Beauty and Democratic Power

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This essay discusses the existence and legitimacy of beauty's power for women from the standpoint of radical democracy, which is based on widespread power among citizens. There is nothing inherently good, wise, or moral in the strategic use of appearance, except to the degree that it gives strength to women when they would otherwise be powerless. Power has at least two types of relationship with beauty: beauty can be used to influence those in positions of authority; and power has been exercised through the dissemination of beauty standards, whether deliberately or unconsciously, to shape and control women. While men may have shaped commercial beauty standards, when women turn those standards to their own advantage, they can be viewed as “resistors,” using tools inadvertently provided by an oppressor to resist oppression. Admittedly, beauty has not been a sure path to power for women; beautiful women have sometimes been feared, scorned, and exploited. And beauty's power is undemocratic, if only because it is not available to everyone. These issues are explored in a reading of Edith Wharton's novel House of Mirth (1905). At the end of my essay I discuss dress-for-success manuals for women, which uniformly reject sexy dress. Although there are problems with sexy dress as a democratic strategy, democracies should allow women to express their sexuality through dress.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: August 1, 2002

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  • Fashion Theory takes as its starting point a definition of “fashion” as the cultural construction of the embodied identity. The importance of studying the body as a site for the deployment of discourses has been well established in a number of disciplines. Until Fashion Theorys launch in 1997 the dressed body had suffered from a lack of critical analysis. Increasingly scholars have recognized the cultural significance of self-fashioning, including not only clothing but also such body alterations as tattooing and piercing.

    Fashion Theory provides an international and interdisciplinary forum for the rigorous analysis of cultural phenomena. Its peer-reviewed articles range from foot-binding to fashion advertising.
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