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THE NATION / WOMEN

Dresses Well and of Independent Means--Obviously a Killer

March 12, 2000|Wendy Steiner | Wendy Steiner, Fisher professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of "The Scandal of Pleasure: Art in an Age of Fundamentalism." Her new book, "The Trouble With Beauty," will be out next year

PHILADELPHIA — Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and beauty is as beauty does. In the recent film "Eye of the Beholder," what beauty does is kill men. The fear of female allure is nothing new, except that it comes oddly packaged here: The beautiful murderess, played by Ashley Judd, provides a survey of the archives of fashion designer Valentino in the course of her depredations--not only killing men but wearing vintage couture as she does it.

But what may look like a fashion statement is, in fact, a deep shift in the social status of women, a shift fraught with anxiety. In the past, fears about women were associated with their sexuality, and bad girls in the movies were dressed accordingly, in naughty clothes. Now, the threat seems to lie more in female independence, so today's villainesses wear high-cost couture. Or maybe independence is the problem in both cases, but before, freedom from moral constraint was the issue, now it is financial freedom that seems so unsettling to traditional society.

The clothing worn by earlier dangerous women focused attention on their bodies, not their self-satisfied elegance. As Marlene Dietrich leaned back on a cabaret stool, her spangled dress outlined her legs and torso; even her masculine tuxedo proclaimed the femininity of the body beneath. Sexy clothing expresses dominance. It forces people to think urgently about what they prefer to consider at their leisure. Resenting this usurpation of their will, they condemn the power grab of vamps and sirens and the clothes that abet it.

High fashion could not be more different in its effect. Actresses identified with designer fashion--Grace Kelly, for example, or Audrey Hepburn--played characters who were utterly unthreatening. Their elegant attire covered their bodies in art and class, erecting a delay against immediate gratification that is the mark of middle-class respectability. Good girls' style supported mainstream values: You could get the girl if you earned her first, and if youdid, unlike Dietrich, she would make sure you came out ahead. Whatever power her clothing proclaimed, she cheerfully gave over to the right man: one who would marry her and thereby gain a fitting symbol of his taste and success. Even a "bad girl" could have her power transformed by high fashion. When Richard Gere bought out Rodeo Drive for the prostitute in "Pretty Woman," he was turning her into the stuff that wives are made of.

So what does it mean when couturier clothes turn up on movie bad girls, women who hate men and have no interest in marriage? When the protagonist of "Eye of the Beholder" suggests that Judd should have a house, she replies tragically, "What would I do in a house?" She has no pastimes but murder, and her domesticity resides in a minuscule satchel, out of which she pulls endless Valentinos. Men are transfixed not by her suggestion of sex but by her disdain for it, and her clothing says so.

At the same time, Judd's Valentinos also quote those earlier female suggestions. They are dreamy evocations of fashionable Hepburns and Kellys at a time when the power those women wielded through beauty no longer functions. As the film presents it, female elegance and allure get women nothing back in the way of care or affection. Men treat them only as gratifying appearances to be picked up or put down at will, "objects of the male gaze" in the current jargon. Typical in this respect is the heroine's father, who deserted her when she was a child. Her own murders are an attempt to show Daddy, and all men, how it feels to be rubbed out as a person. Her museum-quality clothes signal both the demise of the old, benevolent femininity and the heartless self-sufficiency that has replaced it.

Though "Eye of the Beholder" takes the threat of this female power to an extreme--murder--many contemporary films with well-dressed heroines present it as the destruction of happiness and comfort. In "You've Got Mail," for example, the negative women are self-obsessed clotheshorses who do not foster their men, whereas the Meg Ryan character, who insists on the loving values of her late mother, appears in K-Mart rejects. The heroine of Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown" is a mute orphan who wears ragtag clothes. Of course, if, like the hero, you are the second-best jazz guitarist in the world and perhaps the first in self-absorption, low maintenance in women is a must, though the result may not be much of a challenge. The high-maintenance rich girl, played by Uma Thurman, appears on cue--a sarcastic, society-girl writer awash in period fashion. She and the hero shoot rats in a dump and vie to out-dress each other. The competition is fun for a while, but Thurman takes up space; she has an ego; she displays an objectionable sense of her own worth. Though she does not murder men--just rats--she does not idolize them either, and her clothes indicate her self-possession. The hero rushes back, too late, to the mute housedress.

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