Fear and clothing: Before and after the smoke and mirrors
A weekly reverie on the vagaries and charms of fashion
In a week saturated with commentary on the joys of the Oscar red carpet and much debate over the winners and losers of the evening, Helen Mirren has cut through the noise – ostensibly with the sharp knife of reality.
Now it will come as no surprise to most of us that Helen Mirren – miracle of nature, glorious female and poster woman for women of a certain age – did not in fact wake up like this. To underline this point she posted a very much “before” selfie on her Instagram in which she stares balefully at the camera in damp hair and no makeup. She follows up with the “after” shot in which she manifests in all her glorious glory and the team that effected the miracle. She proceeded to break the internet. This is gratifying. Because frankly when certain other people break the internet they have spent four hours in hair and makeup and then filtered the shit out of their photographs so that you have no idea what you are really looking at.
Of course we can all easily opt out of the smoke and mirrors fantasy world by simply dropping Instagram and never looking at another influenza on it ever again. And that would be fine. But if you do go down the rabbit hole of what constitutes beauty on the internet, you have probably found that it is doing your head and your mental safety in. I know it is doing serious damage to mine. I have no idea what constitutes reality or wishful thinking any more.
I was reading an article in the venerable Atlantic magazine about the whiter than white teeth of influencers and other beauties and how these veneers are now a thing. In response to these toothsome issues, Brooke Erin Duffy – communications professor at Cornell University – explained: “[Influencers] have to perform traditional beauty. If they don’t do enough and aren’t looking great, they’re going to get called out. At the same time, there’s a risk of doing too much and looking too fake, which can turn fans against them.”
It is the strange knife’s edge that previously only Hollywood stars balanced their fame and fortune on. You have to both project glamour and ease in that glamour but also be somehow “relatable”.
Helen Mirren plays this song like a pro. Obviously she is “old school” Hollywood royalty in a hot pink Shiaparelli gown but before her Cinderella moment she is just like you and me – slightly drenched and looking very much her well preserved age (all of 56). All of this stuff is obviously fantasy, but as long as you sign up to look at these projections of womanhood and beauty you too are complicit in the messages you are quietly internalising with every scroll and like.
This is probably why Helen Mirren’s “before” shot strikes a pretty powerful chord. She seems to be radically pulling the curtain aside – showing us all that there really is a wizard turning the levers of this powerful machine that sells us clothes and products and the promise of a more beautiful self. Yes it's just an illusion – but such a powerful one that we are all in its thrall.