How eyebrows, onesies and funny faces shook-up the world of the perfect, silent pout.
Every fashion model has a touch of the monstrous. Take a teenage girl in all her self-infatuation and petty cruelty, lavish her with fine clothes and admirers, then throw her into a pit with a hoard of hungry competitors and feed them nothing but champagne and canapés while professional photographers capture it all for posterity: the creature who not only survives in such an environment but thrives is a formidable thing indeed.
History, which is to say, the version that men have written down, is not bereft of formidable females, but it prefers them to look the part. A beautiful woman, on the other hand, should not be formidable. A beautiful woman is a delicate woman, a guileless woman, a deferential woman, a creature so in need of guidance and protection that she threatens at any moment to shatter under the weight of her own tragic femininity. This woman, of course, does not exist – she is a figment of aesthetic whimsy, like Klimt’s water nymphs, or O’Keefe’s flowers – but she can be conjured, fleetingly by a certain type of person.
If the fashion gods created a muse from gold filament, good breeding, a keen sense of self-awareness and one big damn deluxe set of ermine eyebrows, she would be called Cara Delevingne. She would spring, fully-formed from a British mother named Pandora and be blessed with the innate self-possession of one who has never been told that something is impossible. Which isn’t exactly true for face-of-the-moment supermodel Delevingne. For every door opened by 34-inch hips another is closed by the norms of masculine society, until the glitzy world of professionally looking good starts looking more and more like a gilded cage.
Beauty is a game played within this cage. Forget what you’ve heard about the supposed vacuousness of models, it demands the canniness of a spy and the shrewdness of a tent revival preacher. What sets Delevingne apart from the sea of statuesque faces is that she seems to understand the game like few others and whether through practice or intuition, she plays it with unique verve. Let’s not overstate it, she operates within the rules, but like all the greats, she does so in a way that makes them appear incidental.
The eyebrows say it all – two big fingers up toward the last great female grooming taboo. It’s not that she doesn’t groom them, it’s that she does groom them: she grooms them to be huge. And make no mistake, she wants you to look, to be challenged by the inherent contradictions of one who accepts but subtly thumbs her nose at stereotypical beauty norms. It’s like she’s laughing at both those who would sooner see her lasered to silicone smoothness and those who would hold body hair as a sign of female liberation. We are supposed to look at her, to judge and critique, but somehow, you see, the joke is on us.
Although few in the beauty game are gauche enough to criticise publicly, the Daily Mail has branded Delevingne “socially ambitious” and one fashion writer dismissed her trademark wackiness as “too clever to be believed”.
Cleverness, especially if it’s too apparent, is a word that isn’t quite comfortable next to beauty. It’s what strict, Victorian governesses tell young ladies not to be. The actress Emma Stone, when she’s in comedy, is Clever. The writer Caitlin Moran when she talks about body hair, is Clever. The comedienne Tina Fey in most anything she does is far, far Too Clever. And yet these women have piqued something in the often sluggish public imagination. They have slyly, and by sometimes very small measures chipped away at the façade of the porcelain woman. Perhaps they have not changed the paradigm of beauty, but they have certainly altered the conversation.
The charm of these women, and indeed Delevingne is that there is a certain playful artistry in their public personas, like a magic trick that prolongs itself improbably, precariously at times, but always engaging us, lightly mocking, constantly testing the boundaries. Polite mouths call it “zany”, a rather feminine word, but the better term would be plain “goofy”. Delevingne is just as likely to tweet a picture of herself in an animal print jump suit crossing her eyes at her camera-phone as she is to grace the cover of Vogue. This is, in some ways, a long way from the days of heroin chic and Kate Moss eschewing interviews in favour of “maintaining an air of mystery”.
English novelist Laurie Lee called charm the “rarest, least used, and most invincible of powers, which can capture with a single glance.” But he also cautioned that for women it is more exacting than for men. As long as Delevingne can keep skipping across the precarious ridge of sex pot and court jester, as long as she can keep feigning effortlessness and the air of one who has not bothered to look into the abysses on either side, charm will be hers and we, the audience, will remain rapt in mingled bemusement and delight.