Beauty: Dickinson, Moss, Taylor
I was thinking about Emily Dickinson's poem “I died for Beauty.” I first thought of Kate Moss when I read the word 'Moss' in the poem for I've always found Moss's odd beauty compelling. I thought of Elizabeth Taylor because Moss did. While contemplating both poem and Moss, I found an interview in the Daily Express in which Moss said, “I’d be like Liz Taylor if I was going to imitate anyone.” Comparisons between the "beauty" of Moss and Taylor are interesting for what they say about shifting notions of beauty. Both have been called femme fatales and classical, but neither is flawless nor are they the least bit similar. As Richard Burton remarked of Taylor: “She has wonderful eyes, but she has a double chin and an overdeveloped chest, and she's rather short in the leg.” Or as Moss commented about herself: "I've got crooked teeth, bow legs, a wonky nose." Both qualifications are true, but the flaws make their beauty more desirable in a way. There may be women more flawlessly beautiful (whatever that means) but Moss and Taylor are known for being beautiful and unique, real and yet ephemeral. Ephemeral, that's a Dickinson word.
Some scholars, when discussing “I died for Beauty,” speak of the deaths of Beauty and Truth. It’s a false start. I find no indication that any entity named Beauty or Truth died in the poem. Rather, the deaths (or “fails”) are unnamed individuals who died for Beauty or Truth. Dickinson is playing with Keat’s linkage in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty." In Dickinson's poem the speaker has died in the service of Beauty. Beauty is a harsh taskmaster to be sure, and not only do the servants of Beauty and Truth die but in the end these Kinsmen are further obliterated by having their names covered up by moss. Does that make moss, green and replete, another servant of Beauty and Truth or the handmaiden of some equally boundless Master such as Time? Dickinson’s poem suggests all of the above--although it requires Death, Silence, and Eternity to do the trick--but then those were often her favorite cards to play.
So, I was thinking along these lines one morning while perusing webby avoidance sites and found the following articles lined up in the Style section of Huffington Post. The first article was about Elizabeth Taylor’s “genetic mutation,” distichiasis, a double row of eyelashes. The second was about Kate Moss, a dress she was recently photographed in, and how dress and photograph were a tribute to a haunting visual effect that Alexander McQueen and Moss had pulled off as the finale to his 2006 ready-to-wear, fall show. The last article was titled: “Woman Can’t Close Her Eyes After Bungled Plastic Surgery.” It was an odd lineup, all eyes and visuals, all beauty and art, and featured the two women, Taylor and Moss, who had been conjured up, for me, by Dickinson.
The article about the bungled plastic surgery was more ironic than interesting, but I was struck by the response of the doctor being sued, who said that the patient was warned of the risks since she had gone under the knife so many times. It suggested to me the perils for adherents to Beauty that Dickinson had suggested.
The Elizabeth Taylor article was fascinating. The excess of eyelashes can be dangerous if they grow inward and damage the eye, but luckily for Taylor, that wasn’t the case. Roddy McDowall related a story to the The Daily Mail that when filming My Friend Flicka, someone thought the twelve-year-old Taylor was too made-up and rather brusquely applied a wet cloth to her face to remove the excess, but it was just her natural lashes.
The Kate Moss photograph in Harper’s Bazaar was particularly timed because I was living in England in 2006 and reading in the daily papers about the drug-riddled exploits of Kate Moss and Pete Doherty. Her career was by all accounts done, dead, over. But then Alexander McQueen pulled off this amazing stunt at the very end of his fall fashion show combining Moss and her publicity debacle, her “fail,” with her ephemeral beauty and her rare ability to channel emotion through face and body.
There had been no hint of Moss during the runway show but then as the last model left the stage, the lights went black, the music changed, and slowly a new light began to appear:
Inside an empty glass pyramid, a mysterious puff of
white smoke appeared from nowhere and spun in midair,
slowly resolving itself into the moving, twisting shape
of a woman enveloped in the billowing folds of a white
dress. It was Kate Moss, her blonde hair and pale arms
trailing in a dream-like apparition of fragility and
beauty that danced for a few seconds, then shrank and
dematerialized into the ether.1
The technique is called “Pepper’s Ghost,” first used in 19th-century theatre productions. The virtual appearance (accompanied by the theme from Schindler’s List by John Williams) was, as one article described it, "a symbolic resurrection." So neither she nor her career actually had to die for Beauty. Instead, she endured, regained her previous status, surpassed it, owned it, remade it. I think Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Taylor might both have agreed that somewhere in all of that is the real Beauty of the thing.
1. Sarah Mower, “Fall 2006 Ready-to-Wear, Alexander McQueen, Review,” Style.com.