Royal Weddings: Where Traditions Matter

Wmabbey When your family church is Westminster Abbey, chances are you won’t be allowed to make up your own wedding vows. Your vows will likely come from the Church of England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Its eloquence is so memorable that its phrases have become part of our language (“to have and to hold from this day forward”), as have phrases from the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare. All these works were written at a time when eloquence was highly valued, and they were conceived with highly-memorable auditory beauty as a goal.

And although (Sir) Elton John has been invited to the upcoming royal wedding, the music for the ceremony will not be pop songs, but sacred music written for the church over the centuries by some of the greatest composers who ever lived. These include Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Henry Purcell, George Frideric Handel, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, and many more. 

The extraordinary nature of the building, the language, the music, the boy’s choir, the costumes, and all the rest will combine to proclaim to the world that this is no commonplace occasion, but the addition of someone to the status of royalty.

Americans often take a certain pride in having cast off a system that includes inherited positions of royalty and nobility, yet we also remain fascinated and slightly envious of it. Being “royal” is perhaps the world’s most exclusive group. Unless you are born a member, your only chance of getting in is to marry into it. 

A royal wedding needs to be a highly visible, tradition-filled public event because it is a rite that makes the pair not only a couple, but a royal couple. The ceremony establishes a legitimate place for that couple’s children in the lineage of the royal family. The question of  lineage is not a division of wealth or child custody that can be sorted out by divorce lawyers or pre-nuptial agreements. When inherited title is involved, you are either born with it or not, and the traditions for determining that are centuries old. 

Ideally a royal marriage will prove enduring and loving. But this is not always the case, as Britain’s current royal family has demonstrated. Even the highly troubled and ultimately contentious marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, however, dutifully provided the royal family with two legitimate heirs before a fed-up Queen Elizabeth suggested they negotiate a divorce. 

 [Photo of Westminster Abbey by Wolfiewolf. Used under the Flickr Creative Commons License.]

Why Is Princess Glamour So Persistent?

Girls dressup pink princess dresses tiaras abbybatchelder Flickr Loyal DG fans will recall my earlier posts (here and here) on why little girls play princess. For my book research, I'm still looking for princess memories and insights from parents and today's little princesses. But given the prominence of princess news of late--I didn't even mention the engagement of Prince Albert of Monoco to former Olympic swimmer Charlene Wittstock (which, not being a royal watcher, I learned of when I saw the Tatler's cover story)--I took up the subject in my latest WSJ column. I appreciate your comments, here or on the WSJ site.

I admit it. When I was growing up, my father called me "Princess." Routinely. Even when I was in high school.

This was strange, I now realize, and not just because I was more nerd than girly-girl. The United States has been a republic for more than two centuries. We aren't supposed to have princesses. Yet the archetype remains both persistent and profitable.

Princesses are everywhere: under the tree at Christmas and on the sidewalks at Halloween, atop birthday cakes and in videogames, on bedspreads and in perfume ads. They provide themes for baby showers, quinceañeras, even weddings. The phrase "every little girl dreams of being a princess" generates more than 300,000 Google matches, only a few of which concern Kate Middleton's impending marriage to Britain's Prince William.

"Princess" is not just a royal title. It's a powerful, and popular, ideal.

Read the rest here.

As the photo above, courtesy of Flickr user abbybatchelder under the Creative Commons license, illustrates, the little-girl glamour of princesses lies in the imagination of those who imitate them. The kids dressing up as princesses aren't glamorous. They're cute.

The Seduction Of Hair

Tangled-teaserposterhairevery-fullHair is having a major cultural moment. Disney’s Tangled, a retelling of “Rapunzel” that features what one blogger calls “ninja hair,” is a monster hit, while nine-year-old Willow Smith (daughter of Will and Jada) has become an instant star with her exuberant video “Whip My Hair.”

Meanwhile, in Paris, where they take both fashion and cinema far too seriously to produce celebrations of ninja-hair-whipping, the Cinématèque Française has mounted an exposition devoted to the portrayal of women’s hair in the movies. Titled “Brune-Blonde” (“Brunette-Blonde”), it runs through January 16, with an online version here. The poster features the naturally brunette Penelope Cruz as a platinum blonde, and the exhibit’s intellectual theme is Hollywood’s role in fostering a now-fading “blonde imperialism.”

There is something fascinating, seductive, and slightly unnerving about human hair. It’s a constant reminder of how little control we really exercise over the bodies that define us to other people. Lacking nerves and muscles, hair is simultaneously part of its owner and yet somehow not. A defining part of a person’s appearance, it takes conscious artifice to control. Contrary to the title, Rapunzel's long tresses in Tangled are never in knots. When they start to get in the way, an adorable trio of little girls fashions them into a flower-filled braid worthy of Botticelli.

In the era of the faux-disorderly “messy bun,” the phrase “not a hair out of place” now connotes too much control, Betty Draper-style. But, taken literally, getting your hair under control is still a glamorous ideal. All that’s changed is the definition of “in place.” As a friend once remarked, nobody in a movie love scene ever says, “Owww, you’re on my hair.” 

The Mystery Beyond What's There

Not-your-faultI find this photograph very moving, and normally I might comment on various technical aspects such as the framing, the lighting, the tone, the pose, and so on. But I chose this photograph because it beautifully illustrates something that can be crucial to the concept of glamour—namely that artistic impressions are sometimes magical because of what the artist has chosen to leave out.

If we were seeing this young woman in real life, we could look move our eyes and see more, we could listen, we could ask questions, but here our perceptions are bound by the edges of the photograph and by the silent nature of the medium—we can only see what the photographer has allowed us to see. Far from limiting our responses, what we cannot see produces gaps, and these gaps allow us, as viewers, to let our imaginations and unconscious responses add something inexplicable to our perception of the image.

No one has ever expressed this thought better than Dylan Thomas in his Poetic Manifesto written in 1961:

You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically tick, and say to yourself, when the works are laid out before you, the vowels, the consonants, the rhymes or rhythms, ‘Yes, this is it. This is why the poem moves me so. It is because of the craftsmanship.’ But you’re back again where you began.

You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.

In the case of this photograph, added bits of information (it’s a self-portrait, and she titled it, “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault,”) may only serve to open up new holes for our imaginations to fill.

[The photograph “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault” is by Flickr user It’s life, and is used under the Creative Commons License.]

Bare-foot Fantasy?

TravelerI drove a friend to a podiatrist appointment, and one of the magazines in the waiting room was this December 2006 issue of Traveler. I was struck by the strange photograph on the cover. Though it is daylight, the model is wearing a brightly colored evening gown, and is posing on the steps of the grounds of this estate in bare feet.

 Though an image showing a bare foot seemed fitting for the office of a foot doctor, I felt that there must be a more romantic advertising purpose involved.

Traveler-foot The cover mentions fairy-tale Europe, so perhaps the image is supposed to make the viewer think of Cinderella. If so, the story has been distorted because the model’s foot looks fairly large. Feeling that the model’s proportions seemed slightly odd, I cut the page apart to see if the image had been split apart just slightly to make more room for the banner. To my eye, the lines of the skirt and her bodily proportions looked more natural when I moved the bottom portion up about the height of a step, so I suspect the cover image was manipulated a little in Photoshop. (Check out Lady Gaga’s shoulder on this cover photo to see an obvious and bizarre Photoshop manipulation.)

Whether the image was manipulated or not, I don’t get it. If women find this image appealing, I can’t quite understand why. As a man I can’t image going around in a tuxedo in bare feet, not even as a fantasy. Ladies, is there something about this image that appeals to some deep inner sense of princess? I’m both baffled and curious.

Grace Kelly: "Natural Glamour" Rising From The Sea

Grace kelly water howell conant This famous photograph by Howell Conant recently sold at auction for $2,400. It originally ran on the cover of Collier’s in June 1955 and helped establish Grace Kelly as an exemplar of a new style of “natural glamour,” a graceful, elegant sexiness without the obvious artifice of the Golden Age studio photographers like Clarence Bull and George Hurrell.

From Botticelli’s Venus to Ursula Andress in Dr. No, the beautiful woman rising from the sea is an alluring archetype. This photo adds an element of mystery, concealing the body below the surface of the water. The bare shoulders suggest nudity, but her swimsuit is in fact just visible.

In Life: Remembering Grace, a collection of Conant's photographs, Kay and Digby Diehl write that the photographer and star together “broke the mold of the traditional movie star ‘glamour’ photograph....We feel we are seeing the candid, unguarded ‘everyday' Grace, unassisted by hairdressers or makeup artists. The natural glamour of this 25-year-old woman is both timeless and seductive.”

Despite the absence of stylists, however, that glamour is not as effortless as it appears. (Glamour never is.) Though it may seem spontaneous, the photograph is carefully composed. The bathing suit’s straps have been removed to showcase those shoulders. The lighting is not entirely natural; Kelly’s sister Peggy held a light reflector. Both photographer and subject (and presumably Peggy as well) had to stand carefully on tiptoes to avoid the spiny sea urchins on the sea floor. And the pose wasn’t casual. To disguise her square jaw, Conant avoided shooting Grace facing the camera straight on. She posed first with a scuba mask but, after many shots, he decided it concealed too much of her face. He then took eight different shots of her before achieving this one.

Ballet Turnout: Open And Legible

3476944051_65765ae108 Finding a connection to glamour in this photo of a young woman watching South Park might at first glance seem difficult, but it’s there. She normally doesn’t watch television this close to the screen or in this position. She is multitasking, entertaining herself while she does an exercise to increase her turnout for ballet. Turnout is a rotation of the legs outward from the hips (not the knees or ankles) so that the feet ideally end up pointed outward 180 degrees from each other. (Here’s a short video explaining the face-up and face-down versions of the stretching exercise this young woman is doing.)

Many ballet exercises are done in turned-out positions. This video instructs a dancer how to plié (do knee bends) with the legs rotated outward. That turnout is an example of extraordinary artifice can be seen by imagining yourself doing the stretch the young lady is doing in the photograph below.

Dancers stretching This young lady’s body position in this stretch is hardly graceful, but these stretching exercises are only a means to an end. These students are engaged in the kind of behind-the-scenes exercises that allows ballet dancers to appear on stage and make some difficult movements and body positions look easy. By stretching her body beyond a human’s natural flexibility, she is preparing to make superhuman feats of balance and leg extension appear almost effortless.

These odd looking exercises are thus a classic example of the hard work that is often necessary for sprezzatura. This lovely Italian word was invented by Castiglione in the 16th century to signify an ideal courtier’s sense of ease in performing tasks that most people would find difficult, thereby hiding the conscious effort that was required. (Kit’s post The Work Behind the Glamour set me thinking about this.) Sprezzatura applies wonderfully to ballet, given that ballet’s origins can be traced back to the late fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance courts as a dance interpretation of fencing. Ballet’s largely French vocabulary stems from its further development in the French court of Louis XIV in the 17th century. (The Italian word “balletto” became the French word “ballet.”)

Throughout its history, as first a formalized form of court dance, and then when further developed as theatrical dance, ballet dancers have always been aware that they are being watched. Ballet studios always have one mirrored wall so that the dancers can see themselves in that mirror as others would. Castiglione wrote that the ideal courtier should always be aware that he is being observed by others.

164967145_02fd182bf4 As these young ladies lie in their less than glamorous stretching positions, perhaps they  imagine themselves leaping as part of a group in a grand jeté, as seen in this photograph. (Executed perfectly, all three dancers would be in absolute unison in their leap position, which is very difficult to achieve, and is not quite the case here.) Notice that with each dancer the leading foot is pointed toward the ground to land on. The trailing leg has been turned out so that the top of the foot is turned toward the audience, giving that leg a beautiful line. (That a turned-out leg is not necessary to do a split can be seen in this vintage photo.) Perhaps while stretching, the dancers imagine themselves doing a grand jeté in perfect unision with their courtier partner, or doing a soaring solo leap as the evil black swan Odile in Swan Lake.

As ballet developed as theatrical entertainment, the techniques were amplified to be more legible from a distance. Just as opera singers developed techniques that allowed their voices able to project into a theater without amplification, so ballet dancers developed techniques that allowed their bodies to be maximally visible in a theater. Lincoln Kirstein, one of the founders of New York City Ballet, wrote that ballet was calculated for opera-houses and that the foot positions were developed for “the greatest frontal legibility.” British art critic Adrian Stokes wrote:

...“turning out” means that the dancer, whatever the convolutions of the dance, continually shows as much of himself as possible to the spectator. When he stands in the first position facing the front, we see his feet and his legs in profile. The ballet dancer is, as it were, extended.

Penche_arabesque Turning out also opens up the body, exposing the inner thighs, and “open” is an adjective often used by writers when describing the aesthetics of ballet. Eric Stokes felt that turnout was crucial to the appearance of the lifted leg in doing arabesques. The dancer at left is practicing the arabesque penchée, a particularly difficult position. (Notice that the lifted leg is turned so that the top of the foot faces us, the audience. For those ladies whose mothers told them to keep their legs together, this position must seem astonishingly open and revealing.)

In performance there is always some awareness of the audience. As choreographer George Balanchine once chided one of his dancers, “Isn’t it selfish of you expect three thousand people to sit and watch you lift your leg if you’re not going to do it beautifully?” Assuming she can gracefully lift that nonsupporting leg, then a hard-working, extraordinarily talented ballerina might someday be cast as Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. In one scene Aurora has four courtiers to help her display her extraordinary skills, as in this video of Viviana Durante. (Notice that her costume uses the short classical “pancake” tutu to openly and glamorously display her beautiful legs, as well as showcase the extraordinary balance and flexibility that all those hours of grueling work have perfected.)

[The photo of the dancer stretching while watching TV is “I am ungroundable, per se” © by Grack Attack, and used by permission. “Dancers stretching” used by permission of The photo of the three dancers leaping is by Jeff Medaugh, and used under the Flickr Creative Commons License. The “Arabesque penchée” image is also from, which has numerous informative articles on dance technique.]

Princesses And PMS


The folks who brought us "Got Milk?" have new Spanish-language commercials putting a glamorous-to-little-girls spin on their product, with an animated commercial, featuring a sad princess rescued by a handsome prince bearing a magical glass of milk. When I first saw the press release, I assumed the fairy-tale pitch was designed to get kids to give up the juice and soda for something a little healthier. (Remember "builds strong bones and teeth"?)

But the ad is actually about PMS--a subject neither glamorous nor little girly. The press release helpfully informs us non-Spanish speakers that the tag line is, "The calcium in milk may reduce premenstrual symptoms. TOMA LECHE."

The commercial is pitched not to would-be Disney Princesses but to the telenovela crowd. In fact, the California Milk Producers Board is running a contest called "NO MORE DRAMA WITH TOMA LECHE," inviting Californians to "submit a Web Novela video no more than three minutes in length or a storyboard of no more than 15 illustrations showing how milk can help alleviate the symptoms of PMS. The submissions must be in Spanish or subtitled." Complete rules at the unbelievably slow-loading

Addendum: I am still looking for information about why little girls play princess. (Great comments on that original post.)

Rachida Dati--Out Of Power, Out Of Photos?

 In Stalinist times, politicans who fell out of favor were eliminated by various methods, and photographs of them were usually altered or destroyed.  Today,  an astute observer can usually pinpoint the moment a public figure is on his or her on the way out--the lighting gets harsher, the camera angles less flattering, and photo editors crop the image for maximum ugly.


Case in point--Rachida Dati, the French politician.  Last June, she was a dead ringer for gamine actress Audrey Tatou.   RDbaby

Then she had a baby, and was back at work  (and in the headlines) in record time, looking chic and happy.

And now she's out of her job as Minister of Justice, and she looks a little like Gladys Kravitz. RD4

The moral here is don't piss off your boss's wife.

When Did Snow White Get So Dirty?

I don't know about where you live, but the teen pregnancy rate in Texas is appalling. Every 10 minutes a teen gives birth and a quarter of those births will be the teen mother's second child.

Now comes a study from the RAND research org that says, "Exposure to some forms of entertainment is a corrupting influence on children, leading teens who watch sexy programs into early pregnancies."

But, hey, I grew up on Dynasty and Dallas and my all-time fave ever Falcon Crest (those trumpets! The swelling score! Brilliance!) and I wasn't exactly gunning to have the high school quarterback's spawn. So what's changed?

Personally, I think what the study calls a "corrupting influence on children" is something that's pummeling little girls at a much earlier age than we really notice. Take Disney, for example. They have updated the look of their princesses and guess what? They ain't exactly spring blossoms anymore.


Look at the eyes (and mouths) of these modern princesses. In the 1937 classic Snow White, our protagonist's eyes were either innocently surprised or softly gazing. Today's Snow (and her cronies) now give a come-hither stare that I find more than a little disconcerting.

David Johnson writing for Inside Animation, notes that the 1930s Snow White had several different, subtle looks. Turns out the first artist to draw Snow White was a man named Ham Luske and his Snow had a very cartoony look to her.

"Her head was large for her body, as were her eyes, large almost round-shaped orbs... Other anatomical features were likewise over simplified...because Ham evidently saw her that way," Johnson writes.

Snowwhite But drawing a cartoony Snow White didn't allow for the full range of emotions Walt Disney wanted, so Grim Natwick was brought in (these names!), the same guy who had created Betty Boop in 1930. Johnson says it was Grim who made Snow so fashionable "with a kind of thirties model face, with its plucked and highly-curved eyebrows." (FYI: Johnson says you can watch the change from cartoon in the first dwarf scenes to fashion plate to another, more lifelike girl at the end drawn by guy named Campbell. You can kind of see that here with these stamps of the movie.)

In addition to making Snow White fashionable, Grim also "began to absorb more and more of the actual live model" into his drawings, writes Johnson, who happened to be a 14-year-old girl named Marge Belcher, who was 16 when they finished filming. Take a look at that face--it's not exactly the childlike countenance Disney princesses have these days, is it?

Look at Snow White on the Disney Princess official website, Sure she's been hipped up a bit to fit into modern times and, apparently, that included her waistline--it's smaller than Barbie's! (Go download Snow White's wallpaper and then ask yourself, are the dwarfs even feeding her?)

Princessbounce Look at the innocence of the 1937 Snow White. Compare that with the newest Disney movie out Tinkerbell (although, granted, Tink has always been sexy.) Disney used to use 14- to 16-year-old girls as their models. Now what are they using? I'm guessing 30-year-old strippers.

I give you exhibit A: something's definitely up with this bounce house. Look at the folds of Snow White's skirt. Is this for a child's party? And I wish I knew what diet she was on, because her breasts have certainly grown since the '30s.

So, look, maybe it's time to stop blaming Gossip Girl for all the world's woes and take a second look at those vixens that at one time seemed to be the harmless princesses next door.

Although that Chuck Bass, he is sure fun to hate.

[All images © Walt Disney, reproduced for direct commentary under fair use.]