"The most beautiful makeup for a woman is passion, but cosmetics are easier to buy."
                                                                                              —Yves Saint Laurent

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· Culture Notes: Taste and Functionality

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Culture Notes: Taste and Functionality
by Li Wen

1920s advertisement for Three Pagodas Brand Cosmetics Company

Both my parents grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, a period of deprivation and austerity when individuality as expressed through personal style was frowned upon. Happy communists all, the ideal was that, everybody being equal, any obvious display of vanity was unseemly and grotesque.

Suppression, of course, only breeds rebellion. My mother and father never repeated the platitude that "appearances do not matter." Instead, the message they imparted to me, their only child, was that - as a woman and a Chinese woman at that - I would inevitably be judged by how I looked. The least I could do was take control and use it to my own advantage. Mercenary and cynical, perhaps, but pragmatic above all else. Want to dress to impress or instill confidence, to appear younger or more mature, to tell the world that you're a free radical - there are ways and means.

To bloggers for whom beauty is a passion and an art, it might seem tasteless to give voice to the underlying notion that beauty is also functional, particularly in cases of societies that are highly stratified. Yet what magazine copy and fashion advertisements tip-toe around is this very concept - better to be clear-eyed than blindly steered.

The way I conceive of make-up is as an element of style, not to be scrutinised or evaluated in isolation from general grooming, dress, and deportment. Because I take joy in what is aesthetically pleasing, it is all as much for my own benefit as to ease the myriad social interactions that most of us necessarily engage in on a day to day basis. Though the precise semiotics of taste are complex and ever-evolving, it is impossible to deny that image is power. At the same time, it is worth remembering not to take it all too seriously - as Dain says, "It's only make-up", after all.

How to use the power of the image, to enjoy it as a medium of self-expression, without becoming a victim of it, is every individual's balancing act.

A large part of what I love about perfume is that there is something very personal, and a little selfish and defiant about scent. The codes are less normalised than with make-up, more esoteric. You don't have to look at yourself for every minute of the day, but your own scent is something that stays with you, and if other people don't like it - if, for example, they take askance to you wearing Bandit loudly and proudly in their close vicinity - well, then they can stand a little further away.

Image credit: Old Orient Museum

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8/17/2011 [4]

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