurling and rustling in reaction to the proximity of others. Powering many of these innovative designs is the LilyPad Arduino, a washable microcontroller that can be fully integrated into clothing, developed by Leah Buechley at MIT's Media Lab.
These are technologies worn on the body, without requiring any intrusion or permanent modification. But those innovations are coming too. Discussions of augmented-reality contact lenses are in the offing, and just this week, the New York Times reported on the development of piezoelectric body implants that would allow us to convert our bodily movements into energy that can be used to power our electronics. Already we see people who seem chained to their iPods or mobile devices — imagine if one day we actually plugged them into our skin to recharge them. Or stopped by the Apple Genius Bar for a surgical battery change?
If these potential innovations sound eerie, think about how breast implants sounded the first time you heard of them. Body modification is always unsettling, sometimes even long after it has become widespread. But all of these designs, whether worn on the body or inserted within it, are pioneering new possibilities in the shape and performance of the human physique. As we gain more power to control how our bodies look and what they do, which of these designed bodies will move towards the mainstream? Which will become new aspirational models? Will techno-bodies ever be sexy?
I don't propose that Video Girl Barbie is in any way an attempt on the part of Mattel to forge a new post-human female ideal. (The violence of the mashup — Barbie's viscera removed and replaced with a TV — would make that a vision more appropriate for R-rated horror films than Toys 'R Us.) But the juxtaposition has made me wonder what the Barbie of 2029 looks like. Will Barbie at 70 be a stunning cyborg? If we saw her today, would we think she's beautiful? Or, in an ironic twist, will Barbie's plastic figure seem nostalgically natural in comparison with our own bodies of the future?
When my mother-in-law was a newlywed in the early ’70s, she went to some pains to learn how to entertain and how to cook. In 1971, she subscribed to a weekly publication called the Grand Diplôme Cooking Course, which promised that “week by week” she would “learn to cook the International Cordon Bleu way.”
A couple of weeks ago, she was going through some old things and found her old collection of Grand Diplômes, which she passed on to me—not to teach me how to cook, but because she knew I’d think they were cool artifacts of an earlier era of food and entertaining.
They are coo—and they also feel completely foreign to me. The food sounds old-fashioned, which is in part a language issue (yesterday’s aspic is really just today’s gelee) and in part a function of modern cooking’s emphasis on fresh ingredients and lots of herbs and spices for flavor.
The photos of the food, too, are obviously from another era. Head-on shots of carefully arranged, spot-lit food against a plain black background look positively archaiac next to today’s magazines, which are all about the “food porn” look—messy, colorful, half-eaten, and surrounded by tableware (MediaBistro’s farewell look at 10 Gourmet covers tells that story, too).
But that’s just the food. The Grand Diplôme series isn’t only a cookery publication. It’s also about entertaining gracefully and this is where its age really shows. In issue 14, the Grand Diplôme instructors serve up a two-page article called, “Set a Perfect Table.” The feature includes a handful of tips on aesthetics (“change the centerpiece occasionally to vary the routine—use a handsome bowl of polished vegetables; a small potted plant or fern in a brass container; a crystal bowl filled with grapes of several varieties”) but the majority of it is dedicated to explaining, with exact measurements, where plates, silver, and glasses should be placed on the table.
Plus, though the magazine includes numerous color photos of carefully arranged food, the table setting article is illustrated only with a couple of casual drawings:
The day I brought the Grand Diplôme collection home, I also received an email about a new publication called Nesting Newbies. Its purpose is also to help young people learn how to cook and entertain and every issue includes a feature on table-setting (they call it “tablescaping,” of course - a word that I hate but secretly find useful.) The magazine’s second issue’s article is all about mixing vintage china and silver with modern pieces to create pretty tables. It’s illustrated with tons of color photos and rounded out with shopping suggestions—and there’s nary a mention of exactly how far the water goblet should sit from the knife (one inch, if you’re wondering).
What I don’t know is whether the change in literature actually reflects a change in how we entertain. When my mother-in-law tells stories about her first dinner parties, they sound raucous, hilarious, and not at all stiff. She’s never mentioned spending hours carefully placing silverware just so, but maybe she did.
When I have people over, I know I do think about the “tablescape,” even if I hate to say so out loud. Are the actual parties any different? Probably not, but I just don’t know.
Boston-based artist Ria Brodell doesn’t think of her work as glamorous, but when I happened upon her “Self Portraits” exhibit at the Kopeikin Gallery in West Hollywood, her drawings struck me as perfectly expressing the way glamour works as an imaginative process. Her drawings capture how she projected her ideal self onto slightly mysterious, impossibly graceful figures—in this case, male icons ranging from classic movie stars like Gene Kelly and Cary Grant to Catholic saints and children’s toys. Like her very different “Distant Lands” drawings, which depict strange and whimsical animals, the portraits are at once charming, sweet, and slightly subversive. (This YouTube video shows Ria at work on her Distant Lands creatures.) Her exhibit will be open until March 6.
DG: How did you select the figures you depicted yourself as in “Self-Portraits”? Why these particular men?
Ria Brodell: The figures I chose were all men I connected with in some way as a kid. If I could have grown up to be a man, I would have been a man like them. Sometimes it was their style, the way they dressed, their hair, the way they carried themselves. Sometimes it was their über masculinity. Of course, in regards to the movie stars, all of this came from their depictions in the movies and not necessarily their real selves.
RB: When I began this series I remembered a drawing I made for my First Reconciliation book in second grade (I went to Catholic school). I had drawn a picture of St. Michael that I was very proud of and I showed it to my Grandma. She told me he looked more like He-Man. I remember feeling ashamed for some reason, perhaps knowing I should have shown St. Michael more reverence. I used to draw He-Man all the time, practicing over and over until his muscles looked right. Looking back now, He-Man and St. Michael had a similar appeal to me, strong warriors, fighting for good. As far as what unites movie stars, saints, and toys like G.I. Joe and He-Man, for me they all represented an ideal, whether it was physical aesthetics or moral values. In combining them all for “The Handsome & The Holy” I was hoping to unite my “queer side” with my religious background because they are equally present in my life. DG: Your drawings have been described as “achingly sincere,” “both earnest and humorous,” and “intently self-aware schmaltz.” Their humor is gentle and sweet, not ironic—juxtaposing He-Man and St. Michael is funny, but you are, at the same time, owning up to your desires to be like them. Is it hard for a contemporary artist to portray desire and identification without using irony to maintain your cool? Does glamour risk condemnation as kitsch? RB: I don’t think I’m intentionally trying to be funny in all the drawings. I’m trying to be completely honest, but I think the juxtaposition of some of these subjects is just naturally odd and therefore funny. Sexuality, gender identity, and religion can be very serious, often complicated subjects. I want to create work that deals with these subjects in a simple and not heavy-handed way. Of course there is always a risk of the work having unintended consequences, such as being deemed “kitsch.” With this work there is a bit of background information needed. On the surface they can appear to be just glamorous self-portraits or “dress-up” but my hope is that people look further than that and begin to think about gender identity and sexuality outside of our society’s strict definitions.
DG: One of your drawings is called “A Picnic With Audrey Hepburn.” It shows Audrey from the back, but there is no one with her. A critic described it as “a picture of mythic femininity, here elusive.” But the title suggests the perspective not of Audrey but of her unseen date, inviting viewers to project themselves into the scene. What inspired this drawing? What does Audrey Hepburn mean to you?
RB: As a teenager I became slightly obsessed with Audrey Hepburn after seeing her in “My Fair Lady.” She was not only beautiful and glamorous but also a humanitarian. For me, this drawing represents the complexity of figuring out ones sexuality, especially queer sexuality, the desire and simultaneous shame I felt. How could I possibly desire a woman and not just any woman, but Audrey Hepburn? Feeling unworthy of her, I chicken-out on our date.
This full page image appears next to an ad for Louis Vuitton shoes which is titled, “The Craftsman with his Brush.” A better title might be, “A model in a photographer’s studio pretends to be a craftsman with his brush.”
Part of the ad text reads, “But other qualities remain unseen: the craftsman’s skill and the simple elegance of his gestures, repeated so often and precisely. Not forgetting the final touch: a coat of dark paint to protect the sole and enhance the beauty of every step.”
If we take this photo at face value, it’s a difficult job to get. You have to be stunningly handsome, have great hair, and never ever get the dark paint on your hands. The job is made harder by the lighting conditions, a single light source (reflected in the glass jars) that makes you look artistic and soulful, but makes seeing what you are doing difficult. Apparently you’re only allowed to wear dark clothes, to go with the black walls. At least they’ve given you a nicely stained work table, though you’re never allowed to get paint on that either.
In some senses this glamorous image is harmless, as long as we recognize that it is an fabricated illusion designed to make us feel beautiful with every step, provided we wear Louis Vuitton shoes. But as Elizabeth Wilson pointed out in Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, the fashion industry has a long history of exploiting workers, and an image such as this does not convince me that applying paint to the soles of shoes has now become a glamorous job. I appreciate craftsmanship, but the craftsmanship displayed here is a photographer’s, not a shoemaker’s.
Last week my wife and I visited two high-end bathroom show rooms in Denver. We are preparing to remodel our guest bathroom and basement bathroom, the only rooms in the house that haven’t been redone since we moved in three and half years ago. We took along an artist friend who also wants to redo one of her bathrooms.
Both women are visual artists who love contemporary design, so it was fun to see their reactions to the displays. An upscale bathroom showroom is a dream world, a place to see possibilities that seem like fantasies. There are sinks where the water magically disappears through barely visible slots, faucets that descend from the ceiling, toilets with built-in bidet functions that open when they sense you approach (my wife found this creepy), and tubs that can stimulate your skin with air bubbles or massage your muscles with water jets.
The Italian Bandini sinks shown above were photographed in a design space that makes them look like sculptures, and the water falls into them from faucets placed in the wall. The black floor and wall and the white Moon stone sinks are ultra chic, and the photograph suggests a bathroom of grand scale. Since we’re remodeling a small guest bathroom, many such possibilities seemed too large for our space.
In one room there was a large monitor that displayed dozens of extraordinary bathroom designs. Many of them were photographed from the interior of the bathroom, and a few had a bathtub next to a picture window that overlooked the sea or a verdant forest scene. These were bathrooms to envy, as Kohler makes clear in this video, which shows a tub designed to overflow the rim.
The woman who dies in the video ad has clearly enjoyed life, something many Italians seem to excel at doing. Her bedroom is traditional, but sumptuous and rich with memorabilia. She is surrounded by children and grandchildren. The photographs show that she had been a champion athlete, a traveler, a pilot, and in her younger years, an artist’s muse. A glamorous life indeed.
Then through a open window she sees another woman open her bathroom window to reveal a bathtub is has been filled by water coming down from a fixture in the ceiling. Already full, the water is spilling over the edges to be magically drained away. She imagines the decadent luxury of stepping into that tub, displacing more water over the edge, and letting the water continue to run, keeping the temperature perfect. And imagining what a bath like that would feel like, she glimpses a glamorous experience that she wishes she could have. Who can blame her?
The untimely death of British fashion design Alexander McQueen has been covered in a number of articles already (the best is the Telegraph obituary). Most describe him as an enfant terrible and as the "bad boy of British fashion," focusing on the goth edge for which he was famous.
Those that take a closer look at McQueen's life and career portray him as something rare - a creative visionary who also possessed superb technical skills. He will be remembered as a risk-taking designer with a penchant for skulls, but also as a technically excellent tailor. Despite his talent for couture, McQueen's take on fashion lacked any snobbery (his McQ collection sold at Target in he spring of 2009) and he considered individualized style more important than brand.
McQueen's startling creativity is on full display in this brief clip from his Fall 2006 show at Paris Fashion Week, in which a hologram of Kate Moss floats above his runway:
Alexander McQueen's edgy aesthetic, technical brilliance, and dramatic vision will certainly be missed.
Posted by Kit Pollard on February 12, 2010 in
What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you look at this image?
I suspect that the ad agency mostly intended it to suggest a heart, given that Valentine’s Day is this weekend. But when I saw the placement of the apple and the model’s hands, my first impression was far more sexual. (Have I read too much about Georgia O’Keefe’s use of flowers and skulls to represent sexual organs?) I might suspect my first impression was an example of a male’s one-track mind, but when it showed it to my wife (an artist), she saw the same thing, as well as blood.
The use of an apple to help create the shape could easily be read as a reference to Eve’s apple, and this model’s abdomen is definitely sexually appealing, right down to the pierced navel.
This image comes from an e-mail from Gaiam Live, and the headline reads, “The AB-solute best diet to flatten your abs.” Right. Surely some of the ad people saw that this image suggests more potential readings than just apples and abs. As the adage goes, “Sex sells.”
Ever since writing about the relative glamour of New York and LA, back in December, I’ve been thinking – and trying to write – about the glamour of my own city, Baltimore. Finding glamour in anything requires a little detachment, so it follows that it’s difficult to clearly see the glamour in the place you live everyday.
It’s especially difficult when that place is Baltimore, a city best known right now thanks to David Simon and his series, "The Wire." The underbelly of the city that’s on display in the show holds a certain type of glamour for some people (like Anthony Bourdain, who made it the lens through which he examined Baltimore in an episode of "No Reservations" ), but by and large, the actual residents of Baltimore don’t consider our very real problems glamorous.
Fortunately, the city is bigger than one TV show. Big enough to hold several types of glamour, in fact.
I asked a couple of the more glamorous women-about-town, Meg Fairfax-Fielding (who writes the fantastic blog Pigtown Design) and Lisa Simeone (who writes for several publications and has a blog of her own, Glamour Girl, on Baltimore’s Style Magazine website), for their opinions on what makes the city glamorous. Right off, both women mentioned the city’s architecture.
Simeone says, “I think Baltimore's architecture (does that count?) is extremely glamorous. We have some of the most wonderful architecture in the country here.” And she’s right. Simeone was able to list, off the top of her head, ten different buildings and neighborhoods that are, by any objective terms, home to fabulous historic architecture of the most glamorous sort. Beautiful buildings have the power to make people feel good, too. “How can one fail to feel glamorous,” she asks, “while swanning about in front of such buildings? All you have to do is look up, and you see beauty everywhere.”
For Fairfax-Fielding, the glamour is in the details. “Look at the curve of a railing or the detail in a piece of architecture is uplifting.” She goes on, “Keeping your eyes open often catches you a glimpse of an elegant older lady or gentleman. One of the most glamorous old Baltimoreans is decorator Billy Baldwin who grew up in Roland Park. His classic elegance and timeless style is still reflected in contemporary design.”
Baldwin’s not Baltimore’s only historical icon of glamour, either. Edgar Allen Poe, and his particularly dark brand of literary glamour, lived and worked here. Both Wallis Simpson and Pauline de Rothschild spent their formative years in the city (Baldwin and de Rothschild were close friends). Yes, they had to escape to fully realize their glamorous selves, but this is where they got their start.
Interestingly, neither Simeone nor Fairfax-Fielding mentioned Baltimore’s “hon” culture, which I consider glamorous in the most over-the-top, drag queen sense of the word. With their teased hair and 50s-inspired outrageous clothes, they’re tacky, sure, but glamour’s not always refined.
Hons have something in common with their more tailored counterparts in glamour, too, in that they're of the past, even if they’re celebrated in the present. Actual hons are a dying breed, even if they are actively promoted everywhere from John Waters movies to popular restaurants.
Simeone made an effort to identify the spots and occasions when the glamorous Baltimoreans of today make an appearance, but even she admits that, “Baltimoreans, like most Americans, don’t exactly dress up for everyday events, so you’re likely to see a lot of t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers.” The silver lining? “When you do see a fashionably dressed man or woman, you notice it.”
Still, it seems that Baltimore’s glamorous glory days exist mostly in the past. Fortunately, this is the kind of city where the past isn’t simply tolerated, it’s celebrated. Every year, thousands of people break out the AquaNet for the city’s annual HonFest. Buildings are lovingly restored by both individuals and institutions. The city’s football team is named after a Poe poem, of all things.
So we keep the glamour alive in Baltimore, even if we don’t reinvent it each day.
[Photo credits: Baltimore skyline by Flickr user ktylerconk, used under the Creative Commons license. Detail of the staircase in Wallas Simpson's former home, the about-to-reopen Hotel Brexton, used with permission, by Meg Fairfax-Fielding. Poster from HonFest 2009, used with permission, by Baltimore artist Patrick Kelly.]
I became aware of Doppelgänger Week on Facebook because my wife and I were mystified by the childhood photograph of my daughter that appeared by her name on her Facebook posts. Not recognizing it, my wife e-mailed her to ask where the photograph came from. Our daughter found this hilarious, and called to say that it was a photograph of Shirley Temple, and that she was participating in Doppelgänger Week. To the right is the photograph of Shirley Temple she used. Below is a photo of our daughter at 3½ years old.
This campaign was started by Bob Patel with this message, "It's Doppelgänger week on Facebook; change your profile picture to someone famous (actor, musician, athlete, etc.) you have been told you look like. After you update your profile with your twin or switched at birth photo then cut/paste this to your status.” I have since noticed that several Facebook friends have substituted celebrity photos.
Psychologists could have a field day conjecturing on how and why we would openly acknowledge that we have been told we look like someone else. Surely we would not do so unless we found the association somehow positive or at least amusing. Who would choose to post a photo that acknowledges that we’ve been told we resemble someone that we ourselves find unattractive or irritating?
We are strange creatures relative to names and faces. We are predisposed to like someone who resembles a person we already know and like. And when we see a celebrity that resembles someone we dislike, we are ready to regard them with suspicion. The same thing sometimes happens with names. Of course, these initial inclinations often turn out to be ill-founded, but they seem strangely easy to form.
Perhaps the oddest thing about Doppelgänger Week was that as I saw new postings or friend requests, I was not always sure that I was looking at a photo of that person. Was there a chance I would form false impressions based on my feelings about the Doppelgänger?
Bethania Baray, one of my singer/actress Facebook friends, put up a photograph of Penelope Cruz as her doppelgänger. I can see some resemblance, but my larger impression is that both are uniquely and remarkably beautiful.
Making judgments about personality based on photographs is risky (especially with actors), but we all do it. In her photographs Bethania almost always looks like she would be “fun to be around.” Do we have the same impression of Cruz? And how much are our impressions of Cruz are colored by characters we have seen her portray in films?
[Facebook photo of Bethania Baray used with her permission.]
Posted by Randall Shinn on February 09, 2010 in
In 2008 Giorgio Armani sponsored the Met’s annual Costume Institute gala and the related exhibit, “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy.” It was an odd pairing. At the press preview, Mr. Armani, who built his career on understated elegance, marveled at the over-the-top concoctions of designers like Thierry Mugler, Gareth Pugh, and Alexander McQueen and acknowledged the irony of his own role. “The curators must have worked very hard to find something in my past that belongs in this exhibit,” he said. It was clear, however, that for all his dedication to “a fashion that is worn,” he was enjoying the exuberant creativity behind all those impractically superheroic clothes.
And now we have Lady Gaga wearing Armani haute couture to the Grammys. Strange, but perhaps not as strange as it immediately appears. Aside from recycledpressreleases, there hasn’t been much commentary on how music’s most flamboyant performer teamed up with a designer known for his restraint. But I can’t help thinking that Armani wanted his own superhero moment.
Left: Gareth Pugh, spring/summer 2007 Photograph courtesy of firstVIEW. Right: Alexander McQueen, fall/winter 2007-2008 Photograph courtesy of Chris Moore. Both courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute. Lady Gaga photo from Giorgio Armani press materials.
For the best look at Lady Gaga’s Grammy costumes, check out this New York magazine slideshow.
See a slideshow of Armani Privé's Spring 2010 collection, inspired by the moon, here.