Monday, August 15, 2011

1.5: Vanitas

Paul & Laurie
Paul: There is little left in the daily lives of the people in modern day Western Civilization with as much symbolism (and superstition) as the wedding.  While we didn't have a church wedding, I found when it was time to get married, I wanted a fairly traditional wedding because I wanted to feel as if I'd had a wedding.  It's probably the Classicist in me that wanted the altar, the best man and maid of honor, the first dance, and the very classic wedding cake which we fed to one another gingerly, without succumbing to the crass (but very strong) impulse to smash it into one another's face.

Laurie:  As this was not my first marriage, and having not had a traditional wedding before, I felt that a more traditional ceremony would carry with it the weight, the gravitas that seemed be lacking in my former experience.

Marriage ought not be an institution one enters into lightly. The breakdown of the institution of marriage and the countless broken vows, abandoned trusts, and abuses it represents, is at the heart of the disintegration of our society. It is one of the deep roots of our rampant sense of hopelessness and cynicism.  Marriage is one of the greatest investments a person can make in humanity.  It stands as a last bastion of optimism, saying to the world: "There is such a thing as love, trust, and commitment.  Let me show you by loving this person with all my heart for the rest of my life!" When these most precious of vows are no longer expected to be kept - what then can be counted on?  When those most treasured words, "I do", really mean "I do, until I don't", what hope do we have for all the lesser promises?

A  person who cannot be trusted with the most important things in life certainly cannot be trusted with the least. If a man will betray the trust of his wife, who will he not betray?  Then the question broadens:  who really can be trusted and is anyone trustworthy? Such are the beginnings of cynicism.  And so, when I walked through our municipal park on Saturday afternoon and happened upon a wedding party smiling for the photographer, a dark voice in my head wondered, "How long do you suppose that will last?"  My delight in their moment of joy and my hope for the future silenced it and forbade my lips to utter the thought aloud.

Paul:  Wow!  Let's see if I can make this any heavier.

We are but a vapor.  Given enough time, even the most permanent of structures on this planet will fall.  The pyramids will fall eventually.  We are all future dust.  We have the opportunity of this moment in time and every moment is a tick toward oblivion.  I feel this keenly as we watch Project Runway, and I feel that it is an important lesson.  First of all, every moment I am watching Project Runway is a moment that I am not reading Proust (which is why the writing project is so important.  Every episode gets Laurie and I one click closer to Gladwell's 10,000 hours of writing.)  But also, everyone on the show, the beautiful models, the life-filled designers with their careers stretched before them, from sainted Austin to lugubrious Wendy and every Jay in between, the established and slightly jaded hosts, even the sage Tim Gunn, and we the audience are all future corpses.  Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come; make her laugh at that.

I wonder, Laurie, if you could talk a bit about the wedding dress, what it means and varieties thereof.

Laurie:   Well, I'll assume you are asking me for a woman's perspective on its significance, and in short I'd say that what it means, as this episode somewhat illustrates, depends upon the woman wearing it. In my grandmother's generation a woman would often wear her best dress, or else choose a new dress in her favorite color. She had good reason to expect she would be married until she died, for better or for worse, and so a wedding was serious, but hopefully happy, business.  White is the current traditional color for a wedding dress, especially for a first wedding. Though white for a time symbolized the virginity of the bride, it didn't always, and it seldom does now.

Perhaps it's that cynic in me that calls to my attention that the more lightly the institution of marriage is regarded in our culture, the more heavily the emphasis is placed on the wedding.  A whole section of the magazine rack at Barnes & Noble is dedicated to publications for brides. I'm not sure I've ever seen a magazine devoted solely to marriage (which is not to say there is not such a thing). Little girls, and big girls dream of their wedding day, envisioning in elaborate detail the dress, the flowers, the place, the music, maybe even the groom.  For many women, a wedding is seen as the crowning moment of all childhood fantasies, the pinnacle, really, of her life. This is her day. It must be perfect. And, so, to get back to our focus here, the dress must be perfect.

Having lived a few years myself, and having been to lots of weddings, I've noticed that the dress and the fuss, or lack thereof, over the wedding is often a pretty good reflection of the personality and character of the bride.   Brides who like to keep things simple and elegant will likely choose just such a wedding and dress.  A woman who is demanding and perfectionist in day-to-day life cannot be expected to be less so when it comes to the most important day of her life.  And so it goes. (As I've been known to say, you can't expect a bridezilla not to become a wifezilla.) 

As to the varieties....let's just say there are as many varieties as there are brides.

Paul: The models seem to be an endless wealth of disturbing revelations on this show and for that I salute them.  I think the first startling realization this week was that the models are children.  We realize this because the challenge is to make a wedding dress for the models, who become the designers' clients for the week.  The models come to the designers with their ideas for their perfect wedding dress and they are the ideas that little girls would have for a wedding dress.  We suddenly notice their ages next to their names in the interview clips (I'm pretty sure they were there all along) and these are 16, 17, and 18 year olds.  Jay comments on how they all want to look like Disney princesses.

It's much like Kurt Vonnegut's revelation from Slaughterhouse Five (and, in other ways, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice.)  We are talking about children.  We fetishize them and we treat them like they are immortal in our own mortal insecurities.  Youth is handled too strangely by those who have passed it; you'd think they were never young themselves.  We elevate the young to the level of gods and thereby reveal our low opinion of wisdom, the effects of which we may be currently reaping in our economy and international relations.  We shall talk a bit more about this in the next episode.

Speaking of which, this episode also illustrates the corruption that even a little bit of power brings.  Some of the models behave abominably being given the little scrap of power of the course of their design.  Tim Gunn gives Jay the advice to tell his model "You know, there's a reason why you're a model and I'm a designer."

I was reminded of Thomas Gainsborough, the English painter who was so brilliant at portraiture, but who would much rather have been painting landscapes.  But Gainsborough gots to get paid, son.  And so the designers get a harsh lesson in the realities of working life.  Mr. Gunn's advice speaks to the uphill battle of not giving an inch lest one loses a mile, which is sound.

Laurie: Except, that is, when the compromise prevents the losing of a mile in the sacrifice of an inch, which, I assure you, in real life is often the case, and the only way such things as democracies are able to function at all.  But I think, Paul, you are just overstating your point for the sake of making it.  In the case of our designers, it came to a matter of degrees of compromise that made the difference in the end. In this contest heel-digging would have been just as disastrous as complete giving in, since the first question asked in the judging was whether or not the "bride" got the dress she had dreamed of.  The trick for the designer was to listen to her dream and convince her that the dress he made was that dream dress while also creating something real and tasteful.

Paul: Well, I would say I was almost overstating, but I think that part of a designer's job is to take the information supplied by the client, mutate it into a hybrid with their own style, and possibly show the client something they didn't even know that the desperately wanted.

Laurie: Well put.

Paul: It probably did not help that Jay picked Morgan as his model.  "First thought, best thought" as the Beats were fond of saying, Jay.  If you're worried about someone's professionalism due to their past behavior, you may want to listen to that.  You don't keep going back to a restaurant you hated the first time in hopes that the chef will pull it together one of these days.  Morgan has poor impulse control and gives no indication that she is working on this aspect of her character.  And so Jay comes up with a gorgeous, column-like dress, which Morgan stumbles over on the runway.

Laurie: After, that is, he has tried unsuccessfully to convince her it needed to be shortened, a fact he dare not mention at the judging lest he be caught out as a designer who compromised what is more important in design (wearability) to what is less (client whim). And, by the way, the dress was pure elegance, in spite of what Morgan had in mind. When she saw it, she thought it was her idea. (I should mention, the photo at right and Morgan's posture in it do not begin to do justice to the beauty of the dress. It also does not show the sheer gold fabric peeking out about her feet. When upright, this dress presents a stunning column.)

Paul:  There is a dumb-show in the middle of the episode which fleshes out (as it were) this theme.  The designers decide to go out for an evening of carousing.  Gripped by a voluntary drowning from the hands of Bacchus, Robert's behavior indicates certain animal instincts toward Alexandra.  This manifests, on the streets of New York, in an attempt at showing off by way of gymnastics on scaffolding.  His activity quickly turns into a trip to the emergency room.  While I'm fascinated by how much literal bloodshed has already gone on this season, it is an abject reminder of the absurdity of existence.  Robert has staples in the back of his head and has anointed the city streets with his vital juices.  Fallen heroes are not exactly going to sing epic songs about this at Yggdrasil.  The show is filled with moments where I keep thinking "Wow.  What if that was the peak moment of my life?  What would it be like for that to be my fifteen minutes of fame?  What would my grandchildren think of me on my deathbed?"

Because I always bring things back to death, you see.

Laurie:  Life, I've noticed, has that uncanny habit as well.  I'm little better. Somehow I've managed to turn the wedding dress episode into a dirge.

Paul:  Olga hates Kevin's wedding dress because it is itchy, but she looks fabulous.  Again, what if you had wedding photos from your dream wedding with a beautiful designer dress, but every time you passed the photo, some part of your brain recalled how uncomfortable it was to wear?  The desires and responses for these dresses speak to a type.  I might not go so far as to say reveal a lot about the young ladies because I don't know them, but we are responding to the images presented us.  Olga, for example, wants a dress covered in diamonds and jewels but then demands to be let out of an outfit that is uncomfortable for a few moments.

The wedding dress, as I understand it, is a visual representation of person contained within and the promise of the life to come with her.  Again, I'm only relying on the information provided me, but Olga seems like one whose wedding dress story arch belies a lady who requires full provision of comfort.

Laurie:   Yes, Olga. The poor girl seemed to have lost track of the fact she was really a model and not a bride, and that this was not her real wedding or her real wedding dress. She looked nothing short of stunning, but wandered around eyes welling with tears and through pouting lips pleading pathetically  "It itches. Take it off of me. Take it off of me."  Her fantasy had taken over.  She forgot she was a model and that this was only a contest that didn't allow enough time to sew a lining into the dress for her comfort. Her wedding day was ruined. Fortunately for Kevin, he had immunity from this episode's judging due to having been the winner of the last challenge. Unless I'm forgetting something, Olga never did get an opportunity to complain to the judges.

Source: Community
Paul: Julia is Austin's model.  Julia wants something wild and unconventional, something fun.  In explaining the rules of the contest, the designers are told that even a red mini-skirt is okay provided they 1) make their client happy and 2) don't scuttle their own artistic vision in order to effect that outcome.  So, with Austin. it looks like we're aces for a slam dunk (and many other mixed metaphors as well.  Oh well.  I've buttered my bread and now I must lay in it.)  The end result is unconventional, wild, fun, and looks nothing like one's preconception of a wedding dress in modern Western civilization.  The judges say, "I couldn't imagine anyone actually wearing that as their wedding dress!"

Judges, meet Julia.  Julia would.  Julia loves it.  And I suddenly became aware that the standards are movable on this program.  The judges are capricious which seems at once appropriate and glaringly unfair, much like fashion and much like life.

Laurie:  Yes, that little exchange really bothered me. I, for one, really disliked the dress, but the judges had explicitly stated it could even be a "red miniskirt" when they set out the challenge. Then, when Austin presents a turquoise mini-dress with colorful train, the judges changed their rules to "it has to look like someone's idea of a wedding dress". To Austin's credit, he didn't argue with them. I, on the other hand had no problem announcing from the love seat in my living room that he had been betrayed.  He followed their instructions, and he satisfied both his "client" and his own flamboyant artistic tendencies, and was penalized for it.

Luckily for Austin, though, Nora's dress had problems of its own.  You might remember Nora as the very young girl that we felt really ought to have been voted off in the last episode. This time, she behaved herself, stating she wasn't going to mess up like that again. But in her overplayed attempts to get along, this time she sacrificed her artistic vision.  She forgot Tim Gunn's warning not to let the "brides" squash their artistry.  She completely caved to her "client" and gave her the rose covered cupcake dress she wanted.  The result was a run-of-the-mill wedding gown resembling a hundred gowns that could be purchased off the rack or from a catalog.  It was Nora's time to go home.  She handled her loss like a professional, evidence that she had learned at least one important lesson from her experience on Project Runway. I wish her well.

It occurs to me it might be nice to show the winning design by Kara Saun, who, prefers creating gold to creating drama, and so does not give us a lot to discuss.  She does, however give us much to admire.  Here is the winning wedding gown.  All simplicity, glamor, and elegance - quite like the "bride" herself.


  1. Phish and I like to enforce to the extent of our ability the difference between a wedding and a marriage. We like to distinguish between a stressful event that focuses on the couple's social circle and a lifelong process that focuses on the couple. Perhaps you can tell which one we prefer.

  2. Charles, I agree, there is a huge difference! You and Phish are a great example of the proper focus.