By Scarlett Butler, originally published by Retrospect Journal (posted there on 4/2/18)
In a recent interview Emily Weiss, the CEO of the successful new beauty brand Glossier, said that her business was both a beauty and a tech company. Weiss emphasised the company’s innovative use of social media to involve their (primarily female) customers in design, product development and promotion. Despite their technological leaning, Glossier sits in a longer legacy of effortless cool dating back to the Italian Renaissance. However, I will propose that unlike Renaissance concepts of beauty, which presented unachievable ideals for women conceived by men, this new vision is oriented around the needs and demands of a diverse cast of women.
Criticism of Glossier often comes from those who see their products as providing style over substance. Arguably they carefully blend style and substance. The clean and artful packaging and promotion conceals any thoughts of laboratory testing and ingredient selection. For example, their ‘cloud paint’ blush comes in a facsimile of a paint tube but eschews novelty by maintaining a minimal and functional form, showing “true art [in] what does not seem to be art”. Similarly, their advertising depicts women of varied races, weights and skin types, usually artfully posed and always displaying a dewy glow, or gloss.
Their brand image emphasises effortless, casual beauty and even sprezzatura. Sprezzatura is an Italian word without a clear English equivalent. It has been translated as a “studied carelessness” and “graceful conduct or performance without apparent effort”. This term was coined by Baldassare Castiglione, in his Book of the Courtier written in 1528 as a guide for the ladies and gentlemen of the European courts. Castiglione defined sprezzatura as “a nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it”. The book itself is a practical guidebook, artfully concealed as debate and philosophy.
The text is structured as a dialogue among various individuals at the court of the Duke of Urbino – these characters are the ‘influencers’ of Renaissance Italy. Significantly, Virginia Cox has noted that the use of “identifiable historical figures as the interlocutors” is distinctive to sixteenth-century Italian dialogues and that other European works continued to use fictional speakers. It seems the renown of the speakers seeks to further legitimise the books advice to courtly readers. Similarly, Glossier chooses celebrities like Saoirse Ronan and Beyoncé to wear, and therefore promote, their products. Saoirse Ronan’s effortless acting skills and Beyoncé’s “I woke up like this” attitude display contemporary sprezzatura.
Glossier uses social media to promote products with images of both celebrities and normal customers, as many brands do, but they incorporate a greater degree of customer feedback and even customer intervention than other brands. Their products use this to maintain their esteemed place in the court of the internet. Perhaps sprezzatura is so difficult to define because it is a such a social phenomenon, one that has been translated into artful literature, painting and Instagram selfies, but still one which is closely connected to a specific social context. If I arrived at a sophisticated party today in a ruff and girdle I might capture the attention of the guests, but I would hardly be displaying effortless cool.
The concept of sprezzatura is included in the section for male courtiers, Book One. Book Three imagines the ideal court lady. This book records notable and courageous women, whilst largely focusing on the importance of moderation, chastity and avoiding rumours. Some quotes taken from The Book of the Courtier may seem ‘feminist’, however Androniki Dialeti has noted that the male-authored texts of the querelles des femmes literary genre – where the male author defends women – were more central to the formation of masculine, rather than feminine, identities in sixteenth-century Italy. By treating women as a homogeneous group for men to defend physically and verbally, women were further entrenched into a ‘damsel in distress’ mode of existence. The vast majority of speakers in The Book of the Courtier are men, with only four women in its extensive cast. In Book Three, Duchess Elisabetta Gonzaga presses Magnifico to describe the ideal court lady and in the course of his long description he states: “that beauty is more necessary to her than to the Courtier, for in truth that woman lacks much who lacks beauty.” For reference, the beauty ideal for Italian women at this time was blonde hair, fair skin, blushing cheeks and dark eyes. This ideal is epitomised by figures in portraits by Titian including La Bella and Woman in a Mirror.
Magnifico further argues that the ideal court lady must be careful that her beauty does not produce rumours, which might stain her reputation, especially as “a woman has not so many ways of defending herself against false imputations as has a man.” Here we can see the complexity of women’s performance of grace and beauty, which had to be so carefully balanced with appearing chaste. Patricia Phillippy’s excellent book Painting Women examines this construction of femininity in discussions of cosmetics and painting. She convincingly argues that invectives against women’s use of makeup and cosmetics manuals which promoted the achievement of ideal beauty, actually worked to the same ends: to discipline women. By placing early modern women between contradictory demands, they were sure to fail. If women used makeup they were beautiful in appearance but ugly, unchaste and deceitful within and if women presented themselves plainly they would appear chaste, but hardly beautiful. These parallel currents run through contemporary misogynistic discourses which both criticise or shame women for being unattractive whilst also condemning the use of cosmetics as a form of feminine deception.
Sabine Malchoir-Bonnet has called femininity the “creation of the mirror” which directs women to “construct themselves under the gaze of the other”, invariably a man, who judges them worthy or unworthy of their own femininity. Glossier’s “skin first. makeup second” approach does not necessarily present an achievable model of beauty, given the endless impossibility of having ‘good’ skin. However, it signals a move away from a discourse about beauty and cosmetics which vilifies women as vain for using makeup and ugly when they do not. It allows for joy in the ritual of makeup and skincare, which are often important parts of women constructing themselves. The question remains: will the modern beauty industry at large manage to reorient discussions of beauty around women’s needs and ideals? Or will femininity remain a “creation of the mirror”.
Merriam Webster. “Sprezzatura.” Accessed January 31, 2019. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sprezzatura.
Oxford Dictionaries. “Sprezzatura.” Accessed January 31, 2019. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/sprezzatura.
Castiglione, Baldassare. The Book of the Courtier. Translated by Leonard Eckstein Opdycke. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1901.
Cox, Virginia. The Renaissance Dialogue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Phillippy, Patricia. Painting Women: Cosmetics, Canvases and Early Modern Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
Johnson, Eric. “Full Q&A: Glossier CEO Emily Weiss on the “art and science” of the beauty business.” Recode, January 16, 2019. https://www.recode.net/podcasts/2019/1/16/18185512/glossier-ceo-emily-weiss-beauty-makeup-interview-podcast-recode-decode-kara-swisher.
Sonsev, Veronika. “Why Glossier Takes Marketing Risks To Delight Their Customer.” Forbes, November 29, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/veronikasonsev/2018/11/29/glossier-takes-marketing-risks-to-delight-customers/#44c4590a330e.
Burke, Jill. The Italian Renaissance Nude. London: Yale University Press, 2018.
British Library “The Book of the Courtier, 1588.” Accessed January 31, 2019. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-book-of-the-courtier-1588.
Dialeti, Androniki. “Defending women, negotiating masculinity in early modern Italy.” Historical Journal 54, no. 1 (March 2011): 1-24.
Glossier. “About.” Accessed January 31, 2019. https://www.glossier.com/about.
Cover Image also by me!